TV review: Wing and a prayer

The butterfly encourages people's imagination to take flight, says Gary Day, but are its days numbered?

December 23, 2010

Credit: Miles Cole

This is the wrong season to be making programmes about butterflies (BBC Two, Natural World - Butterflies: A Very British Obsession, Friday 17 December, 8pm). Look out of your window. It's Malevich's White on White, the promise of the empty canvas.

Three hundred years ago, a British naturalist wrote: "You ask 'what use are butterflies?' I reply, to adorn the world, to delight the eye and to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels." We don't have a record of whether the questioner was satisfied with that response, but given this nation's pride in its insensitivity to all matters aesthetic, it is unlikely that he would have been convinced by this appeal to beauty. He would certainly have reprimanded, if he had been able to, the little girl whose eyes widened in wonder as the Long-tailed Blue resting on her finger suddenly opened its wings and took to the sky.

That's the trouble with butterflies. They excite all sorts of useless feelings. Take Matthew Oates, the National Trust's butterfly expert. He speaks of being "enchanted", yes "enchanted", by these insects - for that's what they are. His favourite is the Purple Emperor. It is very hard to spot because it doesn't alight on flowers. Every year, Matthew has a competition with his friend Neil Hume to see who can lure the Emperor to earth.

What a waste of time. If that's the sort of trivia butterflies encourage then you can be sure that the coalition will soon be on their case. All that lazy flapping of their wings, all that lying around in the sun, promotes the same behaviour in those that study them. One lepidopterist said that his idea of paradise was to sit in a summer meadow watching Painted Ladies flutter around the flowers. How is that going to reduce the national debt?

But the foolishness and indolence of individuals is nothing compared with the evil ambition of men such as Clive Farrell who want to inspire children with the "majesty and magic" of butterflies. All right, you have an egg, then you have a caterpillar, then you have a chrysalis and yes, something amazing happens, the molecules are broken down and reassembled, and a brand-new Speckled Wood or whatever emerges. But is that any reason to spend millions building a butterfly park on the edge of Hertfordshire?

The money would be better spent on top executives. We don't want them migrating like the Red Admiral and being eaten by frogs. Then the market really would be in a mess. As for the children, well, I am pleased to say that our education system is more than capable of extracting the nonsense with which Mr Farrell insists on filling their heads. By the time they leave school, those children should no longer be able to notice such things as the spots on a Brimstone's wing. If Mr Farrell and his ilk really want to teach children about butterflies, they should concentrate on telling them how well they adapt to their environment. Now, that's a lesson worth learning.

But butterflies have much more to offer than crude utilitarianism. Because their appeal transcends class, creed and culture, they are a symbol of hope, but mostly they stand for the joy of being alive. Their flight patterns inspired Loie Fuller, a dancer at the Folies-Bergere in the late 19th century and one of the first people to appear on film. Her flickering routines are stunning even now. She twirls sheets that change colour as she moves. It's like time-lapse photography of a plant going through endless blooms.

Women choose butterflies as tattoos. They commemorate "becoming a woman", "the end of a relationship", "a life-changing experience". At this point, the commentary became Churchillian. "These women shed blood, sweat and tears to remember their stories." Ah, so unless they'd had their skin pricked in ink, they would forget becoming a woman, losing a lover and changing their lives? Experience, it seems, is never enough.

Street artist Nick Walker said he liked to distort the symmetry of butterflies and to bring out their sinister side. Their beauty, he added somewhat incongruously a moment later, is around for such a short time, like street art. And indeed us.

But the butterfly is in imminent danger of disappearing. The destruction of its habitat and global warming have resulted in a massive decline of all 50 UK native species. And with it would go everything it has come to mean to us: heritage, healing and regeneration. Yet all is not lost. The Large Blue was once extinct in Britain but has now returned. And isn't Christmas partly about recovering what was lost? A new beginning? A white canvas calling for colour? Perhaps the programme was seasonal after all. Have a good one.

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