A narrow street rising from the sea in the Gulf of Pagasitikos in Greece, and in the flashbulb light for an instant something still brighter. I was returning from an unhurried breakfast by the water, but no naturalist is ever off-duty. Without a hint of conscious thought we interpret scanty information in a meaningful way – and sometimes we even get it right.
This is a butterfly the size of big man’s palm, a lavish yellow and with streamers extending from its tail. In England you can see them – with good luck and good timing – only in certain places in the Norfolk Broads. In Greece there was one just down the road from the baker’s.
I was looking at an exoticism that was not actually exotic: or at least, exotic only in the mind of an English wildlifer. It was a flying oxymoron: a commonplace treasure, a humdrum superstar, a homely jewel. A day or later, another swallowtail dropped onto the flowers growing in a pot in the seafront café and posed obligingly for a picture. British naturalists named this species the scarce swallowtail, for its extreme scarcity at home, and yet on the Pelion peninsular it wasn’t scarce at all.
Question: is a swallowtail lovelier in England or in Greece? Does scarce mean beautiful? Are rare things by definition lovelier than common things? I went to ponder these questions over a glass of ouzo.