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24 March 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 7:06am

Spring-cleaning the potting shed is usually a quiet task – but this year I had an unexpected guest

As I propped the hut door ajar so that my winter visitor could escape, I experienced a slight twinge of concern. What would it do out there, far from its nearest bush?

By John Burnside

So much has changed since lockdown began that there is a real pleasure to be found in any kind of continuity. So much so, in fact, that I felt absurdly happy this morning, as I set about the task of spring-cleaning the little hut – part garden studio, part potting shed – in the small paddock behind our house.

It is a task that should take no more than an hour or two, but today I made it last. The morning was warm and bright, and the pots of crocus and grape hyacinth that I planted last autumn were in full bloom around the doorway, a local riot of deep blues and purples that seemed improbably vivid after the grey of a long winter.

[See also: Richard Mabey: “Nature is entirely indifferent to us”]

Still, the main attraction of being out there was the quiet: set at a fair distance from the house and road, this small hut, recognised by all as my private domain, provides some respite from the daily round.

Today, however, that quiet was broken by a sudden, frantic flickering, somewhere inside the hut, a sound that I identified right away as some kind of insect beating against a window, though at first I could not see where, or what, it was.

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Moths are frequent visitors throughout the year, but this sounded larger and, with a nascent concern for whatever creature was struggling to be free under my roof, I began to move aside heaps of accumulated junk to see what it was. There, behind a stack of plant pots and seed trays, I found it. A butterfly – which came as no great surprise. Many butterflies overwinter as adults wherever they can find shelter: in log piles, dry stone walls or, in this case, in the high-end accommodation of a garden hut.

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[See also: Alone in the new world]

What did surprise me, however, was that this particular butterfly, a peacock, should be here of all places, far from the sheltered, nectar-rich English gardens with which I normally associate it. When I lived in Surrey, I would find it often, either as a slender, velvety black caterpillar in the nettle patch at the foot of my garden or as half a dozen or more brightly coloured adults flocking to the buddleia on my patio, their scaly, black, blue and gold eyespots glistening in the sunlight. But I have never seen it up here, on this austere and windy hill.

The peacock does occur in Scotland – increasingly so, it seems, due to climate change – but, as I propped the hut door ajar so that my winter guest could escape, I experienced a slight twinge of concern. What would it do out there, far from the nearest butterfly bush? How long would it last on this hilltop, where the season that EE Cummings calls “just-spring” is treacherous and changeable?

Such concerns were in vain, however. Had this been winter still, I might have coaxed the peacock back into hibernation by catching it in a box and setting it down somewhere cool for a while, but this butterfly was up and ready to fly. If it stayed beating at the window, it might damage its wings irreparably; even though the door was now wide open it still seemed unable to find its way out, so much so that I became stupidly concerned, trying to waft it towards the outside air, my hands flapping pointlessly around it.

I think, right then, that we both had a long moment of doubt – but finally, having found the open doorway, the peacock fluttered away and, as it did, my mind travelled with it a few moments longer, out and up into the thin March sunlight, and I could not help thinking that Aristotle knew what he was doing when he named the butterfly Psyche.

[See also: Why I wept at spring’s arrival]

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021