That was the very first word I uttered upon closing the back cover of Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles; A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals. It was repeated almost immediately thereafter preceded only by the single additional word “absolutely.” It is a book about a delightful subject, butterflies, written in a delightfully intelligent style that mixes just the right amount of erudition, drama, and humor, which in turn made it an absolute delight to read.
I first discovered that butterflies need not be captured to be both identified and studied back in 2002 during, somewhat ironically, the North American Ornithological Congress, held that year in New Orleans, Louisiana in conjunction with Tropical Storm Isidore. Following the storm’s passing, Clay Taylor and Jim Danzenbaker, two birders of international reputation who have since risen to positions of considerable authority and respect in the optical firms of Swarovski Optik North America and Kowa Optimed respectively, deigned to take me, a relative neophyte compared to both of them, into Audubon Park to see what the winds had quite literally blown in.
During our walk through the park, Clay suddenly turned his head to the side, stared briefly at something I could not see, and casually muttered “Cloudless Sulfur.” While I knew that I was relatively new to bird watching, I was at least confident that I had learned the names of the birds on the U.S. area list. This meant that either this was a bird from outside the area – which begged the question as to why he didn’t stop for a longer look or why Jim didn’t seem particularly interested – or that I was not quite so well versed in U.S. Birds as I thought I was.
“A what?” I replied.
“Cloudless Sulphur” repeated Clay, “A butterfly. I’m learning to identify them on site in the field.”
In this one brief moment I learned that butterflies had very peculiar common names, that they could be identified while alive just as birds could, and that I had just discovered another all-consuming nature-related passion that would cause the topics of my casual conversations to become even more perplexing to my beloved and ever patient wife, as well as most of our friends.
None of this, of course, would likely have been the least bit surprising to Mr. Barkham – except perhaps the fact that it took me until my mid thirties to discover butterflies. He had the benefit of a head start as a boy standing with clipboard proudly in hand by the side of his father, a teacher of environmental science and an avid naturalist who was his mentor and fellow enthusiast from whom he was to learn and with whom he was to venture out into the fields in search of butterflies until he reached adulthood when the demands of the world pushed the pursuit of these winged wonders to the margins of his life – at least for a time. Which is where the main storyline of the book begins.
Determining to see all fifty-nine of Britain’s officially recorded species of resident butterflies in a single year, a task that would require him not only to see once again every species he had ever seen in the United Kingdom and Ireland but a few additional ones as well that he hadn’t, Mr. Barkham set off on a series of journeys to points near and far throughout the isles in pursuit of achieving his goal. However as such quests tend to do, particularly when they involve something with such a storied history as that of the pursuit of butterflies by humans (especially in England), Mr. Barkham’s adventures and discoveries develop far beyond their originally set parameters.
With the recounting of these, Mr. Barkham eloquently interweaves bits and pieces from Britain’s famed “Aurelian legacy,” complete with biographical sketches, institutional histories, and – perhaps most enjoyably from the reader’s perspective – anecdotes regarding the extremes to which these diaphanous and enchanting insects have driven many of the individuals who pursued them. However lest it be thought that everything in this recounting of the lives of those who pursue butterflies is dispassionately third person in tone, it is to be recalled that The Butterfly Isles is, at it’s core, the story of one man’s adventure; an adventure built upon the foundations of his own childhood and from which a central framework of personal reflections – often self-depricating and humorous, sometimes serious, and occasionally even sorrowful – arise.
Of course, as The Butterfly Isles is as every bit as much a book of natural history as it is a memoir, a generous (but in no way overwhelming to the uninitiated) amount of biological and conservation-oriented information is included. A true amateur (Mr. Barkham is not a professional lepidopterist or a field biologist but rather a feature journalist for The Guardian) drawn to butterflies through both propinquity and fascination, he is able to bring to The Butterfly Isles a level of experience and understanding that is both broad as well as deep, and present it in a voice that is not that of the scientist but rather, in the finest tradition of British natural history writing, that of the common person. Through this, the reader is brought face-to-face with the raw enthusiasm that drives those enthralled by butterflies on both an amateur as well as a professional level.
Because of this, The Butterfly Isles is a book that can be read with pleasure by both the professional and the specialist for the amount of information it contains – particularly in regard to the history of the study of Lepidoptera – as well as by the casual butterfly enthusiast and even those wholly new to the idea that butterflies even have common names. There is truly something in its pages for all and all are heartily encouraged to obtain a copy and read it at the earliest opportunity.
Author: Patrick Barkham
Publisher: Granta Books
Format: Hardback (ISBN 978-1-84708-127-8, published 7 October 2010)
Format: Paperback (ISBN 978-1-84708-315-9, published 5 May, 2011)