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.