This is from a late piece by Guy Davenport, published in The New Criterion less than five years before his death in January 2005, and still uncollected. He writes of Vladimir Nabokov, writer and lepidopterist. Some of the finest prose in the world – the clearest, least egocentric and most exacting – is found in field guides, those much-relied-upon but routinely-taken-for-granted maps of the natural world. Their goal is banishment of ambiguity and they leave no room for carelessness or empty speculation. The human urge to organize and record what we observe is driven unrelentingly by curiosity, perhaps our defining impulse, and is simultaneously yet another symptom of “human folly.” Davenport implies these qualities – interest in folly and in the universe -- are linked, at least in Nabokov. Both, in his words, are “human.”
On Sunday, walking a pasture in Bellville, I had with me A Field Guide to Butterflies of Texas (1996) by Raymond W. Neck; Texas Wildflowers: A Field Guide by Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller (ninth paperback printing, 1999); and National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region (sixteenth printing, 1996). My ignorance is sufficiently formidable to require all the help I can muster, even a shelf of books.
Neck’s guide was particularly helpful because I know less about butterflies than plants and because the world contains about 2,000 species of hairstreaks, half of them in the New World, with eighty species in North America and about fifty in Texas. I knew enough to know the butterfly I saw flitting about a diminutive soapberry tree was a hairstreak. The tree was a clue because the soapberry hairstreak takes its name from its preferred food plant, Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii. Portions of Neck’s description confirmed the identification: “BFW [below forewing] with narrow black submarginal line; BHW [below hind wing] with wavy coral submarginal band, two black spots separated by a blue-gray patch at outer angle.”
The drummondii in the tree’s Latin name refers to Thomas Drummond (ca. 1790-1835), the Scottish-born naturalist who accumulated an impressive early collection of Texas plants and birds. The coincidence was pleasing because in the pasture near the soapberry tree grow thousands of Phlox drummondii. Drummond collected their seeds around Gonzales, Texas, in 1834. The Loughmillers’ guide tells us the seeds “were taken to England, where the plants grown from these seeds were named for him and became important in garden plantings.” And this is from their description of the flower:
“The color varies widely, from red to violet, pink, and white. [Most that I saw were magenta.] The blossoms grow in clusters at the ends of the stems, 8-20 inches tall. The 5 sepals form a tubular shape for the blossom, but the petals lie flat and are wider at the tip. Stamens are inconspicuous.”
In a review of a biography of the Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, Davenport bestows his highest accolade -- “Nothing was excluded from his curiosity.” The same can be said of Nabokov, the writers of good field guides and of Davenport.
[Go here to consult a digital field guide to field guides, where you’ll find bibliographical information about such intriguing titles as A Concise Guide to the Animal Tracks of Southern Africa, A Field Guide to Bacteria and French Cheeses.]