A Journey to Nabokov’s Karner, New York – a Conservation Dilemma


A recent date to speak about Nabokov’s blues in Albany, New York — the state’s capital — afforded me a chance to visit what is left of old “Karner”, New York. Karner is the little hamlet that, in common parlance, has attached its name to Nabokov’s famous endangered species Lycaeides melissa samuelis, the “Karner Blue”. Karner got the nod for samuelis’s common name because Nabokov chose specimens of samuelis from Karner for his type series (the specimens he used to define his name and are thus considered the definitive series by the modern taxonomic rules). My visit turned up some fascinating trivia about Karner, Nabokov, and samuelis. But, along with the trivia, it also turned up some pretty frightening specters regarding the chances for the Karner Blue’s long term survival in New York.

My host in Albany was Save the Pine Bush [”SPB”], an activist organization which has been fighting for the preservation of samuelis’s Pine Bush habitats for more than two decades. I was met at the Albany- Rensselaer Amtrak station by Lynne Jackson, the current secretary of SPB — who was holding a copy of Nabokov’s Blues in her hand so that I could easily recognize her. My comment to her as I got off the train mirrored what an old religious superior of mine used to say about the Bible. I said to Lynne- “You’ve been reading that scary book?”

Piling through about a foot of snow, Lynne took me in her 4-wheel drive Geo Tracker to meet John Wolcott, a founder and vice-president of SPB. Already the experience was becoming Nabokovesque (yes, a term recently coined by among literati seemed destined to take its place alongside “Kafkaesque” in literary jargon). John Wolcott, in a rather strange Nabokovian mirror reflection, actually looks like a slightly gray and gnarled version of Cornell University’s Robert Dirig (the long term student of Nabokov’s legacy at Cornell and author of several articles on Nabokov’s butterflies, with whom I had shot pieces for a documentary film on Nabokov for French Cineteve about two years ago). Was I going back in time?

John is not just an aficionado of Albany area history but a true expert on the changes that region has undergone in the last decades. His expertise, in fact, now seems to annoy some of the local politicos because he has had a tendency over the years, in editors’ letters and other venues, to correct the errors in many of their public statements concerning “what used to stand where”, “how old something is”, and so on. Perhaps out of fear of embarrassment, local politicians and press don’t contact John much anymore, a fact that caught me as somewhat reminiscent of Nabokov’s own isolation in the decades following his departure from Harvard University. Nabokov had had to stand by, knowing quite well by the simplest of dissections that his Caribbean genera Cyclargus and Hemiargus were two very different groups of butterflies, while the “experts” in charge of lepidoptery at the time continued to lump them all back into Jacob Huebner’s 1818 name Hemiargus, well into the 1990’s (and some still do today!).

Over the more than 20 years Save the Pine Bush has been working on behalf of the Karner Blue, the nucleus of its some1000 members has welded into a community, if not a mutual support group, meeting as often as once a week. Theirs has been a legacy of lawsuit after lawsuit, invoking the endangered species status of Nabokov’s L. samuelis to continually fight the never-ending attempts at commercial incursion into the remaining areas of dwindling Pine Bush habitat. In their most recent lawsuit, against expansion of the Crossgates Mall [called “The Maul” by SPB members] , the Karner Blue itself was a plaintiff, along with Save the Pine Bush. Save the Pine Bush is not exactly a popular organization in the Albany region-an anathema to government agencies and developers, yet a hero to other local activists. School children and college students make up a large part of its year-to-year cheering section. The sad fact is that many residents of the state’s capital couldn’t care less about what a local judge recently called the “Blue Flies” that still survive among the scattered stands of pitch pines in and around the city limits.

Members of SPB joke that the “players” in the fight to save or destroy the Karner Blue haven’t changed much over the years. Indeed, it’s become a cast of “the usual suspects”, the same people appearing in the court room year after year — the same conservationists, the same developers, the same lawyers, the same expert witnesses, and, until recently, the same judges. There is also a more recent entry to the cast — officials of the state’s “Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission”, a quasi-governmental organization the New York state government set up to handle the results of the never-ending lawsuits over Pine Bush terrain and also handle the management of those areas that have, after protracted legal battles, been set aside.

