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Nabokov’s hilltopping butterflies January 16, 2011

Posted by Jenny in literature, nature, travel, wildlife.
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Quebrada de Humahuaca. Hilltopping was observed near this gorge in northern Argentina.

Note added 2/2/11: By coincidence, a new report has just appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London that confirms Nabokov’s theory of the evolution of the butterflies known as Polyommatus blues. A team of scientists has been working over the past decade to apply gene-sequencing technology to Nabokov’s hypothesis. I thank Kurt Johnson, the co-author of Nabokov’s Blues, described below, for pointing this out to me. I had been completely unaware of the recent developments last month when I wrote here about this subject, one I have been thinking about for several years. You can read a New York Times article about it here.

This post is inspired by a wonderful book titled Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius, by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates.* As many people realize, Vladimir Nabokov, best known as the author of Lolita but author of some of my very favorites like The Gift, Pnin, Pale Fire, had a passionate interest in the collecting and study of butterflies. However, the image most often carried in the mind of the public is that of an eccentric man bounding about the countryside with a butterfly net—in other words, a hobbyist rather than a scientist.

In fact, Nabokov was a serious lepidopterist, serving as curator of the butterfly collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology between 1941 and 1948, and authoring important articles concerning the classification of genus and species within the group of butterflies commonly known as “Blues,” found in many parts of the world.

Butterflies classified by Nabokov: Echinargas in the family Lycaenidae

Because his literary stature overshadowed the interest in lepidoptery, his writings on the subject did not receive the recognition they deserved. But in the 1980s and 1990s, scientists working on the subject of the Blues found that Nabokov’s theoretical work anticipated some important findings in the field, particularly concerning the Blues of Latin America.

Johnson (one of those scientists) and Coates (a journalist) joined forces to create a highly unusual connection¬† between the worlds of science and literature. To me, the most outstanding aspect of the book is its exploration of the unique places some of the butterflies were found: in a small crater in the Dominican Republic with its own microclimate; in elevations between 10,000′ and 14,000′ in Argentina’s Jujuy province near the Bolivian border; and in the desert environment on the Bolivian-Chilean frontier. A haunting subtext of the discussion is the environmental degradation of some of these areas: for example, deforestation and mining operations in the unique Las Abejas area in the Dominican Republic have nearly destroyed the habitat of the butterflies there.

Common grass Blue

I am going to take just one of those places—the high plateau in Argentina’s Jujuy province known as El Volcan, where the Humahuaca gorge begins—and try to do justice to Johnson and Coates’ description. Dramatic dark, purplish mountains rise from the plateau, and the expedition of lepidopterists had decided to try their luck first with a 10,663′ peak called Cerro Amarillo, for the yellow color that distinguished it from its neighbors. They hoped to find great quantities of butterflies in the act of hilltopping, “in which individuals instinctively fly uphill and eventually congregate in shoals along the ridgetops and summits. This behavior, thought to have evolved as a strategy for finding mates, provided the expedition with its strategy: to collect along the high, barren ridges near Huacalera, at altitudes between 10,000 and more than 12,000 feet.”**

As they drove up to the plateau, they saw the rugged, broken landscape depicted in the photo at the top of this post, its irregularities created by violent seasonal runoff, bumps and crevices that look from a distance much like piles of rubble. “Yet a closer look reveals a fascinating and delicate landscape of small plants and flowers amid the boulders, peppered about like little rock gardens.” A bit further on, they pulled over to observe some butterflies. “Ahead of them unfolded an endless flower garden, speckled with the familiar coin-size flashes of brilliant orange, yellow, red, and blue: butterflies were already in the air, taking advantage of the heat the sun could muster between the cold gusts.”

Robert Eisele, a scientist in the group who had been working in that area for some time, explained that the summer wind blowing that day was rich in oxygen that had breathed out of the vegetation growing at lower elevations nearby, in contrast to the winter winds out of the Bolivian altiplano, very low in oxygen and tending to cause health problems. The expedition’s chances of catching the butterflies hilltopping would depend on subtle fluctuations in wind and the warmth of the sun.

