Vladimir Nabokov in the Grand Canyon & the Discovery of Butterfly Neonympha

by Lois Kapila

“I am driving off to California to-morrow with butterfly-nets, manuscripts and a new set of teeth.” ~Nabokov, from a letter to Edmind Wilson, May 25, 1941

It was already 4 p.m. when we pulled up. The morning heat had relaxed into a late afternoon warmth, and a crowd of tourists stood snapping pictures of what has become one of the most photographed landscapes in the world: the Grand Canyon. It had been an effort to convince my friend to visit the canyon precisely for this reason. “It’s where everybody goes,” he complained. Like the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, it’s difficult to feel any sense of discovery when you’re surrounded by a gaggle of sightseers and souvenir sellers.

We looked out from the Yavapai viewpoint on the Southern Rim of the Canyon. Dusty pink rocks rose out of the gouged ground for miles around, cradling long grey shadows. A low ceiling of white clouds stretched into the distance. Even with a nearby child launching spit balls over the ledge, it was still beautiful. We deliberated about what to do next. We’d driven 400 miles, hours from Phoenix, to have a look. So we figured we could check that box and head to the bar.

Vladimir Nabokov would have been disappointed with our initial lack of curiosity. “Everything in the world is beautiful, but Man only recognizes beauty if he sees it either seldom or from afar,” he wrote in Gods (1923). The Russo-American writer spent his life delving into the world around him, dissecting its surprises and delighting in the specificities and peculiarities of the seemingly ordinary. As his most famous biographer, Brian Boyd, writes, Nabokov “saw everything tirelessly from close range.” And the Grand Canyon was no exception.

Nabokov visited the Grand Canyon in June 1941, a year after he fled from a besieged Paris to settle in New York. He had managed to get a summer job, teaching Russian drama at Stanford. The only problem was how to get all the way across the country to California. Stanford would not cover his travel costs. One of his young Russian language students, Dorothy Leuthold, stepped forward and offered to drive him, his wife Vera and their young son Dmitri, across the country. It was the first of many summer trips westward for the family and as they hopscotched from motel to motel, Nabokov jotted down images and impressions that would reappear later in his American novels, including Lolita. But writing was by no means his only, or even his primary, diversion. When the weather permitted, Nabokov would trek, net in hand, to indulge his other intense pleasure: butterfly hunting.

The Butterfly Hunter

Nabokov had been obsessed with butterflies since childhood. In his earliest years, he was fascinated with numbers. But at the age of seven, a severe bout of pneumonia left him bedridden. His mother surrounded his bed with butterfly books, according to Boyd, “and the longing to describe a new species completely replaced that of discovering a new prime number.” He spent summers at the family estate at Vyra, just south of St. Petersburg where he frollicked around the countryside. When the weather kept him inside, he devoured thick tomes on lepidopterology.

“If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender,” he writes of his seven-year-old self in his autobiography Speak, Memory. He dreamed of discovering a new species, and once even wrote excitedly to the famous expert Nikolai Kuznetsov to suggest a name for a new subspecies he believed he had discovered. He received a curt, dismissive note in response, containing just the name of the subspecies and its author.

It was only after he arrived in America that Nabokov was able to join the ranks of the academic lepidopterological elite. In 1940, he began research at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and as an accredited representative was granted a permit to collect butterflies in Grand Canyon National Park. It was with this aim that the Russian emigrant, accompanied by Leuthold, set off down the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail on a fresh morning on June 9.

Nabakov’s starting point on that morning was only a short distance from where we’d chosen to park our rental car on another June morning, 68 years later, to take a quick peek over the edge. I leafed through the pamphlet we had been given at the entrance to the park. “There’s a year-long waiting list if you want to camp in the Canyon,” I said indignantly, wishing I’d been organized enough to apply for a permit a year in advance. We decided to take a stroll down the nearest path, which happened to be Bright Angel Trail, and head back to the top before dark.

From the viewpoint, the Canyon had appeared barren. But as we descended, we realised that the switchbacks were lined with ferns and flowers. My friend took out his camera, and leant down to take pictures as he quizzed me on some of the plant names, pointing out the brittlebushes and yellow rock daisies. On one corner, the flower stalk of a Utah Agave proudly stood 20 feet into the air, its cocoon-like yellow head pointing towards the sun. Frustrated by my botanical ignorance and my failure on the spot quiz, I promised myself that I would look up more about the flora and fauna as soon as I had the chance.

In an interview for Sports Illustrated in 1959, Nabokov noted “I can not separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” I realised that it was this delight that my friend was trying to share with me, and that Nabokov sought to share with his son, Dmitri. He would quiz the boy on the names of animals, flowers and trees and feign anger when the answer was wrong. And the education didn’t stop with his son, but extended to his readers who he advised “should notice and fondle details.”

His poems and novels are sprinkled with names and descriptions of the creatures he encountered, and detailed lyrical paintings of the natural world. Rereading The Gift (1938), I realised the care he took when placing creatures in his fictional landscapes: “…the russet wing and mother-of-pearl of a Niobe Fritillary flashed over the scabiosas of the riverside meadow,” while the swallowtail hovers around the camomile, and the Freya Fritillary among the Selenas.

