Wen­lock Edge

The Guardian Weekly - - Diversions - Paul Evans

I crept up on the but­ter­fly as its wings flexed, pump­ing like del­i­cate bel­lows, as it took in salts from dried dog urine. For a mo­ment I thought it might be a frit­il­lary – the up­per sides of the wings were a rich or­angey­brown with com­plex dark mark­ings, the kind of colour unique to the old slide trans­paren­cies of Agfa film.

Then it de­tected my pres­ence and flew up pow­er­fully, ma­noeu­vred in a seem­ingly ran­dom pat­tern, and set­tled on a leaf of yel­low flag iris. I could see by the shape of its wings, like holes clipped from the edges of a bus ticket, that it wasn’t a frit­il­lary but a comma but­ter­fly.

The comma, Poly­go­nia c-al­bum, gets its name from the lit­tle white c-mark on the dead-leaf-cam­ou­flaged un­der­side of its wings. The dic­tionary de­scribes a comma as a phrase in punc­tu­a­tion that marks the small­est divi­sion of a sen­tence, the slight­est in­ter­val or dis­con­ti­nu­ity; I was taught to read this as a, breath.

In the but­ter­fly, the sen­tence is writ­ten in the wing mark­ings; it flashes in a lan­guage only but­ter­flies can read, and yet the closed-wing mo­ment of a comma-breath seems per­fect punc­tu­a­tion.

The French name for the comma but­ter­fly is Robert le Di­able, which is also the name of a favourite 19th-cen­tury Cen­tifo­lia rose with a unique pur­ple-cerise-scar­let-grey flower and a won­der­ful old rose fra­grance; an 1831 opera by Gi­a­como Meyer­beer about the moral re­demp­tion of the son of a mor­tal and a de­mon; and the fa­ther of Wil­liam the Con­queror, who was said to be the son of the Devil.

I don’t know how this fits with the but­ter­fly, but some­thing strange has hap­pened to the species. When the grow­ing of hops – the comma’s food plant – de­clined early in the last cen­tury, it just about hung on around the re­main­ing hop yards of the Welsh Marches, un­til some time around the 1960s or 70s it be­gan feed­ing on sting­ing net­tle.

Since then the comma has be­come one of the most suc­cess­ful but­ter­flies in low­land Eng­land and Wales, its range ex­pand­ing north at more than 10km a year. A Faus­tian, pact?

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