Archive for February, 2011
“The Riviera… a collection of jewels strung together at irregular intervals upon a rough mountain chain.” Author/Artist Gordon Home of Britain
Provence-off-the Beaten-Track books of long ago inspire memories in 21st C
Haute Provence– Bonnieux
My neighbors in the Cannes villa were always eager to share the startling and the unknown, with this person they called ‘L’Americaine’ , (as though there were no other in the South of France), the person my mailman had come to call Caroline. Holding high those frail blue letters from the States, half skipping down my sidewalk, the mailman would sing my name, in notes that ring to this day. “Bon jour, Caroline!” I swear, I could hear that exclamation mark. I thought I moved to Cannes to hear French for an entire year. I may have gone to Provence to hear my real name.
Provence Light, Provencal Dooryard, Richard Cobby
When January rolled around, Charles Mouzon, [--former Colonial Administrator of Tahiti and the Comorrre Islands (how he teased that I didn't know what that was!)], could not wait to check out a certain window in my apartment, the mirror image of his. For his faced ‘the wrong way.’ Day after day, Charles would inspect with the eyes of a ship’s captain underway in a field of icebergs. Every fibre of his being was caught in that searching. I could tell by an almost sag of his shoulders that Charles had not found what he sought. And then, one late January day of exceptional brilliance, probably post-mistral, he cried out, “Voila!”
I was still at the stage of being surprised and delighted when the French did something typical, as in saying “O (not ‘ooo’), la LA!”, which they did so often. Wearing berets, which since it sometimes even snowed in Cannes, Monsieur Carre and Charles both carried off with natural zest. Even saying ‘Voila’. It showed I wasn’t in Kansas any more.
Voila what? Voila, CORSICA
There on the far horizon, adrift (were there clouds or mist, or does memory paint that part?), a height with a Bali Hai air, rose Corsica. Charles explained, “Each winter, when the air is clear enough, Corsica comes to call.”
Napoleon’s island home was visible directly off my balcony. I was in heaven. Little did I know, returning to New Jersey, I would live near another Bonaparte home:
Point Breeze Mansion of Bonapartes of Bordentown, NJ
Charles had no way of knowing that I am a Napoleon Groupie. OK, indeed, much about the man was reprehensible, and some tragic, not only for him, but also for the French, the Italians, the Egyptians, the Russians.
Nonetheless, I read everything I could considering my hero and his elegant wife (whom I had attempted to emulate, waltzing in Empire velvet at the Plaza’s annual Swiss Ball — my other life.) My girls inherited my Bonaparte fixation. Cath wrote a paper on him in third grade. Our daughters They vied with each other in planning an entire trip around Napoleon. It started at Fontainebleau (at 7 and 8, their first wakening was upon the roofs of Napoleon’s palace there). It culminated culminating among the roses and in Napoleon’s bedroom at Josephine’s Malmaison. Cath touched the red brocade curtains tied at the sides of her heroe’s bed and announced to the assembled (French) crowd, “I’m never going to wash my hand again!”
What a shock, then, in 1988, when my Provencal neighbors referred to Napoleon, with a bark, as “That Corsican!”
Nonetheless, a highlight of each winter day at the villa (L’Aquila - which means eagle. Wasn’t Napoleon’s short-lived son named L’Aiglon?) was to check to be sure we’d all seen Corsica that day.
This Could Be My Living Room, Balcony View, toward the Iles de Lerins
The Mediterranean is this blue in Winter, when Corsica emerges like Venus
Being a neighbor rather than a tourist, on a Provencal hilltop, was the greatest privilege of my life. I can never convey the meaning of, the essentiality, of that Provence year to anyone who hasn’t been there. For those who have, “no explanation is necessary.”
These musings are inspired because I am reading venerable books of olden times. One isThe Riviera, painted and described by William Scott, an Englishman. It was published in one of those MCM years (MCMVII), by Black of London. For all the volumes I carried over each year to Bryn Mawr’s Book Sale, I never failed to return with treasures to fill lacunae on our shelves. This and another Book Sale Find, celebrates the Rivieras of France and Italy, with travel tales and watercolors, each worthy of framing. The other author/illustrator is Gordon Home, also of Britain, Along the Rivieras of France and of Italy. This one also of London, was published in MCMVIII by J.M. Dent, and in New York by The Macmillan Company.
