Thursday, 15 April 2010

Life on Earth

Tonight's rather good - unusually - TV fayre included The Museum of Life, about the Natural History Museum (oh, glorious architecture!) and, specifically this evening, its insect collections. Personally, I love beetles, those glorious gladiators of the bug world, whose armour comes in such mind-tingling colours that they inspire the muse in even the most prosaic of us. Crucially though, this programme reminded me of reading David Attenborough's Life on Earth many years ago, and a passage on butterflies that has stayed with me my whole life.

Attenborough talks of their "dazzling wings, iridescent and downy, trailing pennants and variegated with transparent windows, veined, fringed and spotted with the loveliest of colours..." (hints of A E Houseman' s cherry tree there). He explains how the butterfly emerges from its pupal state:

"The actual emergence usually takes place under cover of darkness. A butterfly pupa, hanging from a twig, begins to shake. A head with two huge eyes and antennae pressed over its back pushes through the pupa at one end. Legs come free and begin clawing frantically at the air. Slowly and laboriously, with frequent pauses to gather strength, the insect hauls itself out. The thorax emerges and there on its back are two flat crumpled objects, its wings, wrinkled like the kernel of a walnut. The insect jerks itself free and hangs on the empty pupa case, its body trembling. With convulsive shudders, it begins to pump blood into a network of veins within the baggy wings. Slowly they expand. The blurred patterns on the outside of the wings enlarges and becomes focused. Blotches swell into miraculously detailed eye-spots. Within half an hour, the wings are fully distended so that the two sides of the bag meet flat against one another enclosing the veins between them. The veins themselves are still soft. If the tip of one of them were damaged now, it would drip blood. But gradually the blood is drawn back into the body and the veins harden into rigid struts that will give the wing its strength. All this time, the wings have been held together like the leaves of a book. Now, as they become dry and rigid, the insect slowly moves them apart to show the world for the first time the unblemished perfection of its shimmering colours and awaits the dawn of its first day."

Perfection. The butterfly itself, and Attenborough's writing.

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