On a visit to south Wales this week, when I stepped outside the back door, I found the iridescent creature pictured above sunning itself on the rosemary bush. Without doubt, it was one of the most eye-catching beetles I’ve ever seen.
I don’t claim to recognise all the insect life of the UK, but I was surprised just how unfamiliar this one seemed: I was pretty sure that even if my Observer’s Book of Common Insects and Spiders were not stuffed in a box at the back of a storage locker somewhere in rural Spain, it would not help me to identify it.
So I resorted to Google and found that it was the unoriginally named rosemary beetle – Chrysolina americana – and that I was right to think I hadn’t met one before as they only arrived in the UK in 1994. Indeed, it looks from the distribution map linked from the Royal Horticultural Society’s page on the beetle that a mere five years ago they were unknown in the area I was visiting.
The rosemary beetle is not a carabid, and he’s likely to be found feeding on herbs rather than scuttling along the ground, but his glorious stripey shot-silk jacket warrants a reposting of this poem, I think:
At dawn, the sprinklers cast
their centrifugal sequins to the sky,
arched and stretched in pirouettes, unfurled
their dervish choreography.
Now starlings stalk the lawns;
they stab at glistening carabids and jab
decisively at quicksilver
caught between blades of grass.
The question of identifying wildlife brings me round to the public discussion over the last few years about how common words from our childhoods are being removed from dictionaries because they are no longer thought to be needed and are no longer relevant. Simple words, like bluebell and acorn are unfamiliar to today’s children as the gulf between modern life and the natural world widens.
There’s a very real power in words and the ability to name things: if you don’t know what something is and what it’s called, it’s much easier not to care about it.
This is the belief that led to The Lost Words project, a beautiful book with words – whether they are poems, incantations or spells is debatable – by Robert Macfarlane and illustrations by Jackie Morris.
All over the UK, there are crowd-funded appeals to get copies of the book into schools and into care homes and hospitals. (If any reader thinks this is a good idea and would like to contribute, please support the Coventry and Warwickshire Lost Words appeal, which is proving extraordinarily difficult to fund for some reason.)
The words in the book are all familiar to me. Many of them – acorn, conker, bluebell, wren… – are familiar because I have frequently seen and recognise the things they refer to. In fact, of those four, only the wren is one I can’t be guaranteed to see every year.
But I’m not sure the willow is the only tree that straggles and dangles her hair over the river, and could I tell a raven from a crow?
tosses her head
at the coming storm
I have never seen a weasel in the wild, while the only wild otter I have seen was in Spain, an occasion worthy of note with a blog post.
I remember leafing through the early pages of the Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds with the tiny goldcrests, firecrests and warblers, and that dark silhouette of a sparrow on every page to give a sense of scale. There were swallowtails on the last page of the butterfly book, but whether I ever saw one before I went to Spain to live, I am not sure.
As children, we all knew and loved Tufty the red squirrel, but even when I was a child it was said that there were only greys in England, so it was in Spain, too, that I became familiar with the red squirrel as depicted in this fragment from a longer poem.
This morning, a red squirrel chatters at me
from the rusty gate, performs
an acrobatic dance, then, blackbird-warned,
he disappears through tumbling undergrowth.
Glaring from knee-high weeds
a ragged cat accuses me.
The point, of course, is that I know and own those the words, and when I see an unfamiliar creature or plant I may already know what it is simply from having seen photos and illustrations or from reading about them in stories or in nature books.
I think it a pity to lose words from a language, and I am saddened by the words that aren’t familiar to children these days. But it’s true that they probably aren’t allowed to play conkers in school playgrounds any more and the bluebells they might see in gardens – and in the wild parks if they are fortunate enough to live near one and play outside – are far more likely to be the Spanish ones than the English ones so beautifully painted for the book by Jackie Morris.
A modern childhood cannot hope to match the idyllic memories some of us have our our own.
Whispering secrets into an empty cocoa tin,
string, taut, measuring the distance between us;
I was squaw to your brave,
target for your cap-gunned cop and cowboy.
We caught butterflies on the buddleia –
peacocks, tortoiseshells, red admirals –
and netted minnows (I caught mostly weed)
down in the brown brook in the park.
Jumpers for wicket, you taught me
to hold the bat and strike out firm and strong.
Staunchly, I held back the tears:
the leather ball struck hard.
Tins and pistols rusted into silence long ago;
nets rotted, bamboo handles split.
The butterflies have flown away;
their colours paint my dreams.
My final thought, though, is whether the newer species of wildlife – the invasive species that are making their homes here in the UK – are going to be included in the children’s dictionaries of the future. The gorgeous iridescence of the rosemary beetle would surely be as attention grabbing to a child today as the swallowtail’s markings were to me. And they are certainly a lot more likely to be found in the back gardens of today.