At other times, Nabokov was more explicit in his drive to encourage his readers to delight in butterflies. At the end of Christmas (1925) a bereaved and desperate father, closing his eyes, “has the fleeting sensation that earthly life lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible.” He then opens his eyes to an unfurling chyrsalis, an Attacus moth fluttering its wings for the first time and watches as “those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, [take] a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.” And there seems to be a glimmer of hope.

The obvious symbolism in works like Christmas has led some to draw a link between Nabokov’s love of butterflies and his belief in the transcendence of death. But when the suggestion was put to him by an orthodox priest, it was dismissed by the ever playful Nabokov. He retorted that a butterfly is not at all angelic and “will even settle on corpses.”

Into the Canyon

My friend and I swaggered merrily downhill, passing a sweaty stream of hikers trudging up in the other direction, until we reached the first rest house. It was plastered with signs, warning visitors not to walk between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., not to walk down to the Colorado River and back in one day, and to carry enough water.

“Now. Are we going to be stupid and carry on and find the Colorado River? Or are we going to be sensible and go back?” he asked. It was beginning to get a little dark but we were still finding lots of new plants and animals, and there were finally no other visitors around.

“Well. Realistically…we are probably going to be stupid and carry on,” I answered. And so we did. We continued down past a clump of prickly pear cactus and through the Indian Garden, a shady green resting spot for walkers surrounded by high grass and cottonwood trees. A group of exhausted campers were already fast asleep on the wooden beds in the open cabin to our left. A parade of hiking boots dangled from the wooden eaves above them, twining and twisting in the breeze like a mobile. In spite of the cicadas’ chirping which resonated through the trees, it felt perfectly quiet. We whispered as we crept past the ranger’s cabin, out of the oasis along a spiralling rocky path.

“Look! A glow worm!” my friend pointed out. A yellow-green light hypnotically shifted from side to side under a small bush. “Why does it glow?” I asked. “To attract pretty girls,” he answered. Another thing to look up when I get back, I thought, and later found out that it’s actually the girl who glows to attract pretty men. As I looked up from the glow worm, I realised that I could barely see the trail in front of me. I suggested to my travel companion that he lead the way, and he ambled confidently ahead while I groped and stumbled along in his wake. After about half an hour, we paused.

“Can you see?” he asked, turning to me.

“Of course I can see,” I answered, unwilling to seem helpless, though my legs were tired and my toes were sore from being stubbed on rocks. We continued for a few more minutes. “Are you sure you can see?” he asked, turning around, to find me crouched down, reading the path with my hands like Braille. Hearing the rush of water on our left, he convinced me that we had indeed reached the Colorado River, and should stop.

We lay down on the comfiest rock. The curved sky gradually came into focus, saturated with specks of light. A succession of shooting stars made me smile in the dark. It was the first time I had seen them and I fell asleep content that I had made one last discovery of the day.

When we woke early the next morning, the sun was just starting to turn the sky from black to blue. I walked to the edge of the trail where the path fell away, eager for a glimpse of majestic Colorado. I peered over the side at a small stream, about a metre wide, twisting through the rocks. “It’s not really very big,” I said doubtfully. He laughed. “I think the Colorado River might have to wait until our next visit.” And we set out back to the top.

Neonympha Dorothea Dorothea

I like to think that Nabokov would have applauded our perseverance and exploratory zeal. Nothing would stand between him and his butterfly hunting. He was almost arrested in New Mexico for painting a farmer’s trees with sugar in a determined bid to attract a specific type of moth. On the cold June morning in 1941, when he headed down the Bright Angel Trail with Leuthold, Dmitri stayed huddled in the car with his mother.

Rain and snow had fallen the night before, turning the ground to sludge. A little way down the path, Leuthold disturbed a brown butterfly, perched on the ground in front of her. Nabokov swiftly netted the creature, and then a second, before trudging victorious back to the car. As soon as he had seen the butterfly, Nabokov had identified it as a Neonympha. On this occasion, his pleasure was increased by knowing that it was an unknown Neonympha – he had finally discovered his own species.

Nabokov was delighted with this realisation of his childhood dream. The following year, he made a visit to the American Museum of Natural History. In one of the cases, with a red label, was his Neonympha Dorothea Dorothea (later renamed Cyllopsis Pertepida Dorothea). With true chivalry, he had named the creature after the woman who had made the journey possible. Sitting on a train immediately after the visit, Nabokov penned the odelike On discovering a butterfly, later retitled A discovery.

“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.”

We didn’t see the Colorado River. We didn’t see any butterflies on our hike down into the canyon in the dark, or on the way back up the next morning. We wouldn’t have known a Neonympha Dorothea Dorothea from a Parnassuis Smintheus. But wandering through the Grand Canyon, stumbling upon lone glow worms and tiny flowers, I finally felt like I understood Nabokov’s unwavering belief that in a world full of beautiful singularities and endless variety, only the carelessly incurious could be pessimistic.

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