From the age of seven, everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed
sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning
was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
The woods around my house are dense and varied. Red oak, hemlock, sugar maple, white birch. In the summer the vegetation grows into a thick wall, shading us from the sun, cocooning us from the rest of the world. Growing up, I thrilled in the isolation granted by walking just a few minutes in any direction, all visual ties back to civilization cut. In the winter, when the trees are bare, the space clears out. Lines of sight extend farther and the drone of nearby roadways is ever present. On a clear day, from a certain spot behind my house, the trees open just enough to see for miles across the city.
A part of town called The Heights rises above downtown. Walk in that direction and the ground shifts almost imperceptibly underfoot. The loose, rocky dirt is just a little bit sandier, the soil less hospitable. You can’t see the difference by looking down; instead, you have to look back to the trees. Broadleaves fall away, slowly replaced by more and more evergreens. Past the commercial strip, behind the national guard base and post office warehouse, the road ends beneath a high canopy of pitch pines. Surrounded by more than a million acres of deciduous forest sits a half mile of inland pine barrens, geographical anomaly and ecological miracle.
Pine barrens are rarely found so far from the ocean. In another age, glaciers cut across the continent, settling silt over the land. The Merrimack has long since washed most of it away, but The Heights sit just out of the river’s reach. The Concord pine barrens are rooted in ancient soil: an inland island, part tundra, part savannah. The sandy loam, acidic and dry, can’t support the mix of trees that gave my childhood shade. Absence can be opportunity. Through the gaps in the canopy, more sunlight reaches the forest floor, and unique species thrive. Scrub oak and sweet fern carpet the ground between copses. And in the speckled mix of sun and shadow, blues find their home: wild blue lupine and the Karner blue butterfly.
Growing up, we called wild lupine “old maid’s bonnet,” so named for the shape of the pale purple flowers. They splay outward from ruddy stalks that tower over dense starbursts of green leaves, a miniature canopy of their own. There are a few types of lupine growing in New Hampshire, all of which grow thick in the long summer days of the north country. The large-leaved lupine is the most common, its hardiness and vibrancy makes it a common sight in rotaries and on roadsides. I’ve always loved the way they bloom in a gradient, palest on top and darkest near the bottom, a time-lapse of color. The family of flowers got their name when they were found growing in exhausted soil. We assumed that the fields of periwinkle petals must have drained the land—ravenously, wolflike, lupine. It did not occur to us that some species could scatter their seeds on barren ground and find it fertile.
The Karner blue cannot live without wild lupine. Females lay their eggs in August at the flower’s base, to wait out the winter. When the thaw arrives and the lupine begins to bud, the eggs come back to life and hatch. Caterpillars crawl up the stalks and eat the green out from the underside of the teardrop leaves, leaving behind a latticework outline of veins. The nutrition is poor, but it is the only plant capable of sustaining the Karner blue’s young. After seven months on frozen ground and six weeks in chrysalis, the butterfly emerges. Males match the shimmery pale color of the lupine flower, silvery blue, with their wings rimmed in black and white. Females are dark and saturated, the last hint of color in the night sky with a row of titian crescent moons. Both have silver underwings, a field of icy blue with two more curves of orange spots. Wings fully extended, they measure barely an inch across. They live for only a few days, a small, and precarious existence. Brief flecks of blue in the pine barrens.
“My world is upside down.” I take a bit of pleasure in getting to shock someone with the news: New Hampshire’s state butterfly is the Karner blue. He texts me again. “I thought it was the monarch.”
I had responded with the same surprise when I first heard. James grew up a few houses away from me, my oldest friend. We both spent the whole of our childhoods in Concord, the capitol, where state pride is added to the water supply like fluoride. We are both the kind of people who treat knowledge of the state bird, flower, motto, and tree as part of our cultural inheritance, eagerly sharing it with any out-of-towner within earshot. And yet the Karner blue took us by surprise.
