December 29, 2016

Memories of Collecting and Conserving Butterflies

Peter Marren's Rainbow Dust about British butterflies in which he notes that 'the same kinds of people who collected butterflies two or three generations ago became equally ardent conservationists', reminded me of my own days collecting butterflies and rearing caterpillars. As Marren says:
"The smell of naphthalene, otherwise known, with a certain irony, as mothballs, still brings back memories of those distant days, just as a tea-soaked madeleine cake ignited that ‘vast structure of recollection’ for Marcel Proust. It’s the smell of a lost world, of home museums, of a time when one’s excitement at discovering the natural world was just beginning. Everything about nature was fresh and wonderful , and a well-stocked naturalist’s den was the most worthwhile thing in the world."
Cover of 'Common Butterflies of India'
My introduction to butterflies (and nature more generally complete with the 'home museum' Marren refers to) came from Thomas Gay Waterfield, affectionately called Dada, of whom I'd written a few days after his death in 2001:
"...the only thing that stands out in my mind of that first meeting is a large bowl of water and some chhapatis on his windowsill, kept there for birds. That Dada was an ardent nature lover was the first in a long series of things I was to learn of him. In those years, he often took me for nature walks where he taught me one of the most important things I've ever learnt: to take time off to appreciate the wonders of nature which surround us all the time but which we often fail even to notice. He was deeply interested in wildlife and [co-]wrote a book about Indian butterflies.

Dada also tried to do everything possible to eradicate the superstition that surrounds animals like snakes. I remember an incident he once narrated where he described how he convinced villagers in some small peripheral village in Maharashtra that the green tree snake does not kill people by landing on their heads from tree tops. In fact, it cannot do so: it's head is soft and feels a lot like rubber."

He'd been an officer of the Raj who stayed behind in India after Independence, and who brought up several Indian children. A friend once told me that they broke the mould after they made Dada; I'm inclined to agree.