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Original Issue

An Absence of Wood Nymphs

Vladimir Nabokov, famed author of 'Lolita,' and a renowned lepidopterist, seeks his favorite butterfly in Arizona

To an army of admirers, Vladimir Nabokov, a balding Russian émigré of 60, is known as the author of that spectacular bestseller, Lolita. To a comparative handful, however, he is revered as V. Nabokov, lepidopterist. Respectful colleagues have named four species after him. He is the discoverer of at least two subspecies of butterflies, one of which, it should be noted, is called (accidentally, but prophetically) Nabokov's wood nymph.

Nabokov has described his findings in a number of scientific periodicals ranging from Psyche—"A Third Species of Echinargus Nabokov (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera)"—to the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College—"The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides H√ºbner (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera)." Rarely can the reader deduce that V. Nabokov, the naturalist, is Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist. Only when writing for the Lepidopterists' News, a rather chatty journal, is V. likely to peep through as Vladimir: "Every morning the sky would be an impeccable blue at 6 a.m. when I set out. The first innocent cloudlet would scud across at 7:30 a.m. Bigger fellows with darker bellies would start tampering with the sun around 9 a.m., just as I emerged from the shadow of the cliffs and onto good hunting grounds." (Conversely, Vladimir sometimes artfully assumes V.'s vocabulary, as in describing Humbert Humbert's first wife in Lolita: "The bleached curl revealed its melanic root." Melanic is a butterfly word meaning dark.)

Nabokov has had a passionate interest in butterflies since he was a boy of 6 in Russia. By the time he was 10, he had made such a nuisance of himself with the net that solemn Muromtsev, the president of the first Russian Duma, intoned, "Come with us by all means, but do not chase butterflies, child. It mars the rhythm of the promenade." In 1919 in the Crimea, a bowlegged Bolshevik sentry, patrolling "among shrubs in waxy bloom," attempted to arrest him for allegedly signaling with the net to a British warship in the Black Sea. Later in France a fat policeman wriggled on his belly through parting grass, suspicious that Nabokov was netting birds. Shortly after Nabokov arrived in the United States in 1940, he became a Research Fellow in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, one place, presumably, where his passion was better appreciated. Since 1948 he has been a member of the Department of Literature at Cornell, but he has kept his summers free for his beloved butterflies. Net in hand, he roams the West, unmindful of hooting motorists, chiding cowpokes or snarling dogs.

"This, to me," Nabokov explains, "is most pleasurable—to collect on mountain tops or bogs. It is nostalgic perhaps, but there is also the pleasant feeling of being familiar with a place and surprised when you get more than you expect. You can get as close as possible to these living creatures and see reflected in them a higher law. Mimicry and evolution are for me more and more fascinating.... I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is."

Last month Nabokov and his charming snow-haired wife, Véra, were staying in a cabin at Forest Houses in Oak Creek Canyon, a sort of watch-pocket Grand Canyon, 18 serpentine miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona. There, tucked away in the woods, Nabokov devoted himself to literature (working over translations of the Song of Igor's Campaign, a 12th-century Russian epic, and Invitation to a Beheading, a novel he wrote in Paris during the '30s) and lepidoptera. Lepidoptera, for several days at least, won out.

On a Monday morning, for instance, Nabokov, bundled up in dungarees, sport shirt and sweater, emerged from his pine cabin to sniff the air and see the morning sun. "It is now 9 o'clock," he said, lying. It was really only 8:30 or thereabouts, but Nabokov keeps moving all clocks and watches within his reach ahead to make Mrs. Nabokov move faster so he can get to his butterflies all the sooner. "The butterflies won't be up for another hour," he admitted however. "This is a deep canyon, and the sun has to go some way up the rim of the mountain to cast its light. The grass is damp, and the butterflies generally come out when it's dry. They are late risers."

He moved inside, sat down on a sofa and picked up a thick brown volume entitled Colorado Butterflies. He opened to Nabokov's wood nymph on page 11. "This butterfly which I discovered has nothing to do with nymphets," he said, smiling. "I discovered it in the Grand Canyon in 1941. I know it occurs here, but it is difficult to find. I hope to find it today. I'll be looking for it. It flies in the speckled shade early in June, though there's another brood at the end of the summer, so you came at the right time." He picked up another book, Alexander Klots' A Field Guide to the Butterflies, and opened to the page on the orange-margined blues. Proudly he pointed to a sentence which read, "The recent work of Nabokov has entirely re-arranged the classification of this genus." A look of bliss spread across his face. "The thrill of gaining information about certain structural mysteries in these butterflies is perhaps more pleasurable than any literary achievement."

