July 11th, 2010. A short mid-morning walk, or rather stalk…. butterflies, as it happens. Warm, cloud-filled, and windy. Hot when the sun breaks through. The parkland below Westwick House is like dry-season savanna, so desiccated and sparse that the sheep have been removed elsewhere. Oakington Brook, which is more like a drain, is now dry where it runs past the rec. In winter it carries four feet of water within its deep-set banks. Today I pick my way down its damp, soft mud-bed, glyphed with the prints of unknown birds and small mammals, until I reach water – stagnant, moss-green puddles and pools in hiding between clumps of reeds. High above, the leaves of black poplars roar and rattle in the wind, releasing balsam scents into the air as they rub against each other, transporting me back fifty years in a matter of milliseconds, back to my boyhood in Africa, climbing tall, swaying poplars at the bottom of the garden. I think poplars may be especially musical because their leaves are relatively thick and clack against each other like castanets when bestirred. I would like to be able to recognize trees by the sounds they make in the wind, and by their woodsmoke smells in the winter… the kind of common knowledge, folk wisdom, held by all country dwellers and not a few townsmen in the past, now deemed useless, quaint, frivolous even.
This is not the season for birds. Only woodpigeons, rooks and a pair of green woodpeckers are out and about. The rookery at Westwick House, incidentally, which is usually a vortex of raucous sound, has been silent for a few weeks or more and appears to have been abandoned. It seems that once their offspring have fledged and flown, rooks disperse for the summer. They are still in the neighbourhood, hanging around, but less congregational, and less noisy.
No, now is the season of butterflies. I struggle up the steep bank of the brook onto the verge of the rape field, elbowing my way through shoulder-high grasses, willowherb, thistles and nettles, disturbing dozens of the beauties. I spend several frustrating and largely fruitless hours trying to photograph them but they are uncooperative and the breeze doesn’t help. For identification purposes most of the blurred images are fairly useless, but some I already know. The larger ones belong to just seven species – Large Whites, Orange Tips, Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Speckled Woods and one lobed and scalloped orange Comma – and further down the brook, several magnificent fiery Red Admirals. There are smaller ones too, whose names I don’t know. Mostly the butterflies work alone, alighting especially on the tufted purple flowers of thistles, but now and again they cross flight-paths with others of their kind, of the opposite sex no doubt, and spiral away, sometimes three or more together, in an erratic, zigzagging, ascending dance, now parting, now coming together to fleetingly touch, weaving invisible tapestries of pheromone trails.