Survival of the flitted

JOE BENNETT
Last updated 14:48 16/01/2014
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

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OPINION: If there's a moral to this story I'd be surprised.

To get at my recycling bin I slid the sliding door. Or tried to. Since the quakes it has tended to stick. It stuck. Of the seven billion members of our species I am the only one who has the knack of unsticking it. That doesn't make me clever. If you lived here you'd have developed the same knack, but you don't so you haven't.

If EQC never came to fix the door, and if I had children, evolution would favour those children who learned the knack. And if chance gave one of them a muscular mutation that helped, the child would have an advantage. That in turn might lead to a door-unsticking muscle being coded for on the family genome, and that muscle would continue to be coded for forever, even in the unlikely event of EQC coming round in a millennium or two to fix the door. The muscle would be like the spur on the wing of the spur-winged plover which is a remnant of the claw on the front leg of the dinosaur from which the bird's wing descended.

The door opened on a red bin and a yellow bin, two thirds of the council traffic-light. I don't use the third light, the green bin, because what grows and dies at this address, rots here. That includes chooks, dogs, and eventually, if it's legal, though I suspect it isn't, me. Do the authorities never leave us alone?

Perched on the lid of the yellow bin was a butterfly. I can identify three types of butterfly. This one wasn't white enough to be a cabbage white, or big enough to be a monarch. Therefore it was a red admiral. Its wings were raised like hands in prayer.

Everyone likes butterflies. That affection shows in the name we've given them. Ignore the food scrawnies, the margarine- praisers, the longevity puritans: Butter is a simple good, like laughter. Which is why we've tied it to our favourite insect.

The butterfly has few competitors for Favourite Insect. Ladybirds get a fairly good press, as do hypothetical bees. But actual bees get a squeal and a wild flail, and we regard the rest of the insect kingdom with at best indifference, more often hatred. Killing them is a huge industry. It is partly driven by the knowledge that they'll win in the end. They've already survived far worse than we could.

I tried to shoo the butterfly off the bin-lid and towards the buddleia, which I find hard to spell but easy to rejoice in. For in late summer it is smothered with flowers, and the flowers are smothered with butterflies. You can stand close enough to see the butterflies uncoil their tongues and probe the floral throats. An equivalent tongue on us would be nine foot long.

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Butterflies are hard to shoo. They're trusting beasts who don't seem to expect to be threatened. They have few evident forms of defence and for insects they're slow to react. In short they seem ill-fitted to survive. But things ill- fitted to survive don't survive and butterflies have survived for over 50 million years, which is a hundred times longer than people. It's hard to know what their trick is. It certainly isn't rational thought.

For this one took off, turned away from the nectar-laden buddleia, and flew straight in through the door.

Or rather it flew crookedly in through the door. Is there any other beast that moves so haphazardly? Of the cabbage white, Robert Graves wrote: "he lurches here and here by guess/ and God and hope and hopelessness".

Seemingly unacquainted with the straight line, a butterfly flies as a drunk man walks. Perhaps their irregular flight-path makes them less vulnerable to birds, which constitute the biggest threat to an individual butterfly. But we are the biggest threat to butterflies in general. We poison them and destroy their habitat. And some of our number net them, gas them, pin them through the thorax and display them. It seems an odd way to admire them.

The butterfly perched on a painting that cost me $1400. Its wings put the painting to shame. I shooed it again. In the best insect tradition it preferred to flutter up and down a fixed pane of glass rather than saunter out through the window I'd opened on the world that it has found congenial these 50 million years.

I shooed it again and blew and fanned it and then cupped my hands over it to help it out and somehow broke its wing. It fell like a shot Spitfire, spiralling to the carpet where it fizzed in a hopeless circle. I took it outside and trod on it.

- The Southland Times

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