Bats and Butterflies

Its a gross way to start the morning, but the torn pieces of wing from moth and butterflies that litter my floor and the bednet are part of  living in a place as full of life – and so, as a consequence, death – as this equatorial rain forest.   Picture me of a morning, soon after the orchestral eruption of the dawn chorus, tree-branch-stick-jammed-into-a-poorly-designed-chinese-made-broom-head in hand.   I guess its not much of a hardship given the enormity of actually being here, in this ‘pinch myself to see if its real’ Congo jungle: I’m really here, wow!  It’s the lizards, you understand, that live in my bedroom’s high thatched-leaf roof.  (Actually there are other inhabitants up there contributing to the nighttime rustlings: the bat is okay, and the rat seems fairly small and friendly, but the one I attempt to ignore as night-time noises move me to wildly – and completely ineffectually – wave my torch around is the green snake that fell one daytime from the rafters as I sat in the sun checking Facebook on my phone – a good reason not to, I hear you say –  now where does he go after dark?)  Anyway, back to the daily morning challenge: I’m told its lizards that nightly nibble away at butterfly carcases but eschew the wings. Hence the sweeping.  The poor butterflies ( and moths) spent the day struggling incessantly but hopelessly to escape through the mosquito mesh far above my head – be assured I’d liberate each and every beautiful captive if I could only reach that high – and by nightfall are spent and comatose.  Some evenings after darkness falls around 6pm, if I open my door a local bat brushes past my ear to be first in line for butterfly cutlets.  At these times, I wait at the door enjoying the acrobatic display until with a soft breezing to my cheek and a gentle whirr of wings, I detect his parting out into the warm garden night.  I realise I’m prejudiced but somehow sweeping up the morning after a bat is easier than mere housekeeping for a lizard.


My introduction to tropical butterflies extends far outside my floor though.  Not only are they a ubiquitous part of life (and death) here, but my 23 year-old British co-volunteer Richard, born and raised in Kenya and British boarding schools, is a butterfly expert.  His knowledge of African wildlife would fill several times over the hard drive of the state-of-the-art computer he plans to build (on which topic I receive regular updates when Richard’s particularly successful trawling through Amazon has yielded incomprehensible parts with unintelligible names. Much like the butterflies actually: well, the names at least.  I hear of a collection of butterflies in his family’s home in Nairobi; drawerfuls of tropical Lepidoptera, pinned, arranged, and labelled.  I learn how to catch one so gently that after checking the subtle differences in markings for each Species, I can release it to flight mode once more. Distinguishing the strong jerky movements of the Charaxes genus, how swallowtails differ from swordtails, males from females creates a new world within this other new world of the forest.  I discover how bait for the hanging butterfly trap is easily created from two of the few things easily obtained in this isolated region, bananas and beer.  The lepidopterous pilates of newly-hatched butterflies strengthening their wings push me into vowing to spend longer at my own Yoga practice.  The contrast of striking artwork on upperside wings hidden within the dead-leaf camouflage of the underwings folded at rest beguiles me as I wander along. These magnificently glamours giants hide so subtly until they choose to move and once again a new and glorious scene unfolds on the ever-changing forest stage.  I’m hooked into this new world of butterflies: their names, their subtle differences, the salt-loving ones that perch on my hand.  I cant get over my good fortune at this unexpected window onto another world of delight…..


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