Painting of butterflies by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1860

When the expedition started its ascent of Cerro Amarillo the next morning, the group split up into several subgroups, some of them unwisely deciding to make a steep, direct assault on the summit. As it turned out, those members got stuck below some cliffs just as the hilltopping started, as the others kept shouting “Up here! Up here!”. “By eleven, after the steady climb up the arched ridge, the collarlike cliffs at 10,500 feet just below the peak were boiling with butterflies, all heading up the slope…. What filled the air was a potpourri of everything alpine—High Andean Whites and Sulphurs, orange-and-black High Andean Fritillaries, and Hairstreaks and Blues. Remarkably, at least for anyone who thinks of butterflies as delicate creatures, they were all navigating a very strong wind as they nectared from the bundles of small blue flowers covering the low bushes scattered around the area. Defying the gusts, they would gain control over their flutter as the wind slackened, using a split second of relative calm to latch onto a flower and hold tight, nectaring away as the wind kicked up again and bent the flowers nearly double…”

It was an exhausting day for the expedition members, not yet fully acclimatized and expending huge amounts of energy in the quick bounds and leaps involving chasing the butterflies over the steep rugged ground. And yet the day was a success, and the expedition’s efforts did much to advance the study and classification of Nabokov’s Blues, whose minute anatomical differences he had observed decades earlier based on limited specimens. If Nabokov could have been there—he had died in 1977—I believe he would have been quite pleased.

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

* Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates, Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. McGraw Hill, NewYork, 1999.

** All quotes from the above.

Cammerer via Chestnut Branch January 4, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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Looking toward Mt. Guyot from Cammerer. Note snow on upper slopes.

This was a trail hike of 11.8 miles and 3500 vertical feet, starting from the Big Creek ranger station and going to the Mt. Cammerer fire tower. I’d never been on the Chestnut Branch trail before or on any part of the A.T. east of the Mt. Cammerer trail junction. I decided to grab a day of good weather and get in some decent mileage and vertical.

The temperature was in the mid-20s when I started up through the valley formerly occupied by many homesites. I noticed some old fence posts still standing along the trail, and I was on the lookout for old rusty washtubs, since Bill Hart’s writeup in the brown Smokies trail guide says, “The washtub is probably one of the most common artifacts found at abandoned homesites throughout the Smokies.”¬† Sure enough, I spotted one!

Old washtub along Chestnut Branch

It did make me wonder, though, if the folks forced out when the park was created maybe thought they were going to places that had more sophisticated laundering devices, or whether they just were so fed up with life at that point that they just left some important things behind.

The Chestnut Branch trail ends steeply at the A.T. after two miles. The grade on the A.T. is steady and moderate. I passed a large dead hemlock that showed a reddish color where the bark had dropped off. This seems to happen with all of the large hemlocks after the woolly adelgid kills them off.

The bark drops off the dead hemlock, leaving a reddish color

There were heaps of bark fragments on the ground around it.

Bark fragments were heaped around the tree's base

Shortly thereafter, I met the only two hikers I saw the whole day—a pair of southbound thru-hikers, “Ragamuffin” and her husband, whose trail name I didn’t quite catch.¬† Coming down from Hot Springs a couple of weeks ago, they had arrived at the I-40 crossing just before a lot of snowy weather came in. They had very wisely decided to bypass the Smokies and continue on southward from Fontana. They’d made it nearly to Springer and were now coming back to do the Smokies before completing the final segment of their hike, begun July 1 at Katahdin. They were breaking the Smokies into two segments with a stay in Gatlinburg in between: first Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap, where I crossed paths with them a couple of hours before they finished that half, and then Newfound to Fontana. They said there was still a fair amount of snow from Newfound as far as Tricorner Knob.

I saw my first spruce at 4050′ and my first stretch of icy trail at 4500′.

Icy trail

I decided to put on my microspikes. As it turned out, the ice was spotty, and I could have manuevered around it without the spikes (which I did on the way back down). Nevertheless, the spikes are a very useful tool (far superior to instep crampons, for instance), and I always wonder why people down here don’t all get them instead of whining, “It’s too icy to hike now…”

Easy to put on and take off, and effective

After three hours of hiking I arrived at the tower. It was the first time I’ve ever been there that I haven’t encountered a single other hiker.

Mt. Cammerer fire tower

It was a bit chilly and windy, so I went into the tower to have my lunch. I am fixated on how beautiful the tower’s ceiling is.

Ceiling of the fire tower

On my way out, I noticed some ferns growing between the stones of the tower.

Ferns growing between the cracks

On my way back down, I stopped at an overlook rock on the A.T. looking into the extensive valley of Chestnut Branch. Across the valley I noticed one particular ridge that is covered with heath. This is something I have often wondered about: what determines the particular places where the heath develops? Adjacent ridges did not have any heath.

And I might as well bring up my other question of the day: why is it that quartz is found in many places in the Smokies, but always as an isolated rock or boulder, not as part of any apparent larger bedrock complex? It is almost as if quartz was scattered randomly across these mountains from some overhead source. And with these profound ponderings occupying my brain, I completed my hike.

Heath-covered ridge surrounded by non-heath terrain