These volumes bring back the entire panoply of my Riviera journeys. As I turn their soft pages, and lift the tissue protecting scenes of the Mediterranean and the hill towns, I feel I am standing beneath une cascade (their beautiful world for soft waterfalls) of Provence colors.
Provencal Colors - Fishing Boats only Out for One Tide
Fish Leapt off the tables in Cannes’ Marche Forville
Provence Colors - Vallauris Pottery — I could WALK to Vallauris
Neither of these books would make it on Antiques Road Show. Both have been read times beyond counting, long before moi. They are beyond ‘foxing’. Most treasured of all are the artworks — tissue paper muting each, colors faded by time or memory… Each book captures the old Rivieras, before chic - although the Boulevard des Anglais and the Russian ‘invasion’ of Nice and the transformation of Cannes by Lord Brougham and pals had indeed taken place. I realize that, by ‘chic’, I mean, before Scott and Zelda.
Mr. Black conveys some of the inescapable allure of ancient Provence (where I spent 9/10 of my time that year). La Cote d’Azur was for other moods and other times. La France Profonde became my new home. Mr. Black insists, in Chapter 1, “Here, at last, we can realise our dreams; or even find our keenest expectations far surpassed.”
NICE AND HER HARBOR - my weekly experience
NICE’S WINTER VEGETABLES - MARCHE AUX FLEURS
One of my two favorite markets - the other being Cannes’ Marche Forville
Provence as an entity is vastly different from the rest of the country. Normandy still possesses that uniqueness, set-apartness. Brittany, even more. Also rustic, quirky Cornwall, in the West of England. Always, our Pine Barrens, in New Jersey. These regions are as disaparate from their surroundings as islands; their people form races distinct from all others.
In Provence, I learned the nobility of peasantry. May I never lose this visceral awareness. All my expectations were surpassed, and many facets of my forever Francophilia were assiduously polished.
In Provence in 1987 and 88, the true life of shepherds and goatherds still took place. Many a drive from l’Observatoire Hill took me along La Route du Transhumance, the route taken by herders and their flocks from winter pastures to summer and backagain. It’s the way to the perched village of Mougins, with its legendary restaurants. It’s the way higher and higher, into la vraie Provence, la haute Provence, Provence profonde.
The Bellwether, Troupe of Sheep
More times than I can count, near Opio, near Glanum and Bonnieux, although not along La Route du Transhumance, I would suddenly find myself surrounded by flocks in transit. My tiny French car was transformed into a frail bark. It bobbed in a sea whose waves were composed of white fur and blue dye. There would be a herd boy, all his earthly possessions in two long sacks upon a donkey. There was nothing to do during transhumance but stop the car. It would rock back and forth among four-legged waves. In the background was a cacophony of metallic bell tones, each flock’s bells differing in tone, denoting owners. A sound I had only heard when the goats stopped everything, every afternoon, returning to Zermatt from the day’s pastures.
Back here in New Jersey, for NJ WILD Readers, I try to apply all my senses to each excursion, as I was trained to do in Provence. Those senses, as I saw the seasons ’round, have been honed by mistral, by exhudations of wild herbs on frosty air throughout the garrigues (scrublands). Those senses were tickled by slight fragrances of almonds in bloom in early February; by the lemony tingle of mimosa in the tree that filled my February bedroom window in Cannes; as was artist Pierre Bonnard’s in nearby Le Cannet. These eyes in all seasons could barely believe what the Provencal call ‘feerique’ - fairy-like effects of boats alight upon night’s Mediterranean. That reminded me of Picasso’s “Night Fishing at Antibes”, which jewel of a seaside town was just down the road through his La Californie, below his muraled Antibes castle near La Musee Napoleon.
In July, these senses were inundated by fields of ripe lavender, frequently accented by a burnished abbey afloat on all that purple, a golden galleon. These eyes couldn’t believe la pluie du Sahara - thick rain filled with Sahara sand which kept the Carres and me from making our ripe lavender fields tour which was to have taken several days at peak harvest.
Winter and summer, these eyes were near-blinded by rainbows everywhere - no not in the sky. Rather, rainbow circles formed anywhere that light fell: Even on darkest pottery, on my wooden desk, along those uninsulated apartment walls painted to match eggplants and tomatoes in markets not far from my door.
My ears were laved from before dawn till after ‘la crepuscule’/dusk, by the harsh cascade sound from des cigales (cicadas). There is something about having lived through the cacophony of des cigales that transitioned me from tourist to traveler to resident, after all.
