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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.

“Afrikander Cattle” – 2 December 11, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, nature, wildlife.
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San tribesman

This is a continuation of a series that starts here.

Just when it seems that Marais has established that Gool Winterbach’s scouting skills are superior to those of anyone else, that he has better rapport with animals, a higher ability to survive—in other words, that he knows what the Boers called veldkraft better than anyone around—another figure appears on the scene who knows much, much more than Winterbach.

Winterbach and his horse Kousband are surrounded by British columns. He knows that the khakis are looking for a big herd of cattle believed to be hidden in the maze of the Waterberg ravines—but Winterbach has seen nothing but old tracks and does not believe the cattle are present. Night has drawn in and he is trying to come up with a plan. “This was the hour of the deepest silence in the Bushveld. Very soon, the inhabitants of the night would go about their business and from all sides he would hear the joy of the night birds, mixed with the rejoicing and crying of murderous lust and terror which the night always mercifully covered with its dark veil. It was a night when the carnivore left its hiding place to stalk its defenceless prey.”*

Spotted Eagle Owl, a resident of the Waterberg

Winterbach decides to ambush a British sentry post. He carefully conceals Kousband in a dense guarri bush and creeps forward in the darkness, his rifle at the ready. But then, all of a sudden, an invisible hand reaches out of the shadows and catches his right wrist! And a voice calmly says to him, “Stand dead quiet, Master Gool—it’s me, old Hendrik.”

Hendrik is an elderly Bushman, or member of the San. I will use the word “Bushman” here, because it is the word used by Marais and because sources are divided as to whether the term “Bushman” is considered offensive to anybody. After looking at the subject for a bit, I am leaning toward the feeling that while the term is not always considered politically correct, it is often used by the people themselves—somewhat parallel to the situation in the U.S. in which the term “Native American” is considered more correct, but the people themselves generally use the word “Indian.”

Winterbach already knew Hendrik quite well. The Bushman had been famous in the area for his mastery of a large herd of Afrikander cattle. After the war started, not one of them had fallen into enemy hands, despite the constant crisscrossing of the area by British troops.

The classic Afrikander cattle have red hides and long horns

“His Afrikanders speedily became wild—so wild that no stranger could come near them. Only for old Hendrik were they tame…. He lived with them as if he were one of them…. Old Hendrik could imitate the voice of any animal or bird so accurately that no person could ever discover the imitation, and it was with whistles that he communicated with his cattle. He had altered the usual manner of ‘herding.’ Instead of driving his herd, he was always at the forefront. They followed him the way dogs follow their master and if he were separated from them for half a day (he occasionally had to visit the commando to confer with the general), their lowing could be heard for miles and the dust they raised, rushing about, rolled above the trees like storm clouds. They couldn’t rest until they had old Hendrik back.”

Hendrik tells Winterbach that he must calm the cattle. “They noticed you a long time ago, although the wind is coming from their way. They heard you coming down the mountain.” Winterbach is surprised: he had not been aware of any cattle nearby. Hendrik points toward a level area shadowed by candlewood trees, but Winterbach does not see anything.

Candlewood tree

However, as they walk together, he does notice that Hendrik has a small fire burning. He is shocked! So foolish to have a fire when the enemy are all around! But Hendrik laughs and says he’s been watching the English—and Winterbach—for three days, and he knows exactly what they have been doing. He even knows precisely what Winterbach has had to eat the past three days. The fire is visible from only one side, and that side is guarded by the cattle.

For the first time Winterbach sees the cattle. “Under the big trees Gool noticed a stretch of black shadow which seemed to be in perpetual motion. In the dim light of the small fire he could occasionally see eyes shining, like many searchlights aimed in his direction, and then he also noticed for the first time the pleasant odour of a great herd of cattle, breathing.”

Now they must plot a way out of the encircling British columns.

* All quotes from “Afrikander Cattle” by Eugene Marais and translated by Madeleine van Biljon. In A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, edited by Chris van der Merwe and Michael Rice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1999.

Bushveld sunset

Sonja’s amazing wildlife photos November 14, 2010

Posted by Jenny in photography, travel, wildlife.
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Click twice for full zoom, and you'll see the leopard's eyelashes. Photo by Sonja Myburgh.

I described in my last post how I experienced “my wildlife” through my own eyes and through my own lens. It was an experience I would not trade for anything. You, my readers, were very kind about my efforts at wildlife photography. But in this post you will see what wildlife photography is really all about.

It was one of the several incredibly lucky things about my trip to South Africa that I was in the company of Sonja Myburgh, president of the Bloemfontein Camera Club and a prize-winning photographer. When you look at these photos, you will see why she is considered to be so accomplished. Of course, I could say to myself, “It’s all just the equipment! Give anyone the right camera, and they’ll get the right pictures!” But no, there’s much more to it than that.

It’s true that Sonja has a lot of excellent photographic equipment.

Sonja has the camera lenses you really need for high-quality wildlife photography

But knowing how to use the equipment, and having the eye for the composition, is not so simple. With no intention at all to be unduly self-deprecating, I will say that I do not have the aptitude for bringing complex equipment together with the perceptive eye. I don’t worry about it too much—every now and then I get a nice picture—but my talent really lies more with the written word. One of the nice things about getting older is that you stop thinking you have to try to be great at everything—at any rate, I gave up on that a long time ago!

I watched Sonja juggling with different lenses and deciding what to use for what kind of shot. One of her cameras was capable of getting off multiple shots in the space of a second—it sounded a bit like a machine gun when she was using it. And I saw her and Arnold working as a team—with him at the wheel of our vehicle, we would patiently go back and forth on the road to get the right angle, sometimes manuevering through a bit of a traffic jam, while she had the big telescopic lens sitting on a special holding device on the top of the partially cranked-down window.

At any rate, enough of these words. Let’s have the pictures that are worth far more than a thousand of them apiece.

I spoke of the mating lions in the last post. Here they are.


Photo by Sonja Myburgh


Photo by Sonja Myburgh

I saw that incredible scene through the high-powered binoculars, but I knew it was a waste of time to try with my point-and-shoot camera.

Here are more shots of the leopards we saw.

Photo by Sonja Myburgh

Photo by Sonja Myburgh

Photo by Sonja Myburgh

Here is one of the Cape buffalo that stopped traffic in Kruger:

Photo by Sonja Myburgh

And, last but not least, here is an elephant. Thank you, Sonja—and thank you, Arnold, for making the whole thing possible.

Photo by Sonja Myburgh