Nabokov’s hilltoppin g butterfl ies ...
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Nabokov’s hilltopping butterflies January 16, 2011
Posted by Jenny in literature, nature, travel, wildlife.
Tags: Argentina, hilltopping, Jujuy province, Kurt Johnson, Nabokov's Blues, Quebrada de Humahuaca, Steve Coates, Vladimir Nabokov
Quebrada de Humahuaca. Hilltopping was observed near this gorge in northern Argentina.
This post is inspired by a wonderful book titled Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius, by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates.* As many people realize, Vladimir Nabokov, best known as the author of Lolita but author of some of my very favorites like The Gift, Pnin, Pale Fire, had a passionate interest in the collecting and study of butterflies. However, the image most often carried in the mind of the public is that of an eccentric man bounding about the countryside with a butterfly net—in other words, a hobbyist rather than a scientist.
In fact, Nabokov was a serious lepidopterist, serving as curator of the butterfly collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology between 1941 and 1948, and authoring important articles concerning the classification of genus and species within the group of butterflies commonly known as “Blues,” found in many parts of the world.
Butterflies classified by Nabokov: Echinargas in the family Lycaenidae
Because his literary stature overshadowed the interest in lepidoptery, his writings on the subject did not receive the recognition they deserved. But in the 1980s and 1990s, scientists working on the subject of the Blues found that Nabokov’s theoretical work anticipated some important findings in the field, particularly concerning the Blues of Latin America.
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It was an exhausting day for the expedition members, not yet fully acclimatized and expending huge amounts of energy in the quick bounds and leaps involving chasing the butterflies over the steep rugged ground. And yet the day was a success, and the expedition’s efforts did much to advance the study and classification of Nabokov’s Blues, whose minute anatomical differences he had observed decades earlier based on limited specimens. If Nabokov could have been there—he had died in 1977—I believe he would have been quite pleased.
Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977
* Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates, Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. McGraw Hill, NewYork, 1999.
** All quotes from the above.
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