Of Caterpillars And Philosophy

The life cycles of butterflies and moths really are an example of how utterly bizarre life can be.

As a child, I was always outdoors playing in the woods and fields and keenly interested in wildlife. I had an especial interest in butterflies for a long while, and I’m quite confident that as a ten year old I could have named every single British species, and told you a reasonable amount about their life cycles. I knew, for example, that every butterfly or moth started out as an egg, hatched into a caterpillar which ate like there was no tomorrow, and then turned into a chrysalis.

And as that child, I assumed that inside this chrysalis the caterpillar just grew a pair of wings, lengthened its legs, and made a couple of other adjustments too minor for me to worry about and then hatched out into whatever butterfly or moth it happened to be.

It is not quite like that, of course.

When it turns into that chrysalis, the caterpillar essentially ingests itself, so that its insides turn into a kind of organic soup (which makes me think of the so-called ‘Primeval Soup’ of amino acids out of which life supposedly first arose on Earth about two billion years ago, which is actually not a bad analogy). From this soup a completely new creature forms.

So, let me now introduce you all to Trevor.

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Trevor has been living in our back garden for the last few weeks. He is the caterpillar stage of an Elephant Hawk Moth (probably – some of the hawk moth caterpillars not only resemble each other fairly closely, but may also have variations within the species). In that time he has been doing his best to eat a small tree.

You’ll excuse him if he doesn’t say hello, I’m sure, as he is much too busy eating at the moment. It’s what he does. It’s pretty well all he does.

Eventually, he will reach a stage when he stops eating, finds a handy spot to attach himself, and then turn into a chrysalis (or pupa) and will eventually hatch out into a moth – an Elephant hawk Moth, if I’ve identified him correctly, although I’m sure he won’t care in the slightest what I think.

You may be familiar with the Zen koan (essential a riddle that cannot be solved by pure logic) that asks ‘if you light one candle from the flame of another candle, is the new flame the same as the old one, or an entirely new one?’

Which brings me, rather neatly if I might say so, to today’s riddle. Bearing in mind all of the above, is the newly hatched butterfly or moth the same creature as the caterpillar that preceded it, or a new being entirely?

I think we should be told.

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All The Lost Words

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Last night I dreamed I sank into the depths of some great ocean.

I went down, right down to the bottom of the sea and

There I saw a wooden chest.

And then a mermaid appeared and smiled, and indicated

That I should open it.

 

But having done as she had asked,

I thought at first I had made a mistake,

For I beheld countless stars shining in the depths of the chest,

Which appeared to be as large and as wide as the sky.

And even as I thought this, those stars rose up and surrounded me

And then, dismayed, I saw them floating up until they reached

The surface of the sea,

Where they were taken by the tides and currents

And swept away to every corner of the Earth.

 

***

 

When I awoke, I felt sad for the loss of those stars.

But then I realised it had been a dream, and

I fell asleep again and dreamed I laboured down a mine.

And I was hot and weary and grimy as I crawled

Through low passages, searching for precious stones.

It was tiresome work but finally,

Rounding a corner, I saw a distant glow and

As I drew near, I saw a gem that shone amidst the darkness.

I found then I carried pick and hammer, and

Any number of chisels, so I set to work.

 

After much labour I held the gemstone in my palm and

The light from this treasure seemed to flow out from my hand,

And illuminate every corner of the mine.

This gladdened my heart, but one appeared who I had been dreading,

Although I had not known it until that very moment,

And they took the jewel from my hand and disappeared,

I knew not where.

 

***

 

And so again I awoke and then

I slept a third time – troubled sleep! – this time

I dreamed I walked on crowded streets

And watched the many who surrounded me

And listened to their talk.

These were the conversations carried on

By every man and woman who had ever lived,

Or ever would.

 

But after time their speech became confusing;

I could no longer distinguish any words, and then

The world fell silent, although they still spoke,

And still I watched and found that I could see their speech,

And all their conversations floated on the breeze

Before me,

For their speech was made of stars and gemstones,

Mingled now with flowers and with ash.

Mingled now with night soil and with butterflies.

 

And I was content with that, and now slept deeply.

 

The Joy of Unknowing (1)

We have just returned from a few days away in Shropshire, which is one reason you haven’t heard from me recently.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, and spent the time walking and reading and mooching around towns and villages. And finding time for the occasional meal and cold beer, of course.

Yes, we did some lovely walks. And I find it a natural thing to be constantly identifying and photographing whatever I see when out for a walk. I have always been interested in all aspects of the environment, be it the plants and animals, the geography and geology, the weather, or the historical impact of people on the environment in forms such as old trackways, deserted buildings, or ancient boundaries.

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And we have spent several fantastic days surrounded by an environment rich in all these things, as we have walked through woods, fields, and open hillsides, seen ancient settlements, butterflies, birds, and many wildflowers, and all this in an area of some of the most complex geology in the UK.

But sometimes I feel myself tiring of the constant need to identify and record everything; it is really a way of trying to own them.

And when you post on social media too, it can feel at times a little like a competition to put up the best pictures of this or that wildflower or bird or mountain, which naturally need to be identified and named. Especially on Twatter, whose format seems to encourage this.

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So, on our first morning away, as we walk up a track heading into the hills above Church Stretton, under early morning blue skies with the air crystal clear and beautifully cool, I decide that for now I am just going to exist in the moment.

