Saturday, 22 April 2017


Green-veined White (Pieris napi) kissing its reflection

Butterflies are beautiful. Moths are magnificent.

I've believed that with all my heart since I was little.

As a kid I'd find caterpillars everywhere; furry ones, stripey ones, wriggly ones, ones that dangled on threads from our Hawthorn tree. I gathered one gently and let it make its chrysalis and cocoon inside an empty Jaffa Cake box. I monitored its stunning transformation into a flying fascinator before returning it to enjoy the sunshine and drink the nectar in the garden.

Comma (Polygonia c-album) sunning itself

My joy in learning about them knew no bounds. I made friends of all the creatures that thrived in our garden, in the valley and the fields beyond the railway line and station where my dad worked as shunter and porter. I loved all nature and taught myself to recognise the birds by their calls and songs.

But phobias can spring up out of nowhere and mess with your head when you least expect.

One of my phobias, believe it or not, is moths.

Mottephobia to give it its Sunday name.

Moths, and butterflies, too, when they become trapped indoors. The sight of a moth, especially the big flapping cigar-bodied type that seem bent on self-destruction, hurling themselves into light bulbs and candle flames, can send me into a gibbering state of irrational panic.

I shudder. My stomach knots. My heart churns. My flesh creeps. My palms tingle and sweat. The impulse to shriek and to run is overwhelming. Fight or flight.

Why? Where did this phobia come from, suddenly, when I was about ten?

I can pinpoint the exact moment.

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

I was playing outside with an older girl one summer day. For many children "playing out" in the sixties and seventies, summer holidays weren't complete without a butterfly net.

For me, an only child, happy to spend hours alone exploring the nearby countryside, that meant a very gentle approach. No scooping or lunging for me. I would place the net, hooped onto its long cane, close to the butterfly, so it could enter of its own accord. A butterfly would be guest of my net just long enough for me to observe and learn a bit more about its secret life, before letting it flutter on its way.

Not so this other lass.

"Come on, I've got this off my nannan!" she said, flourishing a glass bell jar she'd borrowed from her grandmother's larder.

That day, she and her net took butterfly-hunting to the level of an Olympic sport. There could be only one winner. At first, I had no inkling that the winner wouldn't be the butterflies. Or how the sight of their capture would affect me for so many years.
Small White (Pieris rapae)

We saw mainly "Cabbage Whites" that day, as we called them, from the way their caterpillars would munch their way through the leaves of that vegetable. Large Whites (Pieris brassicae) and Small Whites (Pieris Rapae) were abundant back then in South Yorkshire, compared to today in 2017.

Each Cabbage White in my net was soon soaring back into the blue or hovering along the borders of "Billy's Field" with its bomb crater from World War II, now mossy and overgrown. But the other girl put every one she caught into the bell jar, now hot as a furnace from the summer sun. When I returned from wandering, my friend had ten or twelve butterflies in the jar. I could see them flexing their wings, still sunning themselves and having a rest from their labours.

Again and again she went off with her net to catch another one. And another. Each joined its fellow captives in the confines of the bell jar. Soon there must have been twenty or more. Most were calm and still. One or two fluttered to get a purchase on the sheer sides of their transparent prison.

"Shouldn't you set them free, now?" I think I said. I only know it was what I hoped. What happened next haunted me for the rest of my life.

I only remember her throwing down her net on the grass, crouching for a moment to gloat over her trophy jar, crammed with a cloud of white wings. So beautiful. So perfect.

Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus) inside
conservatory with me

Then she shook the jar with the lid clamped tight.

 She shook it up.

Shook it with all her might.

She unscrewed the lid.

She tipped up the jar and poured out what moments before had been butterflies.

Out onto the gravel and the grass.

Torn wings.

Broken bodies.



I recall the slight breeze, welcome in the heat, tugging at them as they fluttered helplessly along the ground.




A few survivors flew off, low, disoreintated, into the long grass.

Out of sight.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

I don't remember saying much. I was a shy thing back then, less likely to challenge somebody older and bossier. But my shocked senses never quite recovered. I had glimpsed how casually the dust and scales can be brushed fatally from the wings of fragile creatures.

Female Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana)
on inside of front door (no, really! Inside, though!)

That dread of seeing them harmed, left me fearful of seeing them at all. The phobia grew. Not just butterflies, but large moths too. As soon as they come inside, skittering against windowpanes, frantic to be free, I imagine their broken wings with the old dread, trapped in their hellish chamber of death.

I've not been in contact with the older girl since those childhood days. She'd be pushing sixty now. She moved away. Married with kids. Her grandparents are dead. The railway cottages are demolished. The gardens, Billy's Field, the old mossy bomb crater that was my nature table and my playground, all under the houses of a new-build estate. I don't suppose she'd even remember now. A forgotten game. A way to pass a few boring hours on a summer's day.

Me? It's taken me till my mid-fifties to decide, with the help of my camera, that forty years of phobia is forty years too long. Now, zooming in with my lens, I'm gradually challenging myself to conquer the revulsion that was never in my heart, only in my brain. To reclaim that unclouded enthusiasm for lepidoptera hidden in my heart. I know only I can tackle this with a bit of backbone and gumption I maybe lacked back then.

So when a butterfly comes inside into a confined space with me, like the conservatory, I take a deep breath, grit my chattering teeth and focus. When a moth spirals in at night, mistaking my laptop screen for the light of the Moon, I root myself to the spot, though all my damaged instincts and ugly associations are screaming through my nerves to flee, in case it falls apart again. I grab my camera, switch to macro and capture their beauty and uniqueness to share with others who care about them as much as I do.

I owe it to myself, after all these years.

I owe it to the butterflies.

Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

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