Lavender in Bloom Under Venerable Olive Tree
Mr. Black sets out a paragraph of requirements, in order sufficiently to appreciate the Rivieras. “The receptivity, the power of hearing, of seeing, and of feeling truly, must be there; must be awake or wakening; if the message (of his Rivieras) is to be understood. Too many of us are deaf and blind to these impalpable images. Nature sings her sweet wild songs to these flowers, and skies, and stars, while we poor mortals grope along.” These words are equally essential in wild New Jersey.
Stars- I had forgotten about stars. Stars beyond counting - a hundred for every one visible out West, as in Aspen’s winter-cleansed skies. Stars sharp, electric, that seemed to prickle my bare skin like little sparkler lights during Fourth of July childhood. Out on my Cannes balcony, winter and summer, but especially upon my fiftieth birthday, champagne in hand, stars in that vivid black sky over the whispering Mediterranean seemed to drop right into my champagne, kissing their twins.
(and the last shall be first…)
Don’t DARE fall into the pit opened before us hour after hour by the Weather Channel — They would have us decide, “That’s it for global warming!” Worse, they would have us conclude that this winter is the fault of Mother Nature, our enemy!
On the contrary, every book on catastrophic climate change that I have ever read insisted, back in the last century, that melting glaciers because of CO2 emissions will alter ocean temperatures, ocean currents, aligned air currents, weather patterns, and bring us ever more severe storm in terms of quantity and violence of precipitation, and, indeed, in frequency.
It’s not Mother Nature, folks. It’s us!
Why has the author of NJ WILD become a hikeless hermit?
2011 VIEW FROM LIVING ROOM WINDOW
NJ WILD readers must be wondering why I’m not exhorting everyone to GET OUT THERE on winter excursions. You may remember that last year I gave you Brenda Jones’ Fox on Ice (Lake Carnegie), insisting that nature miracles won’t come to you - we have to go to them.
FOX TRACKS BY MY BEDROOM WINDOW
Well, I was wrong. Even though I cannot even OPEN my front door, deer, rabbits and foxes have come close enough to touch.
ANDROMEDA AND THE NIGHT VISITORS:
Below Study Window
I’ve even seen the red fox frolic in new snow, while working at my computer.
But for me, NATURE IS NO SPECTATOR SPORT. I NEED TO BE OUT THERE, breathing the air the creatures breathe. Spirits uplifted by their very wings, their winged gait.
SNOW A FOOT+ HIGH ABOVE STUDY DESK
I don’t believe the scene above, either, and I lived it. Snow outside was so deep that it reached the sill, rising and rising til over a foot in depth. That tall black thing is not a shadow. It’s snow that just kept expanding upwards. These are not drifts. This is snowfall. I can’t go anywhere.
Only the Beginning
In this winter of my discontent, despite living on top of a hill, I have been snowed in to the greatest degree in life memory. Having grown up in Michigan, and spent nearly five frozen years in Minnesota, I have never seen snow this deep! More significantly, I have never experienced snow this lasting. Snowpack is something we delighted in at Stowe, at Aspen, in Zermatt. Snowpack is not something I ever expected in my own front yard!
Yesterday, I was treated to the sight of my own (gravel, unusable because unplowable, until uncovered) driveway for the first time since driving home from Cape May in that Christmas blizzard.
Yesterday, February 20, 2011, I carried my own groceries straight in from my own car on my own driveway for the first time since before Christmas.
Then, as usual, WINTER STORM WARNING reared its head. After unpacking sack after sack of provisions, I drove back up the hill to the landlords’ garage, where my car rests anew;snowbound, again. Until that snow melts, everything will have to be carried up their garage steps, then down steep stairs to my apartment, before being settled into cabinets.
Again, WINTER STORM WARNING is in effect til noon tomorrow - I must be at work at 9 a.m. Down the driveway I have come to call my luge.
It squirrels down amongst venerable evergreens, between steep banks of rocky soil, to culminate in a semi-flat area. I always pause there, before heading out onto traffic-zapped Canal Road. When it is slippery on the resting place, my car is headed straight toward the canal. Now I love the canal, don’t get me wrong. But it has come to LOOM ever since December.
People who live elsewhere do not understand why the winter of 2011 has rendered me a hermit. Perhaps these pictures explain for me.