Mrs. Nabokov called him to breakfast. "The Southwest is a wonderful place to collect," he said over soft-boiled eggs. "There's a mixture of arctic and subtropical fauna. A wonderful place to collect."

At 9:35, Nabokov standard time, he got up to get his net and a blue cloth cap. The thrill of the chase was upon him as he left the cabin and headed south down a foot trail paralleling Oak Creek. "This Nabokov's wood nymph is represented by several subspecies, and there's one here," he said, his eyes sweeping the brush on either side. "It is in this kind of country that my nymph occurs."

He stopped and pointed, with the handle of his net, to a butterfly clinging to the underside of a leaf. "Disruptive coloration," he said, noting white spots-on the wings. "A bird comes and wonders for a second. Is it two bugs? Where is the head? Which side is which? In that split second the butterfly is gone. That second saves that individual and that species. You may call it a large skipper."

Nabokov walked on. At 9:45, he gave a quick flick with the net. "This is a checkered butterfly," he said, looking at his catch. "There are countless subspecies. The way I kill is the European, or Continental, way. I press the thorax at a certain point. If you press the abdomen, it just oozes out." He took the butterfly from the net and held it in the palm of his hand. "This," he exclaimed, "is a beauty! Such a beautiful fresh specimen. Melitaea anicia." He took a Band-Aid box from his pocket, shook loose a Glassene envelope and slid Melitaea anicia home to rest. "It's safe in the envelope until I can get to a laboratory and spread it."

In good spirits, he pushed on. Something fluttered across the trail. "A common species," he said, walking on, maneuvering the net before him. "The thing is," he said, "when you hit the butterfly, turn the net at the same time to form a bag in which the butterfly is imprisoned."

Nearby, another butterfly was feeding on a flower, but Nabokov ignored it. "A dusky-wing skipper. Common." At 10:03, he passed a clarus sitting on a bare twig. "I've seen that same individual on that same twig since I've been here," he said. "There are lots of butterflies around, but this individual will chase away the others from its perch."

At 10:45, Nabokov lunged wildly off the trail and raced up a rocky incline. Whatever it was escaped in the underbrush. At 11 O'clock, he stopped short. "Ah," he said, a tremor of delight rocking him ever so lightly. "Ah. Oh, that's an interesting thing! Oh, gosh, there it goes. A white skipper mimicking a cabbage butterfly belonging to a different family. Things are picking up. Still, they're not quite right. Where is my wood nymph? It is heartbreaking work," he complained. "Wretched work."

Back at the cabin, Mrs. Nabokov, fresh from writing letters, greeted her husband in Russian. "Let us hurry, darling," he said. Mrs. Nabokov smiled indulgently and followed him down the porch steps to their car, a black 1957 Buick, where she got behind the wheel.


The car wouldn't start. "The car is nervous," Nabokov said. At last it started. Mrs. Nabokov drove onto Highway Alt. 89 and headed to a butterfly camping ground several miles north. At 11:26 (Nabokov standard time), Mrs. Nabokov swung over to the left side of the road and parked by Oak Creek. Nabokov leaped out. "Now we'll see something spectacular, I hope!" He waved farewell to Mrs. Nabokov with his net and jogged down a rough trail. He stopped. A butterfly was sipping nectar from yellow asters. "Here's a butterfly that's quite rare. You find it here and there in Arizona. Lemonias zela. I've collected quite a few. It will sit there all day. We could come back at 4, and it would still be here. The form of its wings and its general manner are very mothlike. Quite interesting. But it is a real butterfly. It belongs to a tremendous family of South American butterflies."

The morning turned up a few more interesting specimens, but still no wood nymph, Nabokov noted sadly. Once he swished the net triumphantly and trapped two butterflies. He grinned savagely. "Lygdamus blue—female," he said. "This other, by freakish chance, is a male blue of another species that was flying with it. That's adultery. Or a step toward adultery." He let the offending male fly free unpunished.

Another time Nabokov swung and netted three butterflies, one an angle wing. "It has a curiously formed letter C. It mimics a chink of light through a dead leaf. Isn't that wonderful? Isn't that humorous?"

