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Vladimir Nabokov about butterflies

Владимир Набоков о бабочках



Field Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Europe In my early boyhood, almost sixty-five years ago, I would quiver with helpless rage when Hofmann in his then famous Die Gross-Schmetterlinge Europas failed to figure the rarity he described in the text. No such frustration awaits the young reader of the marvelous guide to the Palaearctic butterflies west of the Russian frontier now produced by-Lionel C. Higgins, author of important papers on Lep-idoptera, and Norman D. Riley, keeper of insects at the British Museum. The exclusion of Russia is (alas) a practical necessity. Non-utilitarian science does not thrive in that sad and cagey country; the mild foreign gentleman eager to collect in the steppes will soon catch his net in a tangle of barbed wire, and to work out the distribution of Evers-mann's Orange Tip or the Edda Ringlet would have proved much harder than mapping the moon. The little maps that the Field Guide does supply for the fauna it covers seem seldom to err. I note that the range of the Twin-spot Fritillary and that of the Idas Blue are incorrectly marked, and I think Nogell's Hairstreak, which reaches Romania from the east, should have been included. Among minor shortcomings is the somewhat curt way in which British butterflies are treated (surely the Norfolk race of the Swallowtail, which is so different from the Swedish, should have received more attention). I would say that alder, rather than spruce, characterizes the habitat of Wolfens-berger's and Thor's Fritillaries. I regret that the dreadful nickname "Admiral" is used instead of the old "Admirable." The new vernacular names are well invented-- and, paradoxically, will be more attractive to the expert wishing to avoid taxonomic controversy when indicating a species than to the youngster who will lap up the Latin in a trice. The checklist of species would have been considerably more appealing if the names of authors had not been omitted (a deplorable practice of commercial origin which impairs a number of recent zoological and botanical manuals in America). The choice of important subspecies among the thousands described in the last hundred years is a somewhat subjective matter and cannot be discussed here. In deciding whether to regard a butterfly as a race of its closest ally or as a separate species the Field Guide displays good judgment in re-attaching Rebel's Blue to Alcon, and in tying up the Bryony White with the Green-veined White: anyone who has walked along a mountain brook in the Valais, the Tessin, and elsewhere must have noticed the profusion and almost comic muddle of varicolored intergrades between those two Whites. In a few cases, however, the authors seem to have succumbed to the blandishments of the chromosome count. For better or worse our present notion of species in Lepidoptera is based solely on the checkable structures of dead specimens, and if Forster's Furry cannot be distinguished from the Furry Blue except by its chromosome number, Forster's Furry must be scrapped. In many groups the Field Guide accepts the generic splitting proposed by various specialists. The resulting orgy of genera may bewilder the innocent reader and irritate the conservative old lumper. A compromise might be reached by demoting the genitalically allied genera to the rank of subgenera within one large genus. Thus, for instance, a large generic group, called, say, Scolitantides, would include 6 subgenera (pp. 262-271 of the Field Guide, from Green-underside Blue to Chequered Blue) and a large generic group, called, say, Plebejus, would include 15 subgenera (pp. 271-311, Grass Jewel to Eros Blue); what matters, of course, is not naming or numbering the groups but correctly assorting the species so as to reflect relationships and distinctions, and in that sense the Field Guide is logical and scientific. On the other hand, I must disagree with the misapplication of the term "f." (meaning "form"). It is properly used to denote recurrent aberrations, clinal blends, or seasonal aspects, but it has no taxonomic standing (and available names for such forms should be quote-marked and anonymous). This the authors know as well as I do, yet for some reason they use "f." here and there as a catchall for altitudinal races and minor subspecies. Particularly odd is "Boloria graeca balcanica f. tendensis,"' which is actually Boloria graeca tendensis Higgins, a lovely and unexpected subspecies for the sake of which I once visited Limone Piemonte where I found it at about 7000 ft. in the company of its two congeners, the Shepherd's and the Mountain Fritillaries. Incidentally, the drabbish figure hardly does justice to the nacreous pallor of its underside. These are all trivial flaws which melt away in the book's aura of authority and honesty, conciseness and completeness, but there is one fault which I find serious and which should be corrected in later printings. The explanation facing every plate should give the exact place and date of capture of every painted or photographed specimen-- a principle to which the latest butterfly books rigidly adhere. This our Field Guide omits to do. In result the young reader will not only be deprived of a vicarious thrill but will not know if the specimen came from anywhere near the type locality, whilst the old lepidopterist may at once perceive that the portrait does not represent an individual of the typical race. Thus one doubts that the bright female of the Northern Wall Brown (Pl. 49) comes from the North, and it is a pity that the Poplar Admirable shown on Pl. 15 should belong to the brownish, blurrily banded West European sub-species rather than to the black Scandinavian type race with pure white markings. The red-stained Corsican Swallowtail (front end-paper) is surely a printer's freak, not the artist's fancy, and no doubt will be repaired in due time. Many of Brian Har-greaves" illustrations are excellent, some are a little crude, a few are poor; all his butterflies, however, are recognizable, which after all is the essential purpose. His treatment of wing shape is sometimes wobbly, for instance in the case of the Heaths (Pl. 47), and one notes a displeasing tendency to acuminate the hind-wing margins of some Ringlets (Plates 37, 41, 44). In some groups of closely allied butterflies Nature seems to have taken capricious delight in varying from species to species the design of the hind-wing underside, thinking up fantastic twists and tints, but never sacrificing the basic generic idea to the cunning disguise. Brian Hargreaves has not always followed this interplay of thematic variations within the genus. For example, in the Clossiana hind-wing undersides the compact jagged rhythm of the Polar Fritillary's markings, which intensifies and unifies the Freya scheme, is weakly rendered. The artist has not understood the affinity with Frigga that dimly transpires through the design of the Dusky-winged, nor has he seen the garlands of pattern and the violet tones as connecting the Arctic Fritillary with Titania, and the latter with Dia. Otherwise, many such rarely figured butterflies as the Atlas White, the Fatma Blue, and Chapman's Hairstreak, or such tricky creatures as the enchanting Blues on Pl. 57 came out remarkably well. The feat of assembling all those Spanish and African beauties in one book is not the least glory of Higgins' and Riley's unique and indispensable manual. Times Educational Supplement, London, October 23, 1970

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