My Writing Space
The Last Refuge
Burial at Sea
THE LAST REFUGE OF THE SILENT MIND
I have always taken butterflies for granted. I spot the peacock wings and the slender cockpit in a body-sock and admire, but my eye and mind go elsewhere. It’s had its day.
But this afternoon I’m lying facedown on a cliff-top when a butterfly descends and displays itself on a wild flower, an anemone I think, white. Against the blue sky the wings spread themselves out for my delectation: splotches of red and yellow set in a brown relief of many shades, which on closer inspection could be hieroglyphs, perfectly formed on fragile tapestries. If I had a camera I could take photographs, and this evening develop them, pegging the dripping negatives on to a frame. I see myself walking up and down like the podgy hero of Blow Up (1966), trying to decipher the pre-historic tattoos against the light of the moon. Fortunately I’m not equipped to investigate the death of a butterfly, killed by my own camera flash.
Apart from their vulnerable eyes, what do I know about butterflies?
the red admiral that joked itself into Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925),
Nabokov’s remark, ‘the butterfly only emerges when the caterpillar reaches its lowest state of degeneration’,
and Chaucer’s ‘nat worth a boterflye’.
If I knew anything about their natural history I would be able to compare them with, say, tiger moths and even hummingbirds. But I would like to understand them for themselves. I once looked up why they are called ‘butter’ flies. The etymological dictionary said that it’s not known. As a boy I had a friend Sharker who chased butterflies with a book rather than the traditional net, snapping it shut on them when he lured them between the pages. The trap was a handsome edition of Gerard’s Herbal. The choice of illustrated plant was worked out in advance. Say, rosemary for the common blue and lily-of-the-valley for red admirals. But the mystery of these living petals, when compressed, did not add up to more than the sum of the wings, and Sharker’s collection was a blotched copy of a book his father was always looking for.
I am happy to take butterflies as they come, and leave mine to draw what it wants from the wild flower and, before it flies off, to fix it in my mind’s eye.
It’s time for pause. I’m swimming at dusk in the Moorish creek. I do not need to think how quiet and beautiful it is here, basking in the calm slow swell as the sun goes down. If I look at the inverted bowl of the sky, all I consider is the ragged cloud stains on its western lip. Is there black in the red, or red in the black? Will it rain tomorrow? I am not distracted by higher things. A meteorite could drop down and the sea level rise, and I wouldn’t notice.
The water is pleasantly cooling after a long day’s sun, and as I float, rocking to and fro, a chance remark or a casual glance comes back which agitated me, and I wonder, what was that all about?
At the creek night falls faster than in the town. The cliffs close in and you are left with the shadows. I basculate, listening to the waves and my breathing submerging into one another. The sea is so calm tonight it’s difficult to believe it came all the way from Africa.
I float on the sea,
moved by the tide.
As night comes on,
I drown in the light.
I would be happy to drift out into the open bay.
One or two stars are beginning to flicker. I’m no better informed about the night sky than butterflies, or the movements of the tides. I can identify Venus and the Plough. The heavens are something to look up to, rather than into. My absent-minded regard is a vaulted version of a reluctance to study butterflies (‘To examine nature properly you have to kill it first’, Goethe). Ignorance lulls the conscience and allows you to read what you like into the unknown. You risk making a fool of yourself, which does no harm unless you fool yourself, but it can be the source of poetry. Victor Hugo’s ‘the deaf hear infinity’ and Rene Char’s ‘silence seduces the truth’ speak to it.
But all I can hear is myself talking. So I silence my mind by diving underwater. Gurgles give way to bubbles. When I come up my only thought is how to breathe.
I sleep on butterflies swarming into my wallpaper.
Tomorrow is another butterfly.