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Long ago: A dear departed sister July 31, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, memoir, poetry.
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My grandmother Sybil (r.) and her sister Celia (l.), about 1891

This is taken from a memoir entitled “When I Was a Girl” by my grandmother, Sybil Crowninshield Kennedy Bennett. The series starts here and alternates every other post.

I can’t write much about Celia Mary. It is too sad for me. She was born November 26, 1890. I was born September 27, 1889. We were never separated until I was fifteen and went to Weedsport High School, coming home each weekend. Then after a year at home, I went to college. She was quite small, not much over five feet tall, and slender, except when a little baby. She had lots of dark brown curly hair which was worn in long beautifully kept curls down her back and tied with a bow on her left forehead until she finished high school. Her eyes were blue but had large pupils and were a softer color than mine.

She was as bright in school but more gifted than I. She could recite in public long dramatic pieces and poetry, which was the fashion then. She played the violin quite well and wrote poetry herself. Some of it was accepted by newspapers and magazines, especially “Poetry” magazine, edited by Harriet Monroe.

She was very frail and had many periods of staying at home to build up her health. She taught high school in Cato [NY], Port Washington [Long Island], and Long Branch, New Jersey. English was her subject and she was successful and happy when not sick. She died after an operation, April 26, 1924, the greatest sadness in my life.

[My grandmother speaks of her and Celia’s love of books, how they read many classics but also lighter material:] The Disciples Church had the Elsie books. Luckily Alice [their friend] went to that Sunday School and we could trade with her for that delicious trash. Mildred Mehan, the girl next door, didn’t care about reading but by persuasion and since she didn’t like to be left out, would go upstairs [to the school library] on a Friday and we could sign a book out in her name. So we had three or four to read each week and usually finished them long before Friday.

“Little Women” was the very best of all. We read and reread and lived with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. I was Jo; Alice, Meg; and Celia, Amy. Mildred who was no good at that sort of play was Beth, who was too sick to do much and soon died, so we could go on without her. At times Celia did both Beth and Amy. The house where they lived was so vividly imagined that when I visited The Orchards at Concord, Mass. after I was married I couldn’t accept it. It was all wrong—I was nearly in tears.

[She describes a club formed by a small group of her friends:] The Secretta Society had at most five members, Mildred, Alice, Celia, and I, and later, Louise Taber. We met every Friday evening taking turns in our homes for a literary program and refreshments. We usually read aloud in turn from a book of poems and sang songs. Mildred and I could play the piano. Mildred had a beautiful singing voice and it was a pleasure to sing for quite a long time. Then we had fudge and popcorn and lots of fun. I can’t think why we had such happy times so simply but we did and felt well entertained….

Celia Kennedy. Photo courtesy of Corinne Lively.

*   *   *

Note from Jenny: After Celia died, her mother collected her poems into a book titled “Pinafore Poems,” of which I have a copy. Its cover has a charming red checked pattern with a title designed to look hand sewn. It was illustrated with silhouette pictures done by Laura H. Crowninshield, a cousin who became a fashion designer in New York City. Here is one that I especially like.


Clementine had a birthday cake—

A cake with fat pink candles.

There were little paper baskets, too,

With butterflies for handles.

Seven candies were in mine,

But the little Slater boy had nine!

Each of us had pink ice cream.

A plateful—a lot.

And a piece of frosted birthday cake,

With frosting birds on top.

The Slater boy ate his up fast—

But I kept trying to make mine last.

Then Clementine’s Uncle Jim came in,

And told us all about a bear!

But Billy Slater knew it first.

He said that he was there!

He said he killed bears quite a lot,

And drank their blood—he’d soon as not!

I brought my basket home with me,

With butterflies on the handles.

I wish I had a birthday, too,

With pink ice cream and candles—

And, mother, wouldn’t it be fun

If we had Billy Slater come?

Illustration for “Notoriety” by Laura Crowninshield

Arthur Rothstein’s amazing photograph May 1, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, nature.
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A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

In 1936, during the period of the Dust Bowl, Franklin Roosevelt was running for a second term. While many Americans were grateful for the programs of the New Deal, some of the programs were coming under attack. It wasn’t clear whether the subsidies and resettlement plans and new agricultural practices aimed at solving the Dust Bowl problem would be successful: the drought and the dust storms had been dragging on for six long years. A man named Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration came up with the idea of sending photographers out to take pictures of the devastation: it might help to convince the public that the government programs were necessary—and it might help get Roosevelt reelected.

A 21-year-old guy named Arthur Rothstein, just out of college and living in New York, was one of the photographers that Stryker sent out. In Oklahoma, Rothstein was driving down the highway when he spotted a pathetic shack. Arthur Coble and his two young sons were digging out fence posts and carrying water to a couple of cattle that were dying from lack of food and breathing in too much dust. When Rothstein got out to take a picture, a sudden gust of wind kicked up the dust, and the Cobles went hurrying for shelter in their shack. Rothstein clicked the shutter and captured an image that was to become the most famous photograph of the whole period.

The subject and the composition have come together seamlessly. The profile of Arthur Coble, his head bowed against the dust—the hat somehow suggesting a feeling of adult responsibility—is lined up perfectly with the edge of the shack. His legs and the legs of the closer son are moving in parallel. The younger son seems barely distinguishable from the half-buried fence posts, continuing a line that starts with the roof of the shack. The horizon is nearly erased by the dust. The shack is being consumed by it. The helplessness of Arthur as a parent, his obvious inability to truly protect his children from the hellish elements, comes at us strongly. It haunts us.

How did Rothstein manage to get such an incredible photograph in the haste of the moment? The photo simply couldn’t have turned out any better. Some powerful instinct must have guided him.

My information about the circumstances of the photo comes from a marvellous book titled The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Read it.

Around noon on January 21, 1932, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top appeared just outside Amarillo. The winds had been fierce all day, clocked at sixty miles an hour when the curtain dropped over the Panhandle. The sky lost its customary white, and it turned brownish then gray as the thing lumbered around the edge of Amarillo, a city of 43,000 people. Nobody knew what to call it. It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard—a black blizzard, they called itwith an edge like steel wool.”

Storm approaching Spearman, Texas

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.