In memories of our shared boyhoods, the only butterflies we can recall are monarchs. The unmistakable orange-and-black wings seemed to float through our summer days spent tramping through the woods or playing in our yards. Without fail, our elementary school lessons in the life cycle were illustrated with a monarch emerging from its cracking chrysalis. We were taught about migration with monarch maps covered in arrows stretching from Quebec to Mexico. Monarchs were a quintessential part of growing up in New Hampshire; it only made sense they should be recognized in some official capacity. And yet that honor went to a butterfly neither of us had ever heard of, let alone seen in the state.
Maybe scarcity is as good a reason to honor something as ubiquity. Over the course of the 1980s, the state’s Karner blue population fell from three thousand to six hundred.
Ever-expanding development took the land it wanted. Only the wildlife that could make a home of the leftovers survived. With each successive generation resting uneasily on a single flower, the Karner blue continued to disappear. A 1990 technical bulletin from the U.S. Department of the Interior noted heightened concern for the butterfly’s future. That year, New Hampshire conservationists held a series of meetings, hoping to find some way to protect Concord’s pine barrens: “the last foothold for the Karner blue in New England.”
April 3, 1992, the state legislature voted to recognize the Karner blue as its official butterfly, bestowing legal sanctuary on the species. Two months later, the law went into effect. I was born April 10th of that year: in between the moment the state realized the butterfly was worth saving and the moment it was actually under the state’s protection. It wasn’t enough. By 1999—when I first read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and caught monarchs in a mason jar—not a single Karner blue remained in New England.
Desire overwhelmed me. Fifteen minutes in the gift shop was our class’s reward for behaving at a local science museum. Seven years old, I stared transfixed by a cluster of metal butterflies. They sat perched on the ends of hooked, gilded rods, hanging over the edge of a jar. Looking closer, I could see that the sticks were flat on the long end, like impossibly slender butter knives. I picked one up, examining the warm reflections of light on its surface. My hands tingled with longing. It is my earliest memory of coveting something on someone else’s behalf. I needed my mom to have it.
“It’s a bookmark.” The woman behind the counter smiled at me. “That’s why it’s flat.”
I knew that gold had value beyond its beauty. Gold was money and jewelry and buried treasure, perpetually fixed in the adult world. I understood that there was a metal and a color with that name but couldn’t appreciate that something metallic and golden was not necessarily gold. I don’t know if I would have cared. Whatever I had thought gold should be, this was it. The bookmark was beautiful, that was its value. And it was within my reach, imbuing it with the aura of something abstract suddenly made tangible.
I don’t exactly know how I produced the five dollars to go home with the bookmark. I had no allowance, no cash to carry. A friend’s father was a chaperone on the trip; I might have asked to borrow the money from him. Somehow that night, I presented my mom with a bundle of tightly wound tissue paper. I burst with information before she uncovered even a glint of metal, explaining that it was a bookmark because we both loved reading and the butterfly was supposed to be a monarch just like the ones we had seen in a display and it had thin little antennas which could break easily so she had to be careful. She wrapped me in a hug. I had never been prouder. It felt deeply gratifying to have found something grown-up to give her, something worthy of all she gave me. She placed the gold butterfly not in a book, but on the bathroom shelf among her jewelry, confirming it was a gift of significant value, even if not the type I believed.
Blue is our family color. “Butler Blue.” Do other families have official colors? As far as I know, Butler Blue doesn’t refer to some specific shade used on our medieval crest or woven into a flag. Blue, any blue, is simply our color. Something to have in common, through which we can find little joys. A Christmas gift of mittens becomes serendipitous if they are blue, almost preordained. If we need to buy a set of towels or replace an outgrown bike, we gravitate toward blue. If we can’t come to a decision about anything, no matter how meaningless, blue is always the compromise. Even lying in the hospital, being prepped for surgery, I once tugged at the collar of my cotton gown and remarked to my mom, “At least it’s Butler Blue.” A connection, a consolation.
