We still haven’t had any rain to speak of (the Dove Orchids flowering three weeks ago were wrong!) but humidity and temperatures are creeping up and there are showers around, so most living things are beginning to think about hatching, breeding, growing or nesting, according to their natures. We’ve been seeing baby geckos in the house (and one on the poplar gum), the Cape York Lilies have begun to emerge, frangipanis are flowering well, the first gorgeous green Christmas beetles have been seen, and so on – all much as I described the season in 2014.
This year I have seen more Caper White butterflies, Belenois java, than usual – not just along Ross Creek but here in my suburban garden. This one was feeding on our abundantly flowering Coral Vine, Antigonon leptopus. (My extended family, but no-one else, has always called it ‘Maiden’s Blush’). It’s a beautiful creeper and, belying its delicate-looking prettiness, tough as old boots. It grows happily in full NQ sun and survives long periods without water, so it can be a pest.
As I said when talking about the Monarch recently, adult butterflies are not fussy about their food plants but caterpillars often are, so the abundance of Caper Whites this year is probably due to their food plants, the Caper family, having a good season.
Granta, for those who don’t know it, is an English quarterly which publishes such luminaries as Lessing, Theroux, McEwan and Winterson. The editor of this issue, Jason Cowley, takes as his theme the notion that ‘economic migration, overpopulation and climate change are transforming the natural world into something unfamiliar,’ changing the way we interpret nature.
Cowley’s definition of ‘nature writing’ is broad enough to include squatters in the Bronx, children growing up in a 1960s Liverpool housing estate, and the demolition of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The last of these is a photo essay, and complements a group of superb photographs of farmers in the fen country of Norfolk. One of the best of the oddities is Kathleen Jamie’s exploration, via pathology lab and microscope, of the natural world inside our bodies – bacteria grazing on the stomach lining, ‘like musk oxen on tundra,’ and more troubling sights.
More conventionally, Jonathan Raban and Benjamin Kunkel explore the interplay between man and nature in middle America, and Edward Platt elucidates the interplay between military aircraft and migratory birds in Israel. Seamus Heaney (and it’s a sign of the collection’s quality that a Nobel laureate comes so far down the list) and Richard Mabey contribute smaller, quirkier pieces of British natural history. The common factor is sharp observation rendered in crisp, stylish prose.
At 260 pages, The New Nature Writing is a very solid anthology both physically and figuratively. It does not set out to be life-changing but will bring readers a lot of quiet pleasure.
• Reviewed at publication time for the Townsville Bulletin and republished here because it still comes up in my conversations about books and the environment.
A friend sent me this photo and the subject has enough points of interest that I asked her permission to publish it here. The (really obvious) questions are mine, of course – the Q&A format is just for fun.
What is that spiky ball? It’s a flower – more accurately, a flower cluster – of the Leichhardt Tree, Nauclea orientalis.
So the butterfly is sipping nectar from it? Yes. Butterflies are not fussy eaters. They think nectar is nectar, and so long as they can reach it with their proboscises they will take advantage of it.
I’ve seen the butterfly before but not that weird flower. I guess the tree is an exotic? Wrong way round, actually: the tree is a native but the butterfly is a foreigner. It is well naturalised by now but is an American species, the Monarch or Wanderer, Danaus plexippus. Back home, they are famous for their mass migrations. Here, they have spread from Sydney (1871) to Southern West Australia and (obviously) North Queensland.
Is there any connection between the butterfly and the flower, then? Yes, but it’s indirect. The Monarch is a Milkweed butterfly (Danainae, a sub-family of Nymphalidae) and their caterpillars do require particular plants.
Let me guess: milkweeds? Yes – well done! And the botanical family is noted for milky white sap, often poisonous. The caterpillars tolerate and absorb toxins from the food plant, making them distasteful to predators. Local plants in the family include oleanders, frangipani and lots of the smaller weedy plants which grow along river banks.
And the tree? It’s not a milkweed, but it likes wet feet so it grows along river banks too. This one was beside Ross River near the Bush Garden.
And that completes the reasoning: the adult butterfly was near the river to lay eggs on the milkweeds; the tree was near the river for the water; and its flower was a convenient snack for the butterfly.
Huxley’s Island, which I discussed a few days ago, is one of many books from the fifties and sixties which are reappearing on the shelves of our bookshops and libraries, possibly in response to the fact that their original readers, baby-boomers, are now retiring and have time to re-read books they loved when younger.
Whatever the reason, I enjoy seeing them. Many of them bring back good memories and, more importantly, many of them are still very good, relevant books. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, for instance, were transformative for me in my late teens and I have been recommending them ever since to anyone who (similarly) needed shaking loose from conventional morality or unthinking sexism.
Gollancz has two parallel ‘Masterworks’ series, science fiction and fantasy, both conveniently listed and described on The SF Site (although this list on the publisher’s site may be more up to date). They are not all briliant but the overall quality is high enough that the series logo is a recommendation, i.e. anything in either collection is worth a second look. Having seen the Harper Perennial Modern Classics listing on Amazon (and no, I don’t know why the publishers don’t have such a list on their own site) I am inclined to treat that branding the same way. If I had to make recommendations, inevitably personal and from an incomplete knowledge of the offerings, I might begin with …