SNOW DEPTHS THROUGH LIVING ROOM SCREEN
ICICLE LENGTH FROM UPSTAIRS KITCHEN WINDOW
POST STORM LIGHT
I not only am not hiking these woods, I can’t even open the front door far enough to get both shoulders out. To take pictures has required contortions I didn’t know I possessed.
Occasionally, sun did triumph. Only to bring new challenges.
WINTRY MIX THROUGH DOOR THAT CANNOT OPEN
Truly the winter of our discontent, and by no means over.
And don’t you DARE fall into the pit which the Weather Channel opens before us, hour after hour, that ghastly phrase 24/7 — that this is Mother Nature, our enemy! On the contrary, every book on catastrophic climate change that I have ever read insisted, back in the last century, that melting glaciers because of CO2 emissions will alter ocean temperatures, ocean currents, aligned air currents, weather patterns, and bring us ever more severe storm in terms of quantity and violence of precipitation, and, indeed, in frequency.
It’s not Mother Nature, folks. It’s us!
NEW JERSEY APPLE MIRACLES, CUMBERLAND COUNTY
NJ WILD readers well know that I love New Jersey. In fact, that first autumn of my year in Provence (in an unheated villa atop Cannes’ Observatoire Hill)I realized I had to return home because of apples.
Home being the United States. Home being New Jersey. For all my passion for France. Because Provence has lousy apples.
NJ WILD readers have read right along with me when I compare our Trenton Farm Market with the Cannes Marche, a.k.a., Marche Forville, and the Marche aux Fleurs in old Nice.
WEST WINDSOR FARM MARKET HARVEST
So it won’t surprise NJ WILD readers that I love our regional food magazine, Edible Jersey. For beauty alone. For the very HIGH calibre of its editor and writers. For dramatic photographs. For lively quotes. For taking me to farm markets when I’m snowed in, and causing me to relish food even when I am ‘under the weather’, as now…
TRENTON FARM MARKET FOODS READY FOR OVEN
Edible Jersey is free at so many places we frequent, such as Terhune Orchards on Cold Soil Road, for example. I read it cover to cover, copy articles for others, and cannot generally bear to throw them away - although I’m a demon for ‘use it or lose it’ re objects! The magazine features Four-Star writers, who are passionate about savory healthy local food, and preserving the lives and lifeways of farms, farmers and farmlands in the Garden State.
Here is grand news, re Nancy Painter, winning a 2011 EDDY Award for Best Editorial Letter FROM and Editor, for “Finding Our Way Home.”
HOME FROM THE MARKET- NJ FARM, OF COURSE
For many of us, New Jersey IS home, and we’re finding more and more reasons to be glad of this. Enjoy Nancy’s paean to our unsung state:
Jersey brings home the gold! At the annual gathering of Edible Communities’ publishers in California last week (did you know there’s now more than 65 Edibles across the U.S. and Canada?), our own Nancy Painter received one of the organization’s top awards for publishing excellence: a 2011 EDDY Award for Best Editorial-Letter from the Editor for her letter “Finding Our Way Home” that appeared in our Summer 2011 issue. If you missed it, be sure to take a read!
NEWS RE WOLVES AS OF VALENTINE’S DAY, OF ALL THINGS:
ONE PERSON DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE - OUR WOLVES NEED YOU
Lakota Wolf, Jasmine Among the Roses, near upper Delaware River, in New Jersey
HERE WE GO AGAIN - OUR OWN GOVERNMENT IN THE BUSINESS OF SLAUGHTER OF OUR FELLOW SPECIES. A few posts ago, red-winged blackbirds and starlings (and most likely the extremely rare and endangered rusty blackbirds; now and always, wolves.
As I always write in these hot links, and encourage NJ WILD readers to do, ‘WE ARE HERE TO BE EARTH’S STEWARDS, NOT HER DESPOILERS!’
And, ‘ALL THAT IT TAKES FOR EVIL TO HAPPEN IS FOR GOOD PEOPLE TO DO NOTHING.”
USE THE HOT LINKS.
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL LAND TRUST, such as D&R Greenway.
KEEP OUR GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABLE — a song says it for all of us, “This land is your land, this land is my land” — and this includes, especially, the wild creatures.
When a government can exterminate wild creatures, willy nilly, without having to answer to the people, everything that made us America is deleted, especially “government by/of/for the people! I see a very short step between wiping out birds and wolves and eradicating troublous people.
all this in the name of governance!
