Tuesday, June 15, 2021

'Long Days, Short Nights, this Southern Summer'

 “I have been collecting butterflies in deserts and on mountains and have had—and am still having—the time of my life.” 

Our strategy in planning this year’s front garden was to plant flowers to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Evenings when there’s nothing on Netflix we can sit by the front window with the cats and watch the show. The feeder stocked with seeds has already brought thirteen bird species since January, plus the inevitable squirrels. Thus far we’ve seen no hummers at the nectar feeder or on the flowers, but they tend to visit later in the summer.


On Sunday, four species of butterfly showed up in our front garden – monarch, Gulf fritillary, giant swallowtail and black swallowtail. Texas is home to more species than any other state. To my knowledge, Nabokov never “lepped” here. The passage quoted at the top is from a letter he wrote to Edward Weeks, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, eighty years ago today from Palo Alto, where he and his wife visited the home of Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis.


Among the flowers we planted in the front garden are Asclepias tuberosa and Lobelia cardinalis – butterfly weed and cardinal flower, respectively. Both appear in “Variations on an Elizabethan Theme,” a poem by Edgar Bowers, a Georgia-born one-time student of Winters’. It was included in his first collection, The Form of Loss (1956), and begins:


“Long days, short nights, this Southern summer

Fixes the mind within its timeless place.

Athwart pale limbs the brazen hummer

Hangs and is gone, warm sound its quickened space.


“Butterfly weed and cardinal flower,

Orange and red, with indigo the band,

Perfect themselves unto the hour.

And blood suffused within the sunlit hand . . .”


[The excerpted Nabokov sentence can be found in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (eds. Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, Beacon Press, 2000).]

[ADDENDUM: Dave Lull, as usual, straightens me out. Nabokov did, in fact, go lepping in Texas. Specimen records from the American Museum of Natural History confirm that he caught at least one butterfly in Dallas on June 3, 1941. And Brian Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991) confirms he was collecting in San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas in 1959, though there’s no record of him visiting Houston. On May 12, 1959, he wrote to Nicholas Nabokov: “. . . here, in the Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas, a magnificent semitropical place, the newest (and wildest) of our national parks. Collecting is difficult but rewarding.”]

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