Still shy of a bona fide wood nymph, the Nabokovs headed south to Sedona for lunch. "I lost two butterfly collections," Nabokov recalled, as the car sped along. "One to the Bolsheviks, one to the Germans. I have another I gave to Cornell. I dream of stealing it back."

Lunch over, the Nabokovs drove farther south. Nabokov's eyes wallowed in the gorgeous wind-swept buttes. "It looks like a giant chess game is being played around us." At 2:20 Mrs. Nabokov parked the car by the side of the road. Nabokov, net at the ready, was off like an eager boy. Mrs. Nabokov, retrieving another net from the rear seat, joined him. "You should see my wife catch butterflies," he said. "One little movement and they're in the net."

The grove was disappointing. "Rien," he muttered. He probed some bushes. "There is nothing," he said. "A hopeless place." They gave up the hunt and drove back to Sedona to shop. Vladimir followed Mrs. Nabokov into the supermarket. "When I was younger I ate some butterflies in Vermont to see if they were poisonous," he said, as his wife hovered over the cold cuts counter. "I didn't see any difference between a monarch butterfly and a viceroy. The taste of both was vile, but I had no ill effects. They tasted like almonds and perhaps a green cheese combination. I ate them raw. I held one in one hot little hand and one in the other. Will you eat some with me tomorrow for breakfast?" His visitor declined.

That night, still not surfeited with the day's steady diet of butterflies, Nabokov burrowed into a pile of scientific papers and pulled out the thickest one, his article on the Nearctic members of the genus Lycaeides Hübner. "This work took me several years and undermined my health for quite a while. Before I never wore glasses. This is my favorite work. I think I really did well there." Yes, the Soviets were aware of his work on butterflies. As recently as last November, one Lubimov had attacked him in the Literary Gazette. "He said that I was starving in America, 'compelled to earn a precarious existence selling butterflies.' " Nabokov laughed merrily.

The next morning, Nabokov was as chipper and as restless as ever. "Come on, darling," he called to Mrs. Nabokov during breakfast. "The sun is wasting away! It's a quarter to 10." Mrs. Nabokov took her time. "He doesn't know that everyone is wise to him," she said. At 10:10, Nabokov at last succeeded in luring her behind the wheel. "We are going to Jerome," he said happily. "The wood nymph should be out, I hope, on Mingus Mountain." While the car sped swiftly through a veritable Lolitaland, Nabokov said, "Butterflies help me in my writing. Very often when I go and there are no butterflies, I am thinking. I wrote most of Lolita this way. I wrote it in motels or parked cars."

The Nabokovs reached Jerome ("Welcome to Ghost City. Three places to eat") at 11:10. "Shall we catch my butterfly today?" Nabokov asked.

At a marker announcing the elevation to be 7,023 feet, Mrs. Nabokov parked. Both took nets from the back seat and walked up a dirt road bordered by pines. A yellow butterfly danced crazily by. Nabokov swung and missed. "Common," he said. "I'm just getting warmed up." Unfortunately, a 15-minute search of the terrain revealed nothing. Nabokov turned toward an iris-covered meadow. "I can't believe there won't be butterflies here," he said. He was mistaken. "I'm very much disappointed," Nabokov said, after searching the meadow. ''Rien. Rien."

Nabokov returned to the car. "It was very sad. 'And then I saw that strong man put his head on his forearms and sob like a woman.' " At 12:40 Mrs. Nabokov stopped again. "This will be our last stop today," Nabokov said. "It is this kind of place that my wood nymph should be flying, but with the exception of three cows and a calf, there is nothing." "Do we have to mix with cows?" asked Mrs. Nabokov.

They got back in the car and drove " toward Jerome. "Sad," said Nabokov. " 'His face was now a tear-stained mask.' " Five minutes later, he had Mrs. Nabokov stop at Mescal Canyon. "We may be in for a surprise here," he said. Alas there was none. He walked up a dirt road alone. Mrs. Nabokov lent her net to their visitor. With a whoop of joy, the visitor snared a white-winged beauty. Cupping it in his hands, he showed it to Nabokov who dismissed it airily. "A winged cliché." It had been a poor day for hunting. There would be other days to come, but the visitor wouldn't be there. As the car swung out for the journey home, Nabokov spread his arms and said sadly, "What can I say? What is there to say? I am ashamed for the butterflies. I apologize for the butterflies."

The apology was, of course, gracefully rejected.