Friday, 27 July 2012


The sky is thick with swifts like a cloud of insects. Just momentary; they don’t hang around, and won’t be around for much longer. Their screams could be the sound of the air unzipped by their wingtips: nitrogen from oxygen, particle from particle. We could do with more air though. Currently it’s thirty degrees Celsius, slightly less in the meagre shade of the parasol. The sky is pale blue like a shallow tropical sea. A young family of Blackbirds bask in the garden, dishevelled on the gravel between plants. I think they think I can’t see them. The Dunnocks lazy song seems to wilt between bush and ear. The only moving air is from passing cars. When I wrote a week ago of the unceasing rain I didn’t realise it would cease quite this soon or quite like this. Suddenly, and selfishly, it didn’t seem so bad.

Two evenings ago I sought Purple Hairstreaks with dad and a friend who tagged along for the walk. Back at the fritillary woods again, this time more thickly shaded by the setting sun. Only the oaks lining the scrub and pine centre of the woods are lit: it turns out the setting sun uses the same footpaths as us. The rusty leaves of the first oak were untouched by butterflies, at which point I realised it was a good idea to show my friend the hairstreaks in the field guide I still need to carry around the for inscrutably small butterflies. Is that embarrassing? I don’t think so. Ignorance spurs further learning, the chance to leave the awkward to carry field guide at home is impetus enough to learn the skippers again and not forget them over winter this time. Pretty, came the response, as she looked over the illustrations. And then she learnt a key lesson about wildlife: it never really looks like it does in the book. Flying with dizzying speed around the canopy of the second oak; tiny and silver undersided, dark on top, a small colony of Purple Hairstreaks living hyperactively in the spaces between the toothed leaves. But they’re not purple, she said. I think I was too busy watching to reply. With the scope set ludicrously high, neck ache setting in, I could see them spinning, duelling, fighting. Restless. Everything they do is apparently conducted on the wing in fast forward. They land briefly but never for long or with their open wings facing us. It feels almost like voyeurism, in the way that most wildlife watching doesn’t. Most wildlife occupies the same space as us. Life at the canopy of an oak is as removed as it is possible for a comfortable, familiar, English oak to be. Distant in more than just one way.

And now I’m back, sitting in the garden, marvelling at the swifts. In the faded blue sky they move more irregularly, exploiting the sudden abundance of insects. In the grey skies of earlier they were still transient, here one second and seemingly miles away the next. Yet the paths on which they fly are more consistent. Instead of the crazed flying they all trace regular paths through the air; invisible ribbons of what must be the warmer air where the insects are.

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