42. That’s how many Mexican gray wolves are left in wild… in the entire world.
These wolves – found in the wild only in Arizona and New Mexico – face plenty of threats, including illegal killing by anti-wolf extremists. But now a Montana Congressman is taking aim at the life-saving protections these and other rare and beautiful animals need to survive.
Rehberg’s two bills would eliminate Endangered Species Act protections for every single wolf in the Southwest, Midwest and Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies.
The result? A no-holds-barred approach to wolf killing that would end efforts to stop wolf killings in the Southwest and could see Idaho lawmakers make good on their promise to “remove wolves by whatever means necessary.”
If passed, this legislation would also be the first ever to exempt a single species from the Endangered Species Act – setting a dangerous precedent for removing protections for other imperiled wildlife.
Make no mistake: These bills are bad for wolves, bad for the Endangered Species Act, and bad for the future of all America’s wildlife.
We need to send a loud, clear message to Congress. Please take action now and help us send more than 50,000 messages to Congress by Friday.
For the Wild Ones,
P.S. We are anticipating many attacks on protections for wolves during this session of Congress, and we will be counting on you to help speak out for sound science and a lasting future for these magnificent creatures. Please stay tuned.
“Dr. Pierce [through DNA research] discovered that the New World species [of Nabokov's Blues] shared a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago. But many New World species were more closely related to Old World butterflies than to their neighbors. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues concluded that five waves of butterflies had arrived from Asia to the New World — just as Nabokov had speculated.“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.””
[P.S. -- Nabokov was also a poet on the subject. cfe]
Legendary author, Vladimir Nabokov, remained an unsung hero in the realm of his beloved science, during his lifetime, despite decades of impeccable research under the most daunting conditions, and “despite the fact that he was the best-known butterfly expert of his day and a Harvard museum curator.”
Nabokov was an early ‘voice crying in the wilderness, OF the wilderness,’ in this country and others. He saw, heard, felt and deplored ceaseless destruction of habitat for all butterflies, especially ‘his’ blues. You’re used to my pleading with you to save HABITAT HABITAT HABITAT. I by no means have Nabokovian clout, but all of you, as a committed and energized network, can heed Vladimir’s warning, as well as my pleas.
Your NJ WILD author literally met Vladimir Nobokov’s cherished Karner Blue (exquisite petite rare blue butterfly) on a nearby walk with scientists and preservationists. Held on Mapleton Preserve, off Mapleton Road, near our D&R Canal and Towpath, this rich excursion was arranged by Kingston (New Jersey’s) Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands.
I’ve since been ‘devouring’ butterfly books because of D&R Greenway Land Trust’s current exhibition, THE BEAUTY OF BIODIVERSITY: Birds, Bees & Butterflies. (Available to view on business hours, business days, One Preservation Place, Princeton 08540, through March 25.) www. drgreenway.org
One of the most memorable of my butterfly adventures recently pulled me through many a snowstorm - Nabokov’s Blues. Written by a ‘Dream Team’ of admiring and highly respected colleagues, this tome is seeing to it this superb writer is now and finally receiving honors ever due and rarely conveyed. Over and over, I marveled at Nabokov’s persistent, impeccable science and inspired guesses, long before the arrival of DNA as tool for species identification. Now the world is coming to see things his way.
My friends, alert to my enthusiasm over this book, send this recent NYT Article.
Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated
By CARL ZIMMER
Published: January 25, 2011
Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.
He served as [ill paid! cfe] curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, collected insects across the United States. Nabokov published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species.
[Despite his family's having been hounded, --first out of his native Russia, and then out of Europe because of the rise of Nazism... cfe] In a speculative moment in 1945, Nabokov came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned their having arrived in the New World from Asia, over millions of years, in a series of waves. Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime.
But, in the years since Nabokov’s 1977 death, his scientific reputation has steadily grown. Over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about Polyommatus blues evolution [and distribution cfe].
On Tuesday, in [a paper delivered at... cfe] the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, it was reported that Nabokov had beenabsolutely right. “It’s really quite a marvel,” declared Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper. Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his father’s cell. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions. [He would ... cfe] carefully describe specimens he had caught, imitating the scientific journals [the boy] read in his spare time.
Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist. In his European exile, Nabokov visited butterfly collections in museums.
