It annoyed me that I couldn’t name the dragonfly Eddie and I saw at the pond. No reason why I should; I can only name half a dozen species with even approximate certainty. But I was still annoyed. All I could say for sure it was that it wasn’t a Norfolk hawker. I know that has green eyes, and this one didn’t. Which was a waste really, considering we were in Norfolk.
Last year I saw a butterfly I couldn’t identify. I was in Scotland at the time, so I said to myself, must be a Scotch Argus. So I looked it up later – and do you know, it was a scotch Argus. Next time I see a butterfly in southeast London I’ll know it’s a Camberwell beauty. Life—and wildlife – should be like that.
So I wondered about writing a few words about being content with my ignorance. But I’m not, not at all. I’m not happy with the idea that my knowledge is a bit fuzzy but never mind it’s all absolutely marvellous, who needs precision anyway?
I don’t need precision because I’m a scientist. But perhaps I need precision because I’m an artist. Of a kind, anyway. I write about wildlife: it follows that I should know more about it. Not in a name-dropping way, but in order to appreciate, understand and communicate the real nature of biodiversity.
Birds are just about the right level of diversity to satisfy the human mind: 300 species are really all you need to know about in this country, and there are only 10,000 worldwide. We need to reach out beyond our vertebrate chauvinism and make some kind of attempt to understand the real nature of diversity. And that means learning a few more insects. Only a million and a half of them to learn.
It’s remarkable how far even a small amount of knowledge will take you. Just half a dozen garden butterflies are enough to give you a new and deeper understanding of what life is all about – endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, as Darwin said.