NABOKV-L post 0005391, Fri, 14 Jul 2000 08:00:40 -0700

Karner Blues in the NYTimes
**The article can be found in the Weekend (Fine Arts, Leisure) section of
today's NYT. GD***

July 14, 2000

Chasing Nabokov's Elusive and Endangered True Love


The author of "Lolita," "Pale Fire," "Pnin" and
''Speak, Memory," Vladimir Nabokov is
considered one of the greatest novelists of the 20th
century. What is less well known
is that he was also a lepidopterist who named dozens
of new species and subspecies
of butterflies. One of these, the Karner blue, is a resident
of New York State and a federally
endangered species.

While Nabokov was writing in the 1940's, he also studied the
anatomy of butterflies at the
Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Among the
butterflies he examined were some
old specimens collected in the 19th century from Karner,
N.Y., a bygone village in an area
known as the Albany Pine Bush. Although he identified the
Karner blue as a distinct
subspecies in 1943 and named it Lycaeides melissa samuelis,
it wasn't until the late spring of
1950 that Nabokov -- whose prose abounds in butterfly
imagery -- took up his net and went
looking for Karner blues in the wild. Before leaving he
wrote to a friend, the literary critic
Edmund Wilson, that he planned to drive to "a place called
Karner, where in some pine
barrens, on lupines, a little blue butterfly I have
described and named ought to be out."

On June 2, 1950, while driving from Boston to Ithaca, he
visited the Pine Bush for the first
time. Fifty years later -- to the day -- we followed in his

When Nabokov visited the Pine Bush in 1950, he didn't have
much trouble finding Karner
blues. The day after his visit, he wrote Wilson again saying
that he had driven "to a certain
place between Albany and Schenectady where, on a pine-scrub
waste, near absolutely
marvelous patches of lupines in bloom, I took a few
specimens of my samuelis." At that time,
his samuelis was the most abundant insect in the Pine
Bush. A single swipe of the butterfly
net was said to have been enough to capture a dozen. These
days Karner blues are so scarce
that netting one is a federal offense for which one can be
fined up to $25,000. A Shrinking

Since Nabokov first identified the Karner blue as a unique
creature, the butterfly's Pine Bush
habitat has been reduced to one-tenth its original size. In
1975, when the Karner blue became
the first insect on the New York State endangered-species
list, it also became the poster bug
for the Pine Bush. Advocacy groups fought development with
protests and legal maneuvers,
and as a result, more than 2,500 acres of the Pine Bush have
been turned into a preserve.

Yet the Karner blue itself has not fared well. Since the
1970's, the estimate of the butterfly's
local population has plummeted to less than 5,000 from
50,000. Biologists say not enough
pristine habitat is left for the Karner blues to
thrive. Across the butterfly's entire range, a thin
geographic band that originally stretched from Minnesota to
Massachusetts, Karner blue
numbers are down 99 percent, which led to its being placed
on the United States
endangered-species list in 1992.

To help track down some of these rare beings, we enlisted
Don Rittner, a longtime advocate
for the Karner blue and the founder of the Pine Bush
Historic Preservation Project, which
was organized in 19720 degrees. Butterflies apparently like
the heat, though. From the moment we left the highway and
entered the Pine Bush, we were
besieged with them: American coppers, tiger swallowtails,
spring azures, monarchs and
skippers. Even before Nabokov named the Karner blue,
entomologists were flitting around
the Pine Bush with butterfly nets and collecting jars. So
many species were discovered in the
19th century near the vanished village of Karner that
scientists nicknamed the area Butterfly
Station. "There are 70 species of butterflies out here,
which is more than in all of Great
Britain," Mr. Rittner said. Remaining Hopeful

But no Karner blues. "This is really not too good," said our
butterfly guide after half an hour
of canvassing the sweltering bush.

We remained hopeful, because we had carefully planned our
butterfly safari. Each year,
Karner blues emerge from their chrysalides and take to the
air during two short "flights"
(roughly May 20 to June 10 and July 15 to Aug. 5). Many a
naturalist has missed them
because of poor planning. Nabokov, however, had visited
during the height of the first flight,
and we were following his lead.

The missing ingredient in our search through the Pine Bush
was lupine, the lavender
wildflower around which the entire life cycle of the Karner
blue revolves. Karner blue
butterflies will lay their eggs only on lupine stalks, and
their caterpillars eat only lupine leaves.

