Friday 12 July 2013

His Imperial Majesty 12th July 2013

Friday dawned warm, humid and overcast but with the alluring promise of sunshine to come later and that it would be one of the hottest days in this wonderful spell of good weather.There really was only one place to be in Oxfordshire on such a day and so I made my way to Bernwood Forest in search of Purple Emperors and the cool, quiet comfort of the woods. 

Various duties meant I did not get there until just before noon by which time the sun had broken through and having missed the morning rush of dog walkers I found myself virtually alone wandering down the wide main ride through the woods. This time of year the woods are quiet and tranquil with just the odd sound from a bird hidden in the dense foliage. The vitality and urgency of Spring had now been replaced by a slower and easier rhythm of life as the bounty and profligacy of high summer was enjoyed by all, apart from the contradiction of insects and butterflies, which are seeking to mate and reproduce in the short time span, often lasting only weeks, that is allotted them. 

The sun was reflected in shimmering waves of light off the oak leaves as I slowly meandered along the ride lost in my own personal reverie of time and space. The grass verges were alive with Ringlets and Meadow Brown butterflies, restlessly but gently lolloping along amongst the grass, occasionally spiralling up in a brief whirl as they met up with another of their kind only to just as quickly part and drift back down to their ceaseless quest for I know not what amongst the summer grasses. A Silver Washed Fritillary, bright biscuit ginger against the dark green foliage, cruised at great speed alongside the silent, drousy oaks lining the ride and then disappeared into the sun dappled shade of the forest depths. A White Admiral flew at speed the other way. I found myself traversing a veritable lepidopteran highway as I came to the far end of the ride, alone and pensive with wonder at the sheer beauty and peace of the woods around me. 

Silent and still in mind and body I contemplated a flowering bramble patch on the edge of the wood, deep in the lush grass, set back from the ride and superficially devoid of insect life, but as I gazed my eyes discovered and my ears heard a myriad of insects living out their brief lives in this, their own small universe. It harboured, as Matthew Arnold so eloquently wrote in his poem The Scholar Gypsy, 'all the live murmur of a summer's day.' 

Slowly as I became attuned and patiently waited, more and more of interest became apparent in and around the bramble. A Comma, previously invisible, suddenly opened it's wings and became obvious, an orange and black masterpiece, cruciform on a bramble leaf. A Large Skipper, like some intercepting missile, shot up from a purple headed Knapweed to joust with another of it's kind, the two of them whizzing around in a frenzy before separating, the aggressor to go back to feed on the knapweed, the other to resume its perigrinations. A Blue Emperor Dragonfly, with a bright green barrel body carried on gauze brittle wings flew by me, turning with incredible agility on it's own axis, back and fore and then soaring high and over the trees. Gone forever into the shining blue. Chequerboard patterned, a Marbled White settled on a bright yellow Catsear, its delicate black legs clinging like threads to the flower head as it drank the nectar. 

I stirred myself from my reverie but just as I did I was graced by the presence of His Imperial Majesty or The Sultan of Morocco, exotic and romantic names from times past for what we now know as the more prosaically named Purple Emperor, who seemingly from nowhere landed literally at my foot and proceeded to suck up minerals from the track with his pale yellow proboscis. Totally dismissive of my presence I was completely ignored. I felt I should have at least bowed in deference and indeed inclined my head in a brief acknowledgement of him granting me an audience. Standards must be maintained! At first the full glory of the purple on his wings was invisible. He was just a large brown and white butterfly but undoubtedly with a majesty and presence denied any other butterfly species to be found in Bernwood or anywhere else in Britain for that matter.

Only at certain angles does he allow his purple finery to shine for one always capricious with his public as befits such a regal personality. I moved slightly and as I changed the angle of view so the full glory of his colouring became evident. The sheer beauty and perfection of the colouring and the intricate, subtle patterning of the underwings took my breath away. It happens every time I see one and I know for three short weeks I will be endeavouring to see as many as possible. It will be over far too soon leaving only memories until next year. Today I was granted an all too brief audience before he was up and away, flying off down the summer lit ride in that unmistakeably charismatic, stiff winged and powerful flight so typical of his kind. The ride now seemed diminished by his absence. I waited and he came back for an encore, flying low, straight towards me and disdainfully passing within inches of my feet but he was restless and irritable, only settling for seconds before moving on and it was obvious that he could not find suitable mineral deposits on the bare ride and in the end he ascended into his natural home, seeking invisibility in the canopy of oak leaves above the ride. 

I wandered on still in a mood of quiet contemplation, stopping again at a junction of rides which also seemed to serve the same function for butterflies. Silver Washed Fritillaries passed to and fro, always in great haste as if the very energy in them was almost too much to contain and White Admirals flew straight winged, gliding, flickering white on black in and around the surrounding Oaks. The sun was now at it's zenith and the white light of a full summer's day glittered as I stood in the tree shade, idly contemplating the sunlit trees on the other side of the ride. A large dark butterfly flew imperiously onto a leaf halfway up an Oak and settled head on into the sun. Another regal presence. Unmistakeable. Another Purple Emperor. A White Admiral passed close by and the Emperor was out and in pursuit in an instant of affront at the unwarranted intrusion. 

The full drowsy heat of mid afternoon was now oppressive and bore down upon me with even the Ringlets and Meadow Browns sinking into the juicy depths of the long grass, seeking shade. I too sought those grassy tracks through the woods that were bowered and partially shaded from the heat of the sun and coming up a wooded ride, I looked ahead as if into a tunnel of green light and a Fallow Deer doe, almost orange in the tree diluted rays of the sun contemplated my approach. Her gentle demeanour and huge eyes of innocence encapsulated the mood and I turned slowly away so as not to alarm her. I melted as best I could into the wood and she looked on. More curious than afraid. It was that kind of day.

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