On the wings of love
Country Life UK|July 28, 2021
Once oblivious to butterflies, Robin Page became so entranced by their delicate beauty that he embarked on a year-long safari to tick every British species–as well as some foreign visitors–off his list
Robin Page

WHEN did I become obsessed with butterflies? The answer is simple—I don’t know. As a child, I quickly became aware of them. There were white ones, ‘cabbage whites’, that father blamed for eating our cabbages as caterpillars; brightly coloured ones in the spring that fluttered against the window panes, trying to get out of the house; and others in the autumn that tried to get in. However, at that stage, that is as far as me and butterflies went.

Then, years later, I met an amazing countryman—well, a Londoner who had moved into the countryside as a child during the Second World War as an evacuee—called Gordon Beningfield. By the time our paths crossed, he had metamorphosed from an urban child at risk from war into a quite extraordinary watercolour artist and conservationist; what a transformation. He was also a man who suffered with dyslexia, yet could hold an audience enthralled with words—as long as they were spoken, as opposed to written words, because ‘spellin’ was beyond ’im’.

With a paintbrush in his hand, he turned butterfly illustration into art, butterflies into conservation allies and his artwork into a countryside crusade. His pictures told the story of changing Britain, warning against the double meaning of the word ‘progress’: a boggy place drained, wildflowers sprayed, an orchard uprooted and a new town— a planner’s dream, a politician’s boast, an environmental insult, a butterfly disaster and a countryside nightmare (‘Dance of the butterflies’, September 5, 2018).

Butterflies became more than wings–they were wings, flowers, plants and seasons

My life changed still further one April day when I was standing in a bog with Gordon, close to his home in Hertfordshire. The cuckoo was calling and the cuckoo flower was flowering. ‘There’s an orange tip,’ he said, pointing to a beautiful butterfly with orange tips to its wings. ‘Look here,’ he continued, ‘they lay their eggs on cuckoo flowers.’ Within a minute, he had found an egg and butterflies had become more than wings—they became wings, flowers, plants and seasons. The wings changed, too. I did not simply see the odd whites and yellows and peacock eyes. I saw blues and browns, large and small, fast wings, slow wings and wings that opened to absorb the sun. They all linked sun, air, water, flowers and people—and yes, they were ‘indicator species’, indicating health or hindrance in the countryside and the atmosphere.

Astonishingly, although Gordon was dyslexic, he became an expert on the books of Thomas Hardy (how did that happen? I have no idea), introducing me to Dorset and the world of Hardy, as well as butterflies. He died in 1998 and I still miss him. Yet, he was something else, too—he made the seasonal flutter of butterflies and their beauty fun. Fun is so important in conservation and it’s such a pity that so many modern conservationists fill us with gloom and doom, replacing smiles with scowls and twisted vowels. Gordon was a serious conservationist, but he was also a man of smiles and laughter.

In turn, butterflies have become dazzling creatures of smiles and laughter for Mrs Page (Lulu) and me. So much so that, every year, which one of us sees what, when, where and ‘first’ becomes important—even competitive. In addition, our love of butterflies has followed us to Africa. When some are searching for lions and cheetahs, I will often be looking at the colour, light and movement of butterflies —fragile and delicate in a hard, hostile world. When at waterholes ‘on safari’, I have spotted silken wings, whereas others have seen nothing but monkeys having a scratch.

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