A Journey to Karner, New York: A Conservation Dilemma
by Kurt Johnson


A Karner Blue butterfly on New Jersey Tea, a nectar plant important for adults of the species. (Photograph copyright ©1999 M. Magdich. Courtesy M. Magdich, Toledo Zoo)

A recent date to speak about Nabokov's blues in Albany, New York--the state's capital--afforded me a chance to visit what's left of Karner, the hamlet that lent its name to Nabokov's famous endangered species, Lycaeides melissa samuelis, the "Karner Blue." The place name Karner is used in samuelis's common name because Nabokov chose specimens of the butterfly collected near Karner for his type series (the specimens he used to define his name and which are thus considered the definitive series by modern taxonomic rules). My visit turned up some fascinating trivia about Karner, Nabokov, and samuelis. But, along with the trivia, it also turned up the frightening realities facing the Karner Blue in its struggle for long-term survival in New York.

My host in Albany was Save the Pine Bush (SPB), an activist organization that has been fighting for the preservation of samuelis's Pine Bush habitats for more than two decades. I was met at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station by Lynne Jackson, the secretary of SPB, who was holding a copy of Nabokov's Blues so that I might easily recognize her. My comment to her as I got off the train reminded me of what an old religious superior of mine used to say about the Bible. I asked Lynne: "You've been reading that scary book?"

Piling through a foot of snow, Lynne took me in her 4-wheel drive Geo Tracker to meet John Wolcott, co-founder and vice-president of SPB. Already the experience was becoming Nabokovesque. Wolcott, in a strange case of Nabokovian mirror reflection, looks like a slightly gray and gnarled version of Cornell University's Robert Dirig, a veteran student of Nabokov's legacy at Cornell and author of several articles on Nabokov's butterflies, with whom I had participated in the filming of a documentary on Nabokov for French television about two years prior. Was I going back in time?

John is not only an aficionado of Albany's local history but an expert on the changes the region has undergone. His expertise, in fact, has been known to annoy local politicos, because he has had occasion, over the years, in letters to the editors and other public venues, to correct statements made by the uninformed concerning what used to stand where, how old something is, and so on. Perhaps out of fear of embarrassment, local politicians and the local press do not contact John much anymore, a fact I saw as somewhat reminiscent of Nabokov's own relative isolation in the decades following his departure from Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nabokov had had to stand by, knowing quite well thanks to the simplest of dissections that his Caribbean genera Cyclargus and Hemiargus were two very different groups of butterflies, while the "experts" dominating the field of lepidoptery at the time continued to lump them all into Jacob Huebner's 1818 name Hemiargus. This state of affairs persisted well into the 1990s, and some specialists continue the practice even today.

During the more than twenty years that Save the Pine Bush has been working on behalf of the Karner Blue, the nucleus of its 1000+ membership has coalesced into a community, if not a mutual support group, meeting as often as once a week. Theirs has been a legacy of lawsuit after lawsuit, invoking the endangered species status of Nabokov's L. samuelis to fight the never-ending attempts at commercial incursion into the remaining areas of dwindling Pine Bush habitat. In their most recent lawsuit, against expansion of the Crossgates Mall (dubbed "The Maul" by SPB members), the Karner Blue itself was named as a plaintiff, along with Save the Pine Bush.

Save the Pine Bush is not popular with everyone in the Albany region. A hero to other local activists, the organization is anathema to government agencies and developers. School children and college students make up a large part of its cheering section. The sad fact is that many residents of the state's capital couldn't care less about what a local judge recently called the "blue flies" that still survive among the scattered stands of pitch pine within and around the city limits.

Members of SPB joke that the players in the fight to save or destroy the Karner Blue haven't changed much over the years. Indeed, it has become a cast of the "usual suspects," the same people appearing in court year after year--the same conservationists, the same developers, the same lawyers, the same expert witnesses, and, until recently, the same judges. There is also a more recent addition to the cast: officials from the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, a quasi-governmental organization established by the New York state government to handle the results of the never-ending lawsuits over Pine Bush terrain and manage those areas that have, after protracted legal battles, been set aside as protected.

I had the opportunity to meet the Executive Director of the Commission, Willie Janeway. With a background from the Nature Conservancy, Mr. Janeway, who introduces himself simply as "Willie," seems well aware of the precariousness of his position as the middleman between developers and Save the Pine Bush activists. On cross-country skis, Willie met us at the Apollo Drive Karner Blue site. A developer had proposed that a go-cart/miniature golf course be built here, an area between two sites known to be inhabited by Karner Blues. Although the site is only six acres in size--probably the smallest parcel of land the SPB has ever sued over--it is extremely important. When the site was bought by the developer, it was four acres of asphalt and two acres of sand dunes. Save the Pine Bush sued, and as a result the developer was unable to build during the first season of its ownership. Eventually, the site was bought for Karner Blue preserve. The developer agreed to remove the asphalt, and the Commission has embarked on a project to convert the parking lot into Karner Blue habitat. I understand things are going fairly well. Willie has taken to calling the project "bulldozing for butterflies."

