Purple Emperor © Matthew Oates

In Pursuit of a Private Passion

3rd June 2016

Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s National Specialist for Nature, has observing butterflies for fifty years. Jack Watkins casts an admiring glance over his new book ‘In Pursuit of Butterflies’, which chronicles a lifelong obsession...

I’m something of an idler down nature’s byways. I flatter myself that I’m keenly attuned to the spirt of place; since childhood I’ve always strayed from the well-trodden path in search of my own ‘secret’ corners, and I keep an eye and an ear open for wildflowers and birdsong.

It’s a random type of affinity though, and my mind has seldom settled on one thing for very long which, along with a sieve-like memory, cuts me adrift from the true student of nature, with their skill of concentrating and looking closely. When I meet one of these types I feel inferior because I know I’m mixing with a different breed. A couple of years ago, for example, I was rambling through a wood in the High Weald of Sussex with an ecologist who’d spent twenty years visiting and revisiting the place and assembling notes which he had eventually written up into a book. While I was airily gazing up to the top of a Scots Pine – just about my favourite tree on account of its ruggedly romantic outline – he was on his knees, investigating a tiny fungus I wouldn’t even have noticed was there.

I suspect a meeting with Matthew Oates, a special advisor on nature for the National Trust since the early 1990s, would yield a similar outcome. The thing is, however, that he is also a great communicator of the joy to be found in the countryside, and in his autobiography – memoir is really a better word – In Pursuit of Butterflies: A Fifty-Year Affair, he conveys something of the patient watchfulness required of the true observer, as well as the retentive mind and obsessive attention to detail.

I’m grateful that the book doesn’t fit into the wistful, rather pretentious school of outdoor writing which has lately become highly popular. There’s a grounded quality about Matthew’s approach, based on first-hand, close-focus experience. While the pages on his Somerset childhood are nostalgic and faintly reminiscent of Laurie Lee, and will surely strike a chord with anyone who grew up in or on the edge of the countryside in the 1960s and 1970s, the book is full of practical insight.

Revisiting some old woods in West Sussex where he developed his butterflying skills in his teenage years while attending Christ’s Hospital School, he describes their regeneration as natural woodland after decades of monotonous evergreen plantations were devastated in the Great Storm of 1987, and further powerful gales in the winter of 1990.

Anyone interested in how woodlands can be managed would be absorbed by this, but Matthew never loses sight of the beauty. The Purple Emperor butterflies, who still dwell in some of the old oaks, he calls ‘the high spirits of the midsummer forest’. In fact, of all the butterflies he has spent his life seeking, it is the Purple Emperor that has given him most pleasure. Known to Victorian butterfly collectors as His Imperial Majesty, this is the most majestic and elusive of British butterflies, the lordly occupant of the woodland treetops. Matthew first read about it in Brendon Chase, by Denys Watkins-Pitchford – an author almost forgotten now, but fondly remembered, personally speaking, for books like Lepus The Brown Hare and children’s animal adventure stories featuring Bill Badger and his hedgehog mate Izzy. When Matthew finds his first ‘particularly large and distinctive’ male Purple Emperor, he names it Osiris.

On the face of it, he had a tricky challenge in writing this book. While it’s hard to believe anyone has not been delighted by the sight of a butterfly at some moment in their lives, few will share his obsession for them. There is in these pages, however, so much gentle wisdom and insight which runs beyond the author’s immediate interest.

Matthew admits to Nature being ‘central to my existence since birth’. He writes of journeying with it, and in the process becoming ‘distanced from some of the thinking and values that are prevalent in Western civilization, together with the associated material benefits.’

Someone in his position, who is also involved with such an important, influential body as the National Trust, might have been expected to write a more pumped-up, polemical book. A butterfly, after all, is an indicator of the wider health of the environment, and the stats aren’t particularly good. It’s why much environmental writing these days is charged with anger.

Matthew, however, is not your man for the barricades. His butterflies are symbols of beauty and freedom, though he does worry that the bond that he had with the natural world from childhood is unavailable to today’s youth. Speaking from experiences with his own children, he reflects on peer group pressure which forces them to ditch any early interest in order ‘to be like the others’. It’s a real problem. Nature is not a ‘cool’ thing for teenagers to be into.

Patrick Barkham, who, incidentally, contributes a typically intelligent forward to this book, and who currently is one of the few writers flying the flag for nature in the mainstream press, developed an interest in butterflies from the age of eight. In an article he wrote in The Guardian a few years ago, however, he admitted to keeping this passion hidden from his mates during his schooldays for fear of ridicule. You have to be alarmed that this is an unfolding tragedy which may be getting worse, as the human connection with the outside frays by the year.

Writing well about nature and the countryside is a difficult thing to bring off. The subject inspires emotion, but in striving for bucolic effects, it’s easy to descend into the trite and the twee. It takes real dedication. You only need to read the clichés on the cover of this book to see how hard it is not to fall for them.

The biggest tribute I can pay Matthew Oates is that I am reading his book page by page, trying to glean insights from the master into the elusive matter of watching and thus developing a better understanding of nature.

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