I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer — and I want no other fame.
Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.
Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.
— Vladimir Nabokov
Sometimes the world and its problems seem too big to solve. Many of us feel helpless, paralyzed, unable to act.
We took solace last week in talking to a 15-year-old, Natasha Permaul, who had some profound thoughts to share. When she was 12, Natasha and her seventh-grade classmates at Farnsworth Middle School studied the globally rare pine barrens near their school.
At the end of their studies, their teacher, Dr. Alan Fiero, asked the students to create a final project of their choosing.
“Everyone has a talent. Find a way to show what you learned,” Fiero told them as he tells each of his classes.
Natasha recalls that most of her classmates did PowerPoint presentations. “I was going to take the easy way out and do one, too,” she said. “But I decided to do a scrapbook.”
Natasha put together a scrapbook on the lifecycle of the Karner blue butterfly, which is listed by the federal government as an endangered species. It lives on the blue lupine that grows in the pine bush. The narrative is told in simple and charming words from the point of view of one butterfly, Mister Karner Blue.
We’ve written reams over the decades about this diminutive, once prevalent butterfly that is now hanging by a bare thread for its survival. To us, it’s a poignant symbol of humankind’s callous indifference to the importance of natural surroundings.
But our many words did not carry the honest weight of Natasha’s few, well chosen ones. Her words — spoken as Mister Karner Blue — are now highlighted in a children’s book, published by the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission.
“I’m really glad my book is getting published,” Natasha told us last week. “It inspires me to do my best in everything I do because you never know what it’s going to turn into.”
What great advice. Because Natasha did her best, her work inspired others and metamorphosized into something more than she intended. Her teacher, Alan Fiero, recognized its worth and asked Farnsworth’s art teacher, Michelle Romano, to work with her students on illustrations. The Pine Bush Commission got involved and will sell the book in its Discovery Shop.
“I’m really thankful to Dr. Fiero and the Pine Bush Preserve for the opportunity to give back,” said Natasha. “I wanted all of the proceeds to go to the preserve. It’s one of the few places for the Karner blue left in the world. It’s so precious.”
Precious, indeed. Natasha’s story illustrates the spark that one person can have in igniting others to action.
We especially like the story because, at its center, is the power of the written word. The all-too-ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations, squeezing complex or elegant thoughts into bland bullets, disappear as soon as they’re over. But the written word lives on.
Part of the larger story of the Karner blue involves a writer whose maverick and rejected theories lay dormant until science progressed to a point — long after his death — where they could be explored and proven.
The Karner blue was given its Latin name — Lycaeides melissa samuelis — by Vladimir Nabokov, best known as the Russian-American novelist. He also studied butterflies, and his theories, which were largely dismissed in his lifetime, have been substantiated in recent years through modern techniques like DNA sequencing.
Karner blues, for example, have been shown to be a separate species, just as Nabokov thought. Scientists have also now confirmed that the butterflies, rather than evolving in the Amazon on this continent, came in waves from Asia where they existed millions of years ago, just as Nabokov had postulated.
Nabokov wrote a poem, “On Discovering a Butterfly,” about an insect he named “that will transcend its dust.” The red label signifying a holotype on a museum specimen, a name given to a new species, Nabokov writes, represents immortality that pictures, poems, and religion’s stones can only ape.
How very sad it would be if the Lycaeides melissa samuelis, a species now teetering on the edge of survival, a species that migrated to the New World from Asia, a species that once prospered in its natural habitat, were to become extinct on our watch.
We hope others will see that they, too, can make a difference and contribute, in their own ways, as Natasha Permaul has in hers.
Her teacher said it best: “Everyone has a talent. Find a way to show what you’ve learned.”