In a space between the roads and a hill, the Commission has bulldozed the land in hopes of removing invading species and encouraging the return of Karner Blues. I think that's why Willie wanted to meet us there--to show off a place where the Commission is turning asphalt into Karner homeland (hopefully). Trekking through the foot or two of snow covering the site, Willie explained how the pine-covered dunes at the preserve date back to the old dried-up lakebed of "Lake Albany," which receded 10,000 years ago, after the the last Ice Age, to form the sand dunes and the Pine Bush. These ancient dunes afforded the original habitat into which the pitch pines, lupine and Karner Blues eventually moved.

But now the preserves are almost completely surrounded by a 20th-century landscape of cement, steel and glass; the remaining plots of pitch pine are a weak mosaic, the land is unevenly forested, irregular, and disjunctive--a perilous situation for the preservation of what is essentially a nomadic butterfly and a nomadic foodplant. Today, there are new enemies: domestic plants invading from the citified areas nearby that have never before been a threat to Pine Bush habitat. Not only is the Karner Blue disappearing, the pitch pines themselves are disappearing as well.

Recent political changes have brought in a more conservative judgeship. SPB's directors comment that while it was relatively easy to win their cases on merit alone in the 1980s, today the same arguments seldom bring victories for the Karner Blue, the difference being the political affiliations of a particular judge. In the old days, developers were at least on speaking terms with SPB. Back then they considered its members innocuous enough--troublemakers at times, hippee throwbacks perhaps, or an annoying regional version of Greenpeace. But over the years, and after losing millions of dollars as a result of SPB's pesky lawsuits, the developers have lost their cordiality and no longer speak to members of the conservation group. Litigation is carried out under the formal but uneasy truce lines drawn by the court and by court procedure, in which the usual cast of characters meets contentiously again and again. In many cases the developers still make money: in purchasing the land for preserve, the state or the Nature Conservancy is forced to pay considerable prices. The developer thus profits from the sale of the land, but is unable to realize the greater profits usually associated with commercial or residential development.

After twenty-two years together, members of Save the Pine Bush have become like a family. Most, in fact, do not have families of their own. Some married members explain that they could not both have children and the time to continue their day-to-day monitoring of the Karner Blue's situation. Some have lost their jobs as a direct or indirect result of their advocacy for the Karner Blue. Consequently, some are now self-employed--with the clientele for their businesses hailing from outside the Albany area--or retired. But, resources or no, their work on behalf of the Karner goes on.

Speaking of Karner, New York, in a New York Times review of Alexander Klots' famous butterfly fieldguide of the 1950's, Nabokov wrote "I visit the place every time I happen to drive (as I do yearly in early June) from Ithaca to Boston and can report that, despite local picnickers and the hideous garbage they leave, the lupines and Lycaeides samuelis Nab. are still doing as fine under those old gnarled pines along the railroad as they did ninety years ago." Today little remains of the landscape of Karner that Nabokov fondly recalled. Even "Karner" seems an inappropriate name for his beloved blue butterfly. Mr. Theodore Karner, the town's founder, was a developer himself, and a 19th-century map of the hamlet that John Wolcott extracted from his pocket while we lunched at a local diner showed Mr. Karner's plan for selling off all of Karner Blue territory lot by lot. Luckily the lots did not sell; if they had, L. samuelis would have been extinct in New York long before Nabokov encountered it there.

Today, only two old houses from the original Karner village remain, separated by a grassy gap that was once a street. The old railroad which Nabokov fondly remembered is also gone, its only remnant an eroded embankment that used to support the tracks. The railway station where Nabokov would have disembarked had he come to visit by train, is now part of a rickety old building beside what now appears to be a junkyard or parking lot for worn-out heavy machinery.

Karner, New York, is as good as gone, and the Karner Blues at these preserves may soon share its fate. Even Mr. Janeway, who might have reason to present a more glowing picture of the situation on the preserve, estimated that last year's population of adults butterflies was as low as 500. Save the Pine Bush members say that in Nabokov's day the number must have been in the millions.

The Karner Blue in New York, and Save the Pine Bush, are in constant need of help and donations. SPB can be contacted at pinebush@aol.com.

As I returned to Lynne and her husband Dan's home on the outskirts of Albany (a frame house whose narrow winding back stairs reminded me of my family's old farm house in Iowa), the Nabobovesque air returned. This time it manifested itself as a cupboard filled with chess trophies--chess being Dan's other love. I mentioned Nabokov's enchantment with chess and Dan told me he "had heard about that." What struck me was the parallel of the chess trophies and the long saga of moves and countermoves (although hardly a game) played by Save the Pine Bush for decades on behalf of Nabokov's little Karner Blue. It remains unresolved who will ultimately win the match.


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