Sunday, July 24, 2011

Speak, Memory

Nabokov the lepidopterist, the butterfly chaser, the aristocrat. I didn't know anything about him until I was in my late teens, after I'd read Despair. Years earlier, sometime during the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I became obsessed with butterflies. Our backyard and Elmont's empty lots were filled with them -- and not just the ubiquitous white cabbage variety. We had hairstreaks, admirals, skippers, monarchs, question marks, mourning cloaks, commas, glassywings, black and tiger swallowtails, fritillaries, American ladies, duskywings, and azures, each possessing remarkable strategies for staying alive, from the larval stage, through the pupal, to magnificent adulthood. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes of his passion for butterflies, "I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception." A game at which he was expert.

Once I was similarly hooked, the hunt for beauty occupied almost all of my waking hours for the next three summers. There was a trick to flipping the net fast enough to trap the dodgy creatures. Their flight path was so erratic -- you had to anticipate in which direction they would turn and at what velocity they would accelerate. After netting them, it took a lot of experimentation (and dead butterflies) before I learned to apply just enough pressure to stun the caught creatures and not crush them. I had to be careful, otherwise their color would come off on my fingers. It fascinated me, the composition and texture of that magical, slightly sticky dust.

I'd punch holes into the lids of pickle jars so live specimens wouldn't suffocate when I held them captive. Their delicate antennae, six spindly spiky legs, a proboscis that unfurled to sip nectar, sometimes fuzzy, sometimes not, I'd watch them for hours, on the grass, in the shade of the rose-of-sharon, seated on an aluminum deck chair. Once in a while, I'd uncover a jar and let one out. I loved to watch the female black swallowtail open her wings -- that's when the bright blue spots on her hindwing were fully visible. I would move my head back and forth and squint to catch their iridescence. It tickled when she walked on my forearm and when she curled her abdomen down toward the earth, I imagined she knew I was watching her.

I hear a woman's voice calling, coming from the land where we never shall die. A kind of narcolepsy overtakes me in the afternoon heat, under the utterly still, limp foliage. I was cruel to those beautiful creatures -- I'd freeze them, then pin them through the thorax and mount them under glass. It gave me physical pleasure to do it. Though you could learn how to do it from articles in
Boy's Life, it was better to have a mentor. Quist had the touch -- a combination of patience, a steady hand, and sharp pins. We stored the boxed mountings in mothballs. I can imagine the camphor smell that permeated the old chest of drawers downstairs into which my precious butterflies would go.

Insufferable, I thought I was good at catching butterflies. I would carry my net with me whenever I was taken on expeditions far afield -- Bayard Cutting Arboretum out in Suffolk County, Clarence Fahnestock State Park up the Hudson, Macedonia Brook in Connecticut. How those names thrill me even now! The very words were talismans, leading to the mystery of human language. Those were the years I called every nose I saw a "proboscis." Whenever an object shone it was "iridescent." And, of course, I clung to the word "fritillary" -- as lace-like as the butterfly itself -- writing it over and over in the spiral-bound notebook wherein I recorded my finds. But I was lazy. I never learned the latin names, nor did I study the internal characteristics which distinguished one species from the next. For me, the obvious visual differences were enough. I bridled at strict taxonomy even though my father said I had a natural aptitude for it.
His aptitude.

My butterfly collecting adventures were encouraged as long as my mother was alive. She loved to read to me from
The Little Golden Book of Butterflies whenever I came home with a new species. My father was neutral but he did help me fashion a handle extension out of a bamboo rod for my net. The extra length enabled me to sneak up and swoop down from further away than I could with a regular net. It gave me an advantage over the other kids in the neighborhood for whom butterfly hunting meant only one thing: to see how many you could bag in one outing.

I was told never to trespass on a stranger's property, even if my intended prey flew there. I violated this iron-clad rule a couple of times and was suitably punished -- slapped once, hard, and once put to bed without dinner. That was the only law I had to follow. Other than that, I was free to chase away. It was a delicious pastime for a while, but new varieties were hard to find, and the familiar ones began to bore me, despite their unfathomable beauty.

I was too young to know that I was no Nabokov, especially when it came to butterfly collecting. His learning ran far deeper and he followed his pursuit for as long as he lived, wherever he lived. By my early twenties, I'd stopped hunting butterflies altogether. My genius was for laziness and procrastination, not entomology. And Quist the amateur was a lousy role model. He'd drink his way into a semblance of Long Island eloquence and grouse, "There's so little beauty in the world. We'll never make it ours." I was disappointed in him and the whole adult world. Could it be that grown-up resignation was the proper response to reality? By then, I'd convinced myself to let the butterflies fly free, so I let them go and got rid of my collection.

1 comment:

  1. This afternoon after reading this post we took the kids to a local production of the King and I. At intermission I stepped outside of the wonderful revival house-style Paramount to have a smoke while the wife bought snacks and the kids ran off some steam on the cobblestone mall. I walked across the way to gander at the outside racks of a used book shop. There staring back at me was a copy of Speak, Memory. I considered this an omen and bought it. If this happens again I will have to stop reading your posts.