Friday, 23 August 2013

The difference between a painted lady and a tortoiseshell: a new Way

I was recently lucky enough to be one of a walking group led, in a most unbossy and charming way, by a truly expert - I was going to write "botanist," which he certainly is, but the old term "naturalist" might be better, since his range of both knowledge and wisdom is huge, and it was put to excellent use for our benefit.

We walked around an area of coastal heath, then up to a high promontory, down to a disused lighthouse on a headland. We were lucky with the weather.

In case you're interested, I'll mention some of the creatures and plants we saw, such as this splendid chap below, but first I want to make my point before non-naturalists doze off.

If I want a sense of unity between me and the world, a sense of belonging and a feeling of balance, a usual route for me is via the natural world, and I think that's fairly common. But my typical approach to the natural world, and again, I'm hardly alone in this, is imaginative, aesthetic, meditative. Being in it, letting my mind stay in the present, looking at my surroundings as if for the very first time, feeling tuned in to the beauty of a place.

The Naturalist identified plants, birds, butterflies, land forms, soil types, underlying geology, and even the unbelievably ancient geological story behind it all. He did so in a typically gentle and encouraging way, which drew us out, and therefore in.

What the Naturalist saw and felt around him was based on  detailed and exact knowledge - science, if you like. People speak of reading the landscape. He seemed part of it, on intimate terms with it. He understood its inter-relations, its changes and time-scales. Of course he had aesthetic responses - he is particularly fond of toad-flax. His analytical understanding was always at the service of his powers of synthesis- I mean that he fitted things together so wonderfully well.

This is what he has dedicated his life to.

He was also able, of course, to be exact about the season. "It's late to see so many..." or "We are lucky to catch him, they've usually gone by now," or "they are mostly migrants, on passage to Africa, and they should be in south-west England by tomorrow morning."

I think when we put all this together, we've got a particular way of living in the present, in harmony with change, unafraid of the scale of the earth's timescales, able to accept how limited is our stay here.

As I left the walk, I felt the sort of calm elation I usually only feel after a meditation, or after an aesthetic and meditative experience of the countryside. The Naturalist's science-based gifts to me were visions I treasure.

(You don't seem many painted lady butterflies, and when one settled on a flower head next to two tortoiseshells, the Naturalist quickly pointed out the differences, in colouring, characteristic flight, in general what a bird-watcher would call its "jizz." So now I know, now I feel, more intimately, these two lovely creatures, and where they belong.)


The lady is on top.

Small copper, large blue, gate-keeper, meadow brown, grayling and peacock.
Eyebright, western gorse, bell-heather and ling, hairy vetch, toad-flax, sheep-bit, tormentil and creeping cinquefoil.
Grey seal, Manx shearwater, fulmar, cormorant and shag, buzzard and rock pipit, willow warbler and curlew.

Beautiful though they are, these are just names. Put it all together with the Naturalist's vision and you can approach something beyond names and concepts.

I think a life's dedication to studying and observing has given him a Way, a kind of enlightenment that is new to me. It's based on knowledge, but it's so much more than just knowledge.


  1. How lovely Gloria, Enlightenment indeed!

  2. Well, I'm so pleased you enjoyed it, thank you.

  3. I Googled to discover the difference between the painted lady and tortoiseshell, and came away enlightened about more than just butterflies! Thank you for your thoughts!

    1. Thank you for stopping by,I'm pleased it was of use to you.