Monday, July 27, 2009

`Extraordinarily Alert and Flighty'

Chief among the reliable pleasures of the blogosphere are Nige’s accounts of his butterfly sightings, accompanied by color photos of the Lepidoptera in question. On Sunday he described a walk in the Surrey Hills, a mere hour from the center of London:

“A high point of the walk was butterfly hunting (sans net, eyes only) in an abandoned chalk quarry which was flowering gloriously with wild marjoram, scabious, vipers' bugloss and all manner of ground plants - not to mention masses of that most butterfly-friendly invader, Buddleia. In the hot sun, with the pungent scent of the marjoram, you could almost think yourself on a Mediterranean hillside...”

Go here, here, here and here for more of Nige’s recent close encounters in the aurelian world.

As I shared with Nige I had just seen a Common Blue flitting amidst the ivy in front of our house. Befitting their beauty and evanescence, butterflies trail clouds of memory and association. The Blues, for me, evoke Nabokov, my years in upstate New York and the endangered Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), a species identified and named by the novelist.

Sunday afternoon in a nearby park, where my kids played while I sat on a bench reading Anthony Powell, something flickered in the brown grass to my right. It might have been ash or confetti but it was a butterfly I mistook at first for another Blue. I waited and watched and concluded I was enjoying the company of a Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus), cousin to the Blues. It worried a long-stemmed yellow flower I’m unable to identify and was gone, half flying, half moved by warm breezes.

I had just spoken with my brother on the phone and that, synchronized with the Hairstreak’s appearance, reminded me of the butterfly collecting case my father made for me when I was 10. He had no instinct for lightness or grace. He was, in every sense I know, ponderous. The case was about 30 inches square and four or five inches deep, made of unpainted sheetmetal. The lid was hinged and had a square opening on top. It weighed 15 pounds or more and was suitable for sitting on a shelf in the closest. I lined it with cotton batting and pinned a few specimens, but the heaviness of the case, its industrial bulk, drained my enthusiasm for collecting.

When I got home on Sunday I took out Old Faithful – The Butterflies of Cascadia (published by the Seattle Audubon Society, 2002) by Robert Michael Pyle. He confirms my identification and reports the Gray Hairstreak is more common in Eastern Washington but not unknown between the mountains and the coast. Likening them to Brown Elfins, he writes:

“Grays are also extraordinarily alert and flighty, even compared to other lycaenids. Very often, a rapid, dark, mysterious darter will prove to be a Gray Hairstreak when finally netted or spotted at rest or nectar.”

Pyle lives in Gray’s River, Wa., along a tributary of the lower Columbia River. He has a Ph.D. in butterfly conservation ecology from Yale and founded the Xerces Society. I first heard of him from Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (2000), edited and annotated by Pyle and Brian Boyd (the novelist’s biographer), with translations by Dmitri Nabokov. It’s a grand book (820 pages), excellent for bedtime reading, and includes a list assembled by Pyle of all the butterflies described by Nabokov and those named after him.

Nabokov notes in Speak, Memory: “It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies.” Sad but true, judging by my experience. More than flowers or birds, butterflies come as gratuitous gifts, spirit-lifting reminders, in a ponderous world, of lightness and grace.

1 comment:

Nige said...

Thanks Patrick - and for the introduction to the Grey Hairstreak. What a beautiful creature, and elegant - I wish we had it over here. Oddly I'm still waiting to see my first Purple Hairstreak - but I did have the delight of that Green earlier in the year. Gratuitous gifts indeed, and spirit-lifting...