I remember the thrill I felt in junior high school when I first came to some understanding of binomial nomenclature, the system devised by Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) to identify each species of plant and animal with two Latin words. The economical beauty of it was breathtaking. Like every human scheme to master creation, of course, the Linnean system of taxonomy is flawed and often in need of fine tuning, but there’s comfort in knowing Passer domesticus will always be a house sparrow, never a tree sparrow, in Yonkers or Burkina Faso. Consider this passage:
“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 again.”
The proper name blows the anonymity but in this passage from Pnin, Nabokov is doing something unique in literature: As a novelist he is rendering in fiction a species he named as a scientist -- Lycaeides melissa samuelis, the endangered Karner Blue. Nabokov published Pnin in 1957, 14 years after naming the butterfly. Its common name derives from a hamlet of Karner, also almost extinct, in the Albany Pine Bush in upstate New York. When I moved to Albany as a newspaper reporter in 1985, what little I knew of the region was literary -- William Kennedy’s novels, Melville’s residence there in his pre-seafaring days, William and Henry James’ summers at their grandparents’ house near the Hudson River -- and Nabokov’s butterfly. As a journalist I often wrote about the Karner blue and its diminishing habitat. Shortly before I arrived, a chunk of the Pine Bush had been lost to a shopping mall. This peculiar ecosystem, rooted in deposits of glacial sand, is surrounded by pricey real estate. Standing in the middle of blue-stemmed grass, blue lupines, dwarf and prairie willows, blueberries, huckleberries, bush clover, goat’s rue, horse mint, pitch pine and scrub oak, you can hear the drone of traffic on the adjacent New York State Thruway.
To see Nabokov’s “blue snowflakes” for the first time, flitting among the lupine, was exquisite and unrepeatable pleasure, a potent blending of literary, scientific and purely aesthetic pleasures. Nabokov was no aesthete, as a writer or lepidopterist. His scientific specialty was taxonomy, which translated into observing, describing and classifying thousands of butterfly specimens according to what he called the “sculpturesque” shape of their genitalia. He said in a 1964 interview:
“Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime -- but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.”
Even more revealing is a poem Nabokov published in The New Yorker in 1943, the year he named the Karner blue and three years after he and his family immigrated to the United States from Europe. Here is “On Discovering a Butterfly”:
“I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer -- and I want no other fame.
“Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.
“Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.”