Never flatten the ephemeral under glass – pity the Morpho Butterfly

My father had travelled the world as a merchant seaman and I used to love his stories: contraband and so many pineapples consumed, he lost the skin around his mouth temporarily and never ate anything but the tinned stuff afterwards. He would mention the rats which would grow long fur to combat the freezers on board (was that really true?) how many a three legged lamb made the journey from New Zealand as  traditional English Sunday roast had been enjoyed on board! He never could face corned beef, having been to Fray Bentos and would make sweeping statements about the countries he had visited, ‘Australia? Wouldn’t give you tuppence for it.’ whilst New Zealand was his destination of choice. He never did mention going to Brazil, where he met his future wife, but that particular tale would take a whole series of blogs to unravel and even I’m not certain of all the details.

Inevitably his travels would include a spot of souvenir gathering and we lived with various exotica in the household, my mother is included in that description I have to add. One object that thrilled me beyond compare was a tropical hardwood tray inlaid with extraordinarily iridescent blue butterflies. OK, give me a break, it was in the house and I had no inkling of its provenance, I was five years old!

Apparently, and I am not certain, these objects were produced in Rio de Janeiro between the 1920s and 1940s and were actually made of mahogany. The object’s brilliance fascinated  and the memory  haunts me. I think about the stunning natural beauty of this Morpho butterfly which is amongst the biggest species of butterfly in the world. It is the male who has these metallic upper wings and the wingspan can be anything from 7.5cms to 20cms. They are iridescent as a consequence of the microscopic structure of the wings. Apparently flashes of blue from amidst the rainforest canopy can be glimpsed by pilots. As the butterflies move, the upper surface of their wings continually changes from this extraordinary blue to a dull brown. This is caused as the angle of light shifts as the wings flap.

As these beautiful creatures move their wings up then down as they fly it is as if they suddenly vanish, only to reappear a short distance away, giving the appearance of exuding   ethereal flashes of bright blue light. The dark undersides intensify the effect so, as the Morpho butterfly also has an undulating pattern of flight, this ability to change colour at the blink of an eye  makes them difficult for predators to pursue, unless of course you are a commercial butterfly collector intent on pressing these jewels under glass.

I remember taking the tray out from behind the sideboard and staring into the metallic blue and being transported to some fantasy world and I wondered what they had been like in life and the older I get the more sorry I am for that cruel and pointless, so-called, art. The butterfly is almost pornographic; everything is on show, pressed flat and open. The whole point of its ethereal beauty is the transience, that flash of beauty which is gone, only to reappear somewhere else. It is tantalising and extraordinary, everything the mahogany tray never was. I checked on the internet and these ‘antiques’ are for sale. I am sorely tempted to buy one but at the same time I am appalled at the cruelty and total lack of understanding such an object embodies. Still, perhaps I should be content to recreate the impact, this tray had on me through words alone; it’s so interesting how objects become a powerful tool in the creative process.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this object, however my re-assessment has shaped my ideas and opinions, it is a seminal part of my growing up and I picture it still and I understand exactly why it was so appealing to my father who not only brought the tray but got my mother with it. The result was probably the same.

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