Nabokov’s specimen of the L.Cormion
In his poem “On Discovering a Butterfly,” Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov wrote of “the secluded stronghold” where specimens are kept “safe from creeping relatives and rust.” When Nabokov caught a frosty-blue butterfly in France in 1938, he brought it to the stronghold of the American Museum of Natural History, where it still sits with a bright red label, crowning it the first and official representative, or holotype, of Lysandra cormion.
While Nabokov is most famous for his fancy prose style, he was also devoted to lepidopterology, the study of moths and butterflies. After fleeing Russia in 1940, Nabokov started his American life volunteering in the Museum’s entomology collections. He once told an interviewer, “It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.”
The L. cormion specimen was only the beginning of the author’s contributions to the collections. In 1941, Nabokov sent nearly 500 field-caught butterflies to the Museum as he traveled with his family from the East Coast to California with stops in the Southwest.
The Department of Entomology receives near-monthly inquiries about Nabokov’s work and collections from documentary filmmakers, writers, professors, and other curious minds. Nabokov may have been right when he predicted of his collections that the “locality labels pinned under these butterflies will be a boon to some twenty-first-century scholar with a taste for recondite biography.” He laid his trails well.
Earlier in the semester I myself decided to pay a visit to the glass display case at the entrance to the vivarium in The Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History. The conservatory features a wonderful indoor tropical butterfly exhibit in the middle of winter, in which you can read interesting fact about butterflies and their habitats and are then able to interact with them.
Walking into the exhibit, visitors are treated to pictures of and several facts about butterflies. For instance, did you know that the wings of butterflies are covered with thousands of tiny scales or that scientists monitor the patterns of butterflies because butterflies are very sensitive to changes in their environment and this keeps scientists aware of any changes in the environment?
Once a visitor has read about butterflies, the fun begins. Visitors are ushered into the conservatory through a set of double doors. Once the first door is closed, with attendants waiting with nets in order to capture any butterfly that might escape in to the museum, then visitors are able to go through the second door. According to the staff, several butterflies are known to attach themselves to visitors’ clothing and end up in the cafeteria, hence a few staff members will, from time to time, go there as well.
Upon entering the exhibit you are free to get up close and personal with hundreds of iridescent butterflies flitting among tropical blossoms in eighty-degree temperatures. There are so many flying around that one does not know where to look. It was thrilling to observe the multitudes of colorful moths and butterflies, some perched for feeding, some nocturnal and sleeping, and some fluttering about. There were visitors of all ages, and the youngest children seemed the most enthused, allowing the butterflies to land on their hands and face. Staff are on hand to tell you their types and lifespans and there is also a glass box with cocoons in which you can watch new butterflies hatching every day. There are at least two or three that come out every day. Several are born with bent wings, the staff tells us as they point those out to us, and they try to take special care of them as they cannot reach all the flowers due to their inability to fly well. This is a must-see-again exhibit, an annual tradition.
The Museum of Natural History Notes: “Butterflies and moths make up a large group of insects known as the Order Lepidoptera (lep-i-DOP-ter-ah). The name—from the Greek lepido, “scale”, and ptera, “wings”—refers to a prominent feature of adult butterflies and moths, the tiny scales that cover the wings and the rest of the body. Adult butterflies are wonderfully diverse in shape, size, and color. Active during the day, they live almost everywhere around the world, from Arctic tundra to tropical rain forests. There are more than 250,000 known species of Lepidoptera, of which about 18,000 are butterflies. Based on their anatomy, butterflies are classified into five families. This exhibition features butterflies from three of the families: the Pieridae (PYAIR-i-dee), commonly known as whites and sulphurs; the Papilionidae (pah-pill-ee-ON-i-dee), or swallowtails; and the Nymphalidae (nim-FAL-i-dee), which includes morphos, longwings and others.”
The Natural History Museum is located on Central Park West at 79th Street and is open every day from 10 am until 5:45 pm. (212) 769 – 5100. The Butterfly Conservatory is located on the second floor and tickets are priced at $24 for adults, $14 for children (14 and under) and $18 for seniors and students. The conservatory is on view from October 8th to May 28th of every year.