I am one of the few people to have heard the sound of a butterfly. A friend wrote to me the other day saying that he had seen “thousands” of red admirals. I don’t believe him. All the red admirals in the world are at my place right now. The purple buddleia bush is black and red: two days ago I walked into a hailstorm of red admirals.
There’s a special intimacy in an experience in which a living creature powers wind onto your ears. That’s because to do so, it has to be very close indeed. Horse-people – I’m one of them – talk about “hearing” a kick: a hoof that passes so close to your ear that you sense the whoosh of displaced air as it goes by at warp-speed. It’s a wonderful thing for concentrating the mind.
I once visited a nature reserve where the warden had taught the local birds to take food from his hand. I became an honorary member of that legion of trust by standing close to the warden with an appropriate snack in my hand. The first thing I knew of an approaching great tit was the fizz of the wings as they passed my ear: hearing not a hoof but a wing: a fine sense of privilege.
Yesterday I went to sit out on the veranda, drink in hand. There were three red admirals beneath the transparent roof, not lost but slightly mislaid, perhaps too wrapped up in each other to care. Two of them vanished as I arrived. I sat – and felt that same intimate rush of air on my ear.
Here was a red admiral – a powerful thing by butterfly standards – passing so close I was able to hear it. Privilege indeed. I was reminded of PG Wodehouse on an easily distracted golfer: “He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows.”