[As his literary fame expanded... cfe] Vladimir Nabokov used the proceeds of his second novel, “King, Queen, Knave,” to finance an expedition to the Pyrenees. There he and his wife [and key field collaborator], Vera, netted over a hundred species.
The rise of the Nazis drove Nabokov into exile once more in 1940, this time to the United States. It was there that Nabokov found his greatest fame as a novelist. It was also there that he delved deepest into the science of butterflies.
Nabokov spent much of the 1940s dissecting a confusing group of species called Polyommatus blues. He developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia [as discerned through meticulous dissection... cfe].
Nabokov argued that those thought closely related species [based on wing patterns and color - butterfly dissection seems to have been pretty rare in V.N.'s lifetime...cfe] were only distantly related.
At the end of his 1945 paper on the group, Nabokov mused [upon ways in which they had evolved and dispersed themselves... cfe]. He speculated that they had originated in Asia, moving over the Bering Strait, journeying south all the way to Chile.
Allowing himself a few literary flourishes, Nabokov invited his readers to imagine “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.” Going back millions of years, he would end up at a time when only Asian forms of the butterflies existed. Then, moving forward again, the taxonomist would see five waves of butterflies arriving in the New World. Nabokov conceded that the thought of butterflies making a trip from Siberia to Alaska and then all the way down into South America might sound far-fetched. But it made more sense to him than an unknown land bridge spanning the Pacific. “I find it easier to give a friendly little push to some of the forms and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome rather than postulate transoceanic land-bridges in other parts of the world,” he wrote.
When “Lolita” made Nabokov a star in 1958, journalists were delighted to discover his hidden life as a butterfly expert. A famous photograph of Nabokov that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post when he was 66 is [taken as though... cfe] from a butterfly’s perspective. The looming Russian author swings a net with rapt concentration. But despite the fact that he was the best-known butterfly expert of his day and a Harvard museum curator, other lepidopterists considered Nabokov a dutiful but undistinguished researcher. He could describe details well, they granted, but “did not produce scientifically important ideas.”
Only in the 1990s, did a team of scientists systematically review his work and recognize the strength of his classifications. Dr. Pierce, who became a Harvard biology professor and curator of lepidoptera in 1990, began looking closely at Nabokov’s work while preparing an exhibit to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1999. She was captivated by his idea of butterflies coming from Asia. “It was an amazing, bold hypothesis,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we could test this.’ ”
To do so, she would need to reconstruct the evolutionary tree of blues, and estimate when the branches split. It would have been impossible for Nabokov to do such a study on the anatomy of butterflies alone. Dr. Pierce would need their DNA, which could provide more detail about their evolutionary history.
Working with American and European lepidopterists, Dr. Pierce organized four separate expeditions into the Andes in search of blues. Back at her lab at Harvard, she and her colleagues sequenced the genes of the butterflies and used a computer to calculate the most likely relationships between them. They also compared the number of mutations each species had acquired to determine how long ago they had diverged from one another.
There were several plausible hypotheses for how the butterflies might have evolved. They might have evolved in the Amazon, with the rising Andes fragmenting their populations. If that were true, the species would be closely related to one another.
But that is not what Dr. Pierce found. Instead, she and her colleagues found that the New World species shared a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago. But many New World species were more closely related to Old World butterflies than to their neighbors. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues concluded that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to the New World — just as Nabokov had speculated.
“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.”
Dr. Pierce and her colleagues also investigated Nabokov’s idea that the butterflies had come over the Bering Strait. The land surrounding the strait was relatively warm 10 million years ago, and has been chilling steadily ever since. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues found that the first lineage of Polyommatus blues that made the journey could survive a temperature range that matched the Bering climate of 10 million years ago. The lineages that came later are more cold-hardy, each with a temperature range matching the falling temperatures.
Nabokov’s taxonomic horseshoes turn out to belong in Nome after all.
“What a great paper,” said James Mallet, an expert on butterfly evolution at University College London. “It’s a fitting tribute to the great man to see that the most modern methods that technology can deliver now largely support his systematic arrangement.”
Dr. Pierce says she believes Nabokov would have been greatly pleased to be so vindicated, and points to one of his most famous poems, “On Discovering a Butterfly.” The 1943 poem begins:
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.
“He felt that his scientific work was standing for all time, and that he was just a player in a much bigger enterprise,” said Dr. Pierce. “He was not known as a scientist, but this certainly indicates to me that he knew what it’s all about