“Butler Blue.” I’ve never learned the origin. It’s almost like another name in itself: something I grew familiar with before I even had the capacity to question. Of course, it isn’t my name. It’s my mother’s, my grandfather’s, his father’s. The only side of the family whom I know and love as deeply as myself. Even without affixing itself to the end of my signature, Butler means family to me.
I feel at home in blue. I’m back home again now, pushing thirty in my childhood bed. A student again, like I was when I moved away a decade ago. For all the ways I’ve grown, I still fit into the contours of this house, still know the rhythm of coexistence with my mother and brother.
Experiences once confined to memory jump to life again, now refracted through the lens of adulthood. I burn the daylight walking in the woods and lingering inside familiar books. I forgo sleep, voraciously reading up on whatever captures my imagination at the moment. Over dinner I can’t stop myself from sharing everything I’ve learned. I can hear myself an eager child again, relaying the day’s lessons secondhand, hoping to see a reflection of the excitement I feel. This place suits me. Butler Blue suits me. The color of my mother’s eyes, the walls of my bedroom, the striped pajamas on the only stuffed animal I’ve ever loved, the dorsal of a butterfly that once lived here, too.
Early in Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov weaves in his adoration of butterflies with his childhood home in Russia, a place made inaccessible not only by time and distance, but war. Nabokov came of age between the revolutions; his father’s work in the imperial government made exiles of the family. The place he called home was reduced to remembered sensations. When Nabokov describes the covetous exhilaration he felt upon seeing a swallowtail butterfly for the first time, he does so with special attention to the people and places he would soon lose forever, the “legendary Russia of my boyhood.” It is his governess that leads him to the creature, the groundskeeper who catches it in his cap, his dark wooden bureau where the stowaway is hidden, his bedroom window where the butterfly makes its escape.
A pile of books on entomology from across the ages and around the world cemented Nabokov’s curiosity. Inked illustrations of Burmese moths, chronicles of Welsh butterflies, helped to plant the seeds of obsession in him. However, the first species to truly capture his imagination were the ones endemic to the Russia of his youth. His first daydreams were of venturing deeper into the mountains and forests surrounding his house to catalog yet undiscovered varieties. His passion was inextricable from the home he lost.
Nabokov’s fascination with the dusted, vibrant insects did not abate as he grew older, but matured into an abiding love and secondary career in lepidopterology. On every walk through the country, he kept nets, pins, and jars of ether close at hand; the need to indulge his mania “admitted of no compromise of exception.” Nabokov developed a specialty in taxonomy, a deep understanding of the minute differences upon which scientific classification is based. His dreams of discovery never abated. He wrote in a 1925 poem:
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.
Across Russia, England, France, and later the U.S. and South America, he expanded his collection of butterflies, finally laying his hands on the creatures whom he once had only experienced on the page. After fleeing the Nazis first in Berlin and then Paris, Nabokov found a new home and fertile ground for his love in America. In New York City, he volunteered as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. After moving to Cambridge to teach at Wellesley College, he became the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He spent countless summers on the road crisscrossing the continental divide with his wife Vera, exploring the country, building his reputation as a taxonomist, and jotting down the notes that would later turn into Lolita. The passion that kindled in the dawn of his life burned through to the end, leaving a mark at every juncture in between.
In 1943, Nabokov undertook a study of the northern varieties of the butterfly family Lycaeides. To complete his research, he journeyed to Upstate New York, where a mix of forest types sheltered a diverse range of specimens. Within the decade, Nabokov would accept a position teaching Russian literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, giving him more opportunities to explore even deeper into the wilderness. For the time being, he turned his focus to a scrubby, open patch of woods in the small hamlet of Karner, just north of Albany. It was here that Nabokov would make his most lasting contribution to the science he loved.
