Some fifty plus years ago, when I was a little girl, my mother made my brother a butterfly net out of a bamboo garden cane, a hoop of wire and an old net curtain. I don’t know how often he used it, but I suspect it wasn’t that often.
Whether he tired of it in the first few weeks, or whether it was when it came out of the shed on the second summer and he was off on his bike in the park with his mates, somehow, I managed to inherit it.
I spent many happy hours catching butterflies on the buddleia that grew at the bottom of the garden, behind a low stone wall. It wasn’t exactly a rockery wall, but campanula and aubretia tumbled over and between the stones, so it must have been a riot of blues and purples. Strangely, I don’t actually remember the overall effect, just the individual flowers as close-up images. Perhaps that’s indicative of a poet’s mind – the details matter, perhaps more than a big picture effect.
I’m pretty sure that even when he was interested in catching butterflies, my brother never went through the process of putting drops of ether on cotton wool in a killing jar and pinning the dead creatures out on display boards. I think he just caught them and then set them free. That’s certainly what I did.
There were red admirals, large and small tortoiseshells, Camberwell beauties, peacocks, whites of various types and occasionally a brimstone. I loved the distinctive curves of the brimstones’ wings. I am sure there must have been orange tips, occasional painted ladies and uncountable – and mostly unidentified – fritillaries.
Beyond the confines of the back garden, I remember holidays and day trips to Southend, Westcliff or Leigh-on-sea. And, specifically, I remember running bare-legged through the long grasses of the fields up around Hadleigh Castle, chasing all the holly, common, chalkhill, large and small blues. These I caught in my hands as the butterfly net was too awkward to take with us on the train.
It’s the blue butterflies that I’ve been thinking of as I’ve taken photos this week of forget-me-nots, bird’s eye speedwell and green alkanets. These small blues don’t flutter away as you approach, but sit there patiently, waiting for you to get them into focus, opening their petals wide to show off their unique markings and colours.
This poem has been posted on the blog often enough that it may either be a favourite or a disappointment to regular readers. But, really, I don’t think this post would be complete without it.
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.