Nabokov's Endangered Blues
by Kurt Johnson
page two of three

The List: Endangered Nabokovian Blues

Below are seven short entries summarizing the endangered status of various Nabokov's Blues. The entries begin with North America and then turn southward to Latin America. Much more detailed information on the endangered North American Karner Blue is available at Zoland Books and at the Save the Pine Bush website. Early in 2000, each of these sites will feature links to a new website dedicated to the Karner and other Blues sponsored by the American Ethical Union and Edutrek.

Nabokov's Endangered North American Blue:
The Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis Nabokov 1944)

left, male; right, female
wingspan 26 mm.
(Illustration by William H. Howe)

The Karner Blue is Nabokov's most famous Blue, in part because Nabokov named it and in part because of the protracted and well publicized efforts by biologists, conservations and activists to save this delicate butterfly from extinction. Because the Karner Blue was among the first animals to be placed on the United State Endangered Species List, Nabokov, the "father" of Lolita, can also be considered a "godfather" of the Endangered Species Act.

Nabokov had a lifelong connection to the Karner Blue. From the writer's scientific biography, it is now known that his scientific commitment to samuelis went far beyond simply naming it in 1944. His pioneer anatomical work on the genus Lycaeides through 1949 established Karner's unique taxonomic status as a disjunct of the western Melissa Blue, not simply an insignificant member of the common Canadian Idas Blue, a view that was confirmed by modern DNA studies in 1999, Nabokov's centenary year.

Further, Nabokov's personal letters to colleagues and editors, following Lolita's success and throughout the ensuing years of celebrity, indicate that not only was he aware of details of the Karner Blue's intricate ecology and life cycle but that he encouraged others to elaborate this knowledge for the sake of determining whether this Blue was a unique biological entity--a species.

Thus, in retrospect, Nabokov played a major role in establishing the critical relationship between the strikingly beautiful Blue and its dwindling habitat in the pine bush remnants of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. The Karner Blue takes its common name from the hamlet of Karner in the Albany Pine Bush of New York state. When Congress first debated the habitat preservation and restoration provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the Karner Blue became a cause célèbre--a poster child for conservationists' efforts to maintain its complex and rapidly disappearing pine savannah habitats. And at the heart of ecologists' and entomologists' case before Congress was Nabokov's research of 30 years earlier, published when he was de facto curator of butterflies at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In the 1980's, a contingent of state lawmakers tried to make the Karner Blue the official insect of New York state, but it lost out in favor of the ladybug, a beneficient creature without the ignominy of extinction hanging over its head.

In the 1940's, writers like Nabokov and the noted nature writer Edwin Way Teale were in some ways unaware of the overall threat that would soon face the world's biotas. The decades of environmental activism familiar to us today generally began only with the publication and acclaim of the great books of the environmental movement, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Nevertheless, Nabokov's writings in the decades subsequent to his literary fame indicate a keen environmental awareness. For example, in a 1969 BBC interview he said "I would forbid farmers use of insecticides and allow them to mow their meadows only once a year, in late August when everyone has safely pupated," a view since shown to reflect a high level of ecological savvy about the intricacies of plant and herbivore life cycles. And, to French television's Bernard Pivot in 1975, Nabokov was even more direct: "It's a shame! It's a shame! The farmers with their infernal pesticides, their road construction, the cretins who burn tires and mattresses in vacant lots--the smell! Those are the real guilty ones."

When Nabokov passed away in 1977, the threat facing the Karner Blue was not entirely obvious, but today the threat of its extinction is very real. Half a century after Nabokov named the butterfly, the Karner Blue's face-off with extinction hinges on understanding and managing its complex relationship with natural wild fire. As a pine barren butterfly, the Karner Blue had adapted over the millennia to natural fire cycles. When the fires swept one region of the barrens, Karner Blues, none of whose stages appear to be resistant to destruction by fire, was destroyed. Still, with other samuelis populations nearby untouched by the flames, and with the understory of the burnt area cleared of undergrowth, allowing lupines to thrive, the larger, more farflung, population of Karner Blues (the "metapopulation" to scientists) would soon restock the burned area in renewed profusion.

Today, however, if fire burns a reduced patch of habitat, there is not likely to be another group of Karners close enough (about a half mile seems to be the maximum distance) to repopulate the area. Tiny, isolated swaths of territory aren't enough to support populations of Karner Blues. It has been estimated that the Karner's numbers have plummeted by 90 percent over the past decade.

In 1975, when Nabokov learned that The New York Times had used a drawing of the Karner Blue to illustrate an article about the federal government's first listing of endangered insects, he wrote a letter to the editor; "By nice coincidence" he said, "the so-called 'Karner Blue' illustrating Bayard Webster's note on insects needing protection is a butterfly I classified myself." He also revealed that it was the butterfly he had described in a well-known passage from his novel Pnin, although he attached no name to it in the novel: "A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand," he wrote there, "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 again." Readers today often cite this passage as one of the most beautiful descriptions of butterflies in literature. It was a great favor to the future of the Karner Blue for Nabokov to divulge its identity in Pnin in 1975. The cause of the Karner Blue has always been helped by having Vladimir Nabokov as its chief ambassador.

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