Fifty years ago, when Nabokov first saw the Pine Bush, it
was blanketed in lupine. Periodic
wildfires set by lightning cleared away tall vegetation,
making way for lupine plants, which
require direct sunlight. Since then, a combination of
development and fire suppression
squeezed out this flower. "No fire, no lupine, no Karner
blue," Mr. Rittner said. "It's that

We were about to give up and were almost back to where we
started when we found a small
patch of lupine behind a parking lot along the
highway. About 200 flowers, lavender spikes,
created a small blue sea.

We scanned this oasis, looking for signs of life. Then,
right next to the asphalt, we saw a
speck, a bluish blur zigzagging above the
flowers. "Yes!" Mr. Rittner shouted. "It's a K.B.!"
He then addressed the butterfly directly. "I see you," he
said. "We have some visitors."

To his delight, the K.B. was not shy at all. In fact, it
flew over, alighted on a spike of lupine at
our feet and obligingly opened its wings for
inspection. "Now, it's posing," said Mr. Rittner.
"I have so many photographs of this very shot."

We bent down for a better look. The butterfly's wingspan was
only about an inch. The wings
were slate blue and distinctly framed by a border of
white. Tiny orange dots decorated the
edge of its lower wings. "Those dots mean she's a
female," Mr. Rittner said. She flitted over
to a neighboring flower and began walking down its stalk,
now and then adjusting her wings
for balance.

She inspected other flowers and teetered down two more
stalks. Then, at the base of one plant,
she began curling her body into a U. "I think she's trying
to lay an egg," Mr. Rittner said
excitedly. He crouched all the way down to lupine level to
get a close-up view. When the K.B.
fluttered off, there was a tiny white spot, smaller than a
poppy seed, where she had been.
"Look at that!" he said. "I've been coming here for 30
years, and I've never seen that before.

In fact, I don't think anyone's ever seen that."

Nabokov's little samuelis had laid an egg. Nabokov's 'Little

When Nabokov wrote his 1957 novel "Pnin," he couldn't resist
working in a detailed
description of the butterfly he had named. Here's what he
wrote: "A score of small butterflies,
all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their
wings erect and closed, showing
their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed
peacock spots along the
hindwing margins; one of Pnin's shed rubbers disturbed some
of them and, revealing the
celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around
like blue snowflakes before settling

After witnessing the egg laying, we crossed the highway to
another section of the Pine Bush,
this one not as pristine but overgrown with invasive shade
trees. As we walked along the
sandy paths, Mr. Rittner told us that in the 1970's he and
his friends had written Nabokov a
letter, hoping to get his support for preserving the Pine
Bush from development. Although
Nabokov did not join the fight to save the butterfly, he
wrote back that he remembered the
Pine Bush as a "sandy and flowery little paradise."

Oddly, Nabokov's original ambition in life was not to write
great literature but to make a
scientific contribution and discover new species. In his
autobiography, "Speak, Memory,"
Nabokov devotes an entire chapter to his passion for
butterflies, and he writes, "In Jackson
Hole and in the Grand Canyon, on the mountain slopes above
Telluride, Colo., and on a
celebrated pine barren near Albany, N.Y., dwell and will
dwell in generations more numerous
than editions, the butterflies I have described as new."

He couldn't have known that the Karner blue would soon be
flirting with extinction. Although
we searched for several hours longer, we found only four
more K.B.'s, suggesting that, in the
end, Nabokov's words might be more enduring than his

Butterfly Search

Here is information on searching for the Karner blue
butterfly, which was identified as a
separate subspecies by Vladimir Nabokov and was named by

Nature Walk

IN ALBANY: The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission will
lead a Karner Blue
Butterfly Walk tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the start
of a three-week period when it
may be visible. The meeting place is on the western edge of
Albany on the east side of Route
155 (just north of the New York State Thruway and about a
quarter mile south of Old State
Road) at the Karner blue butterfly sign, which is next to
the State Employees Federal Credit
Union. Wear comfortable walking shoes and light
clothing. Bring water, a hat, sun block and
tick repellent. No butterfly nets
please. Information: (518) 785-1800. Books

"NABOKOV'S BLUES," by Kurt Johnson and Steven L. Coates
(Zoland Books).

"NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLIES," translated by Dmitri Nabokov,
edited by Brian Boyd
and Robert M. Pyle (Beacon Press).

Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson are the authors of
``Wild New York: A Guide
to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New
York City.''