WALKING a bohreen above the sea last week, on a day that was dull, but warm — intermittent patches of bright sunlight, a pearl grey blanket overhead, and heavy heat beneath — I suddenly found a half dozen butterflies zipping madcap around me at a rate approaching the speed of bats.
When one alighted on a fuchsia, I had the chance to get a better look and, seeing that it was a Red Admiral in glorious, fresh colours, I guessed (at the risk of anthropomorphism) that I their exuberance was the result of having just arrived from southern Europe after a long flight over land and sea. Their excitement might have been even greater had they been able to read the newspapers and learned that Ireland had been ranked the ‘goodest’ country on Earth.
As I watched, I marvelled at the freshness of their colours, the deep velvety black, garish scarlet and pristine white of their wings. How could they have flown so far and remained so impeccable? It was unlikely they were the hatchlings of the one or two admirals I saw in mid-April; yes, admirals lay eggs in Ireland, and a brood takes to the wing in Irish air but — unlike the Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks — they die off, like the parents, and never migrate home. Reverse migration has been posited by some observers but never proved. Unlike birds, butterflies cannot be ringed or fitted with radio transmitters.
Amongst the fast-flying, silent throng was a single Small Tortoiseshell, fresh and bright as a piece of exotic Turkish carpet. It was small, recently hatched perhaps. In that hundred yards of bohreen, I saw five butterfly species, the aforementioned plus Ringlets, Meadow Browns and Small Whites. Numbers increase by the day.
I also saw numerous varieties species of bee, hoverfly, wasp, bumblebee, cuckoo and carder bee. all beautiful to behold. I snapped photos galore, and haven’t yet identified half of them. It was fun and a great challenge, and I was as excited as the newly-arrived butterflies and as oblivious to daily cares. With nature one can get carried away. The ditches were a multi-coloured tapestry of white bramble flowers, red-and-purple fuchsia, vetches, trefoils, buttercups, silverweed, stonecrop and tormentil, lovely old meadow grasses and insects of every shapes and size.
Nowhere is as lovely as Ireland on good days in spring, summer and autumn. Nature abounds, and nothing dangerous lurks in the vegetation. In winter it is ‘atmospheric’. Many of our world-renowned legends and stories were inspired by the mist and bog miasma, ignis fatuus and banshees and will o’the wisps.
Fog lying over the estuary moulds itself to the constructs of the imagination. We see ghosts around castle ruins, conjure up our ancestors worshipping the Gods of Earth and Sky at stone circles, marking the coming of, and the dying of, the light. Such fancies cannot be seen in summer sunshine. Our myths were born in penumbra, half light, moonlight, the grey of dawn, the gathering in as the evening gives away to night.
May we thank the Great Creator for the magic of these long summer evenings. Almost everywhere on earth has its own radiance, but harsh desert sunlight, or almost total darkness for five months of the year is hardly likely to inspire. That Mankind could even survive in such extremes is miracle enough; we could hardly expect him to weave legends such as ours as well.
Man’s resilience is even more astounding than that of animals. The pre-Inuit Dorset people lived within the Arctic Circle without igloos, surviving the endless months of darkness in skin tents pitched on the ice-scape, the only remaining evidence of which are circles of stones used to hold them down against the vicious Arctic storms.
We are omnivorous, adaptable and resourceful. Of light build and probably little more than four feet tall, we came out of Africa, colonised the shores of Asia, reached Australia, reached Siberia, crossed the Bering Straits to North America, settled the Great Plains and moved on across the jungles of the Amazon to reach Patagonia, another Arctic climate at the other pole of the Earth.
To Ireland, we came late, only 9,000 years ago. But we were fortunate in the island we found, replete with romance and a temperate climate. No wonder the butterflies celebrate when they arrive.
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