Nabokov poured himself into studying the Lycaeides ides, a common butterfly upstate. Painstaking hours at the microscope revealed something unexpected: the means of reproduction were distinct from any other ides. He noted that the grasping mechanism by which the animal fertilized its eggs was only seen in Lycaeides species on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. No documented specimen had this coloring and this anatomy. Nabokov had achieved his dream: he found a new subspecies. He gave it a scientific classification that paid tribute to fellow lepidopterist Samuel Scudder: plebejus melissa samuelis. Its common name he chose in honor of its color and the hamlet where the butterfly made its home: Karner blue.
The weather has finally turned. North of the 41st, March marks the shift to late winter when ice and melt trade off by the day. I return to the mountain of gray snow that has been barring my path and find it has fallen to a height I can climb. On its far side, I walk with timid steps around a chain fence, careful not to fall. The sun has shone all day, but it’s now low in the sky—bright but cold. The breeze picks up. The tops of the pines bend apart, rebound, and settle in their sway together. A wooden welcome sign, the familiar brown and white of all national parks and preserves, announces “Karner Blue Butterfly Easement.” I push on, pulling my hood up against the cold.
The left side of the snowy path has been worn down to ice. The right, less traveled, is textured with the shape of wind. I stick to the ragged middle, slow but sure on my feet. The crunch of each step sets a rhythm for the canopy of birdsong overhead. I walk until the car is out of sight, until the animal prints outnumber the boot prints, until the hush of the highway fades into the wind through the trees, only pine needles left to rustle. I have not been to this corner of Concord before, yet it feels second nature. I can’t identify any bird calls or name more than a few trees around me, but I know them all still. A decade away hasn’t dulled the memories I made here. This is what home sounds like, what home feels like. One thing that has changed since I was a child roaming forests like this one: beneath the crust of ice, at the base of stalks not yet grown, thousands of butterfly eggs are scattered across the hard ground.
The initial push toward preservation was too late to save the Karner blue, but it still protected the last of the pine barrens. Over the next decade, new homes and industrial sites began to crowd the sandy area where the lupine once grew. Conservationists fought to protect what was left, eventually securing three hundred acres to remain undeveloped. In 1999, the city joined with the Nature Conservancy and Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce the Karner blue back to New Hampshire. Citizens cultivated wild lupine and replanted it throughout the barrens, now designated a butterfly easement. For the butterflies themselves, scientists turned once more to Karner, New York. From the species’ place of origin, clusters of eggs were transposed to the new lupine leaves. Two decades and forty generations later, the transplants appear to have settled in for good. Last year the Karner blue population in Concord broke three thousand, the highest it’s been in half a century.
It feels right that Nabokov found the Karner blue. His work was the first to ever shake me out of complacency with its beauty. In high school, I tore through Lolita, drunk on the prose and giddy with the revelation that language could reach such heights. I returned to it at twenty-eight, back in Concord again, old enough to understand the horror that Humbert hid behind his inimitable style. I find myself reading and rereading his only memoir, Speak, Memory, and reveling in the vibrant precision of every description. I feel a kinship with the young Nabokov, reading and dreaming about creatures he hoped to see one day. More fitting still, my obsession is the one insect he named, the one he is godfather to. Somehow the road ends in the same place, leading back to a butterfly whose existence runs parallel to mine. Passions cross, lives echo.
The sun is setting fast and the temperature is dropping. For the moment I can only dream of the Karner blue. But tomorrow will be warmer than today, and warmer still the day after. The snow will turn the sand to mud and spring will bloom. In the dappled shade of the pitch pines, wild lupine will sprout. By summer’s start, these woods will fill with streaks of silver and blue. The little butterfly with whom I share a home will return.
BENJAMIN SCOTT is a writer and filmmaker from Concord, New Hampshire. He studied film and media culture at Middlebury College but still doesn't know what media culture means. He is currently pursuing an MFA from the University of New Hampshire.