Because by doing this, I am relieved of the constant necessity of deciding whether this bird is a rook or a crow, or whether that flower is greater stitchwort or lesser stitchwort.

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Because it doesn’t really matter.

And for now, instead of having to always know whether it is this or that bird singing, I can allow myself to simply think there is singing. There is birdsong.

Or, even better, there is a sound I find melodic, and it pleases me.

By doing this, I can relax and centre myself, which is something I feel has been badly lacking in my life recently. I have struggled with social media in any case, feeling a huge pressure to post new material and to read the many I follow, even when I don’t feel up to it.

It feels like a return to a much simpler time in my life. I can enjoy the views of the hills, the sounds of the streams and birds, and just concentrate on being.

This must have been part of the pleasure I felt as a child on every occasion when I could roam outdoors. Certainly, I was curious about what I saw, but since I knew so little about them, there was always an openness to the experience and the excitement of discovery. I would see butterflies I had not seen before, and I would just get the thrill of seeing them without having to know anything more about them. I would see wildflowers I didn’t recognise and just enjoy the shapes and colours.

Naturally, you cannot really unknow things in that way, just as you cannot really return to that point in your childhood, but it is possible, even if for only a short while, to let go of the need to identify and quantify (and therefore own) everything, and simply exist in the here and now.

Grrr.

Grrr? Well, the reason I’ve been absent this last week or so is a trapped nerve in my neck that has been stupidly painful and stopped me doing most things I want to do. It’s on the mend now, but the last thing I’ve wanted to do up until now is work at a keyboard.

And Grrr! it’s a tiger.

Not a very good photograph, admittedly. It was taken over thirty years ago when I worked in Oman, and is of the butterfly known there as the Plain Tiger. What I remember in particular about it is the way it flies, or glides to be more exact. Unlike many butterflies that fly with continual, rapid wingbeats, the Tiger flaps a couple of times and then glides gracefully, as in the photograph. It is most impressive, and very lovely – especially where there is very little else in the way of insect life.

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It’s one of those butterflies that is very widespread, although it does not migrate. I’ve seen it in India, and apparently it is met with in South East Asia and Australasia, too.

I’ve got butterflies on my brain at the moment, as the weather has turned really lovely here and I’m suddenly seeing lots of them, even in the garden.

So on that note, I’m off to sit in the garden in the sun again for a while with a cup of tea and a book, resting my poorly neck and whimpering pathetically to myself.

Sad, isn’t it?

The Weald of Kent and Sussex

South East England is my area. It is where I was raised and, other than a few years spent abroad, it is where I have lived my whole life. In particular, the Weald and the Downs. Not so much the coastline, which has never particularly attracted me, but the hills and valleys, the woodlands and rabbits, the hidden crags and open downland, the land of streams and foxes and badgers, birds and villages and butterflies.

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On the Sussex Downs

There is a curious fact about the wooded areas of South east England, which is that there is more woodland, covering a greater area now, than was the case four hundred years ago.

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Back then, South East England was the industrial heartland of Britain. This was before the discovery of the coal seams of the North and the Midlands, and the various factors which would eventually lead to the greatest impact of the Industrial revolution being in those areas.  Instead, the modest iron deposits of the Weald were mined and worked into firedogs and nails, cannon and cooking pans, as the wealth of words such as hammer and forge in place names still bear witness.

 

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Huge numbers of trees were cut down to feed the fires of these forges, and huge numbers also for charcoal burning, for building, and near the coast the great Kent and Sussex oaks were in huge demand to build the large number of ships the navy demanded. But then from the mid eighteenth century onwards, industry began to shift northwards.

Despite the pressures on the land for building and for farming in this crowded corner of our crowded island, there is actually more woodland now than there was during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And that is not something that can be said of many parts of Britain or, I suspect, many parts of the world at all.

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The Weald is an area whose underlying rocks are sandstone and clay, which means that the unimproved soils are inevitably either light and sandy or thick and claggy. In some parts there are old sunken tracks known as ‘Summer Roads’, so-called because they became impassable in the winter months, when they might have had a foot or more of thick, wet, muddy, clay on their surface. When these were in use, journeys between villages that might take an hour or two in summer, could became almost impossibly long during the winter.

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At the moment, all everything in the news seems depressing and unpleasant and so, this post is an indulgence. Just a smattering of information, and a few photos of places I love, largely to improve my mood.

A Sussex Footpath

The sun shone all day.

We took a bus out to the village of Hartfield in Sussex, and had a long walk through the woods and fields, and over a few hills. Spring is certainly here, now. Although there are not yet many flowers out in the countryside, even though there are lots of daffodils and snowdrops and crocuses in the gardens, there is a wonderful fresh green gradually spreading across fields and through the woods.

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The land has already dried out quite a lot after winter – unusually, so I think. Probably because we have had a relatively dry winter around here. But even where a little water still stood around in the fields and on the paths, it just gave the sun somewhere to glitter and sparkle.

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There were plenty of birds around – tits and finches, blackbirds, thrushes, pigeons, skylarks, buzzards and a hovering kestrel.

We saw the first butterflies of the year: a Brimstone and one or two Peacocks.

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There is blossom on the Blackthorn trees, and there were a few flowers out. In places, there were lots of Lesser Celandines, and here and there a few primroses.

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Honestly, I cannot think of a better way to spend a day.