Translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves


Nothing is as it seems. Not completely, anyway. And life is never simple. Butterflies, for instance – all at once a memory comes to mind and it is only now, many years later, that I remember the actual words that were said.

It was a wonderful day of high summer in the Stockholm archipelago. Swifts up in a blue sky. Butterflies everywhere. I was still into hoverflies at that point, collecting them assiduously without much of an idea where to go next. But grand rumours had begun to do the rounds about all the things I had found on the island, which was why I received a visit that day from a scientist from Lund University, one of the real entomologists. An acquaintance from the past. He caught the boat from the mainland and then walked up to our house from the landing stage. A mile and a half. And once there, coffee in hand out in the sunshine, he said with some surprise in his voice: ‘You wouldn’t see as many butterflies in a whole summer in Skåne as I’ve seen on my way up here from the quayside. What an abundance!’

I know, I said, momentarily teetering on the very brink of that treacherous abyss, self-congratulation – in the end I was saved by the fact that we were both well aware that it was just a game between boys. A game with set rules: the one with the most was the winner. That’s a simplification, of course, for there is more to it than that, but since the competitive urge is never very far away when collectors of the old school meet, we might as well take that as our starting point. Anyway, the scientist and I immediately moved on from butterflies and devoted the rest of the day to flies, cuckoo wasps and the other more insignificant varieties of insect. The butterflies just happened to be there around us. Apart from their numerical abundance they didn’t stir any immediate sensations. Just colourful reminders, expressed in a language in which we had achieved fluency.

Like reading a story. I don’t know whether biological erudition is the right term – it may be a touch presumptuous – but anyone who can recognise and name all the birds, trees and butterflies, as well as the majority of the plants on the ground, is capable of reading a given landscape as if it were a book, a novel, in a language the vocabulary of which goes far beyond the simple phrases and greetings provided by general knowledge. No one knows everything and we all have our own specialisms, but we can nevertheless say that profound familiarity with species and other aspects of nature is similar to the cultural polish revealed by someone who recognises Biblical passages or quotations from Shakespeare on hearing them. And since butterflies, rather like ABC books in elementary school, are what tend to come first on everyone’s voyage of discovery, the knowledge is deep-rooted. In fact neither the Lund entomologist nor myself was particularly interested in butterflies any longer, but both of us had hunted them with home-made nets when we were still in short trousers. So we knew their names: Red admiral. Poplar admiral. Amanda’s blue. And the rest.

Note that I am talking about butterflies. I am leaving aside for the moment the many thousands of species that fly at night, not because they are less interesting but because not even a long lifetime is sufficient to get to know them all. There are simply too many. But the number of butterflies, at our latitudes anyway, is manageable: there are 122 species in Sweden, though there is no single place in the country where more than a couple of dozen species occur. A twelve-year old can learn their names in one summer. He or she will learn names like grizzled skipper and meadow brown, names that then prove to be virtually fireproof in their durability irrespective of the many distractions of adult life. Of course there will always be the occasional blue or longwing seen on marsh thistles and marjoram that will require a certain amount of repetition in order to stick, but the majority – like the peacock or the orange tip – stick fast from day one. Like our native language, we don’t even have to think.

Great Britain is home to no more than fifty-nine species of butterfly. For many thousands of years the English Channel has been an effective barrier across which migration has been a risky business. Many of the butterflies that nevertheless did succeed in crossing found it hard to become established, partly because the weather is so rarely like that of the Riviera: it rains – we all know that – and it’s windy, which means that butterflies can’t fly. A number of species that did succeed in establishing themselves at one stage have since been wiped out – this is a result of the size of the human population, and the fact that the British set about destroying nature rather earlier than most other people. Wetlands were drained and woodland disappeared. During the twentieth century the traditional agricultural landscape of meadows, pastures, ditches and hedges that butterflies found so welcoming was transformed into a biological desert by monoculture, fertilisers and pesticides.

There are sixty-six species of butterfly on the island of Runmarö. Seven more than in the whole of Great Britain. Bad luck, Britain. It’s actually likely there are more than that: my list consisted only of my own sightings, along with those of a few other people, rather than resulting from a methodical effort to find species that ought to be here, but which have not yet been sighted. Species like Réal’s wood white, the large heath and a few others. It’s just a matter of time. Although for the sake of honesty I should point out that the victory is not quite as clear-cut as it might appear. Several of the entries on my list are accidental migrants rather than residents on the island. The Bath white, for instance, is one such: in Sweden it is only resident on Gotland and the sole Runmarö specimen was caught in the nineteenth century by Carl Gustaf Hoffstein (1850-1916), an alcoholic joiner and naturalist. So perhaps it shouldn’t be counted, but I do keep an eye out for it every summer, ever ready for it to make another appearance.

That, after all, is what sometimes happens. I saw my last Glanville fritillary in May 1992 and then it was gone. And since its future looked gloomy even on the mainland I was prepared never to see it again out here. But then last year, over two decades later, it was suddenly here once more, in my garden and then in other places too. It’s impossible to say what happened: many butterflies have a tendency to that kind of fluctuation, which is why I haven’t given up on the chequered blue or the black-veined white although no one has seen either on the island since the 1960s. The chequered blue may, in fact, already be here, somewhere out on the limestone pavements, unnoticed since it emerges as early as May when hardly anyone is looking; it is one of the most secretive butterfly species anyway.

There are other occasional visitors, like the yellows, which are represented on my list by two species, each known by a single specimen. Typical migrants. There was a moorland clouded yellow, a female, suddenly sitting on the spiraea outside my window here one scorcher of a July day in 1995. It may have hatched somewhere on the island, though I don’t think so. It was more likely to be passing through, like the pale clouded yellow that appeared one day in August 1944 when my friend Tomas Tranströmer, then thirteen, was running around with his net. It’s in his butterfly collection now. Tomas knew right from the start that he had caught a wind-driven rarity and for the rest of his life he remained as proud of his catch as only a thirteen-year-old can be. Not that the pale clouded yellow should have been unexpected, since its caterpillar stage lives on lucerne, a nitrogen-fixing plant that was cultivated very extensively during the war when fertiliser was in short supply.

Currently, however, it is not war that is changing the flora and fauna up here in the north, not unless we count the brutal treatment of the earth meted out by agriculture and forestry as warfare. Changes are happening anyway, often without us really being able to understand why. Climate change is usually advanced as an explanation and no doubt there is something in it, though by falling back on climate change we are probably making things a bit too easy for ourselves. The wall brown butterfly has been spreading north along the coast for a long time and it reached Runmarö a year or so ago – it’s in my garden now. That may have something to do with the climate, with warmth, but that is not necessarily the reason. Nor is the spread of the lesser purple emperor easy to explain. It comes from the east, southern Finland as the closest point, and it was on my island in the summer of 2012, when I saw one – incidentally, one of the first ever seen in Sweden. It will certainly become a resident, given that we now have a plentiful supply of aspens as a result of old arable land becoming overgrown, and the matchstick industry, which at one time devoured all the aspens, having moved its factories to far-off lands with lower labour costs.

As to why Runmarö in particular has such a varied butterfly fauna, my view is that it’s principally due to the soil and to culture. Our bedrock is limestone, which means that we have an unusually wide range of plant species. The open limestone pavements provide a stable and distinctive environment – living space for butterflies that are finding things difficult elsewhere. The Apollo butterfly is the best example: there are great numbers of them every summer, one of the strongest populations in the whole of Europe. And then there is culture. If, for reasons I would rather not contemplate, the human population disappeared from the island and nature was left to go its own way, a number of the butterfly species would disappear. But we are here – several hundred of us through the winter, several thousand through the summer – and we cultivate our gardens in a way that is advantageous to butterflies in particular. In the old days they survived in a cultural landscape that focused on keeping starvation at bay, nowadays in one that basks in pleasure and overflows with the benefits of welfare.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that everything is peace and joy. I don’t see a scarce copper every summer nowadays, and a swallowtail has become something of a sensation, but on the whole my island is a fine example of the notion that nature is often at its best precisely in those dynamic borderlands where neither wilderness nor cultivation is allowed to be completely dominant. The Camberwell beauty is common here, as is the scarce tortoiseshell – another recent newcomer. I may be blind to faults at home and too eager to kick against the pricks in an age of comfortable pessimism, but the fact is that the butterfly fauna on this island tells a story that coincides with a grander narrative (not to say vision) about the art of managing a landscape without destroying it. Segregation always implies failure: people who think of every new nature reserve as a victory are people who have given up.


Photograph © Macroscopic Solutions, ‘Butterfly Wing at 50x’

Patrick deWitt and Neel Mukherjee in Conversation
Barnby Dun