I met the present Executive Director of the Commission, Willie Janeway. With a background from the Nature Conservancy, Mr. Janeway, who introduces himself simply as “Willie”, seems quite aware of the precariousness of his position as the “in between” man amongst the developers on one side and the Save the Pine Bush activists on the other. Willie, on cross-country skis, met us at the “Apollo Drive” Karner Blue site. Originally, a developer proposed that a go-cart/miniature golf course be built here. This site is in between two sites of Karner Blues. Though the site is only 6 acres in size — probably the smallest development we ever sued over — it is extremely important. Also, when this site was bought by the developer, it was 4 acres of asphalt and 2 acres of sand dunes. Save the Pine Bush sued and the developer could not build that first season. Eventually, the site was bought for Karner Blue preserve. The developer agreed to remove the asphalt and the Commission has embarked on taking a parking lot and making it into Karner Blue habitat. I understand things are going fairly well. Willie has taken to calling this site “bulldozing for butterflies”.

In a space between the roads and a hill, the Commission has bulldozed the land in hopes of removing the invading species and encouraging the return of Karner Blues. I think that’s why Willie wanted to meet us there — to show where the Commission is turning asphalt into Karner homeland (hopefully). Tracking through the foot or two of snow covering the site, Willie explained how the pine-covered dunes at the preserve date back to the old dried-up lakebed of “Lake Albany” which receded 10,000 years ago, after the the last Ice Age to form the sand dunes and the Pine Bush. These ancient dunes afforded the original habitat into which the pitch pines, lupine and the Karner Blue eventually moved.

But the preserves are mostly surrounded now by a 20th Century landscape of cement, steel and glass; the remaining plots of pitch pine a weak mosaic, unevenly forested, irregular, and disjunctive — a perilous situation when trying to preserve what is essentially both a nomadic butterfly with a nomadic foodplant. Today, there are even new enemies- domestic invader plants from the citified areas nearby that, previously in evolutionary history, were never a threat to Pine Bush habitat. Indeed, not only is the Karner Blue disappearing, the pitch pine themselves are disappearing as well.

Recent political changes have brought in a more conservative judgeship. SPB’s directors comment that while it was relatively easy in the 1980’s to win their cases on the merits alone, the same merits today seldom bring victories for Karner — the difference being the political appointee background of the particular judge. In the old days too, the developers used to at least talk to members of SPB. Back then they considered SPB members innocuous enough — local hacks perhaps, troublemakers, hippee throwbacks, or an annoying regional version of Greenpeace. But, over the years, and after losing millions of speculative dollars to SPB’s pesky lawsuits, the developers have lost their cordiality and no longer speak to members of the conservation group. Litigation is carried out under the formal but uneasy truce lines drawn by the courtrooms and court procedures, in which the “usual cast” of characters meets contentiously again and again. Actually, the developers still make money since, eventually, if the land is purchased for preserve, the State or The Nature Conservancy has to spend way too much to buy it. The developer still makes money from the land sale, but is unable to proceed onto the really big bucks of a commercial or housing development,

After 22 years together, members of Save the Pine Bush have become like a family — and, most do not have families of their own. The married members explain that they could not both have children and the time to carry on their day to day monitoring of the Karner Blue’s situation. Some have lost their jobs, directly or indirectly due to their advocacy for the Karner Blue. Consequently, some are now self-employed — with clienteles for their businesses far outside the Albany area — or retired. But, resources or no, their work for Karner goes on.

In speaking of Karner, New York, in a New York Times review of Alexander Klots’ famous butterfly fieldguide of the 1950’s, Nabokov wrote “I visit the place every time I happen to drive (as I do yearly in early June) from Ithaca to Boston and can report that, despite local picnickers and the hideous garbage they leave, the lupines and Lycaeides samuelis Nab. are still doing as fine under those old gnarled pines along the railroad as they did ninety years ago”. Little now remains of the landscape of Karner, NY, that Nabokov remembered fondly in his notes. Even “Karner” seems an inappropriate name for his beloved blue. Mr. Theodore Karner, the founder of Karner, New York, was a developer himself and an old 19th Century map of the hamlet, pulled from John Wolcott’s pocket while we lunched at a local diner, showed Mr. Karner’s plan for selling off all of Karner Blue territory lot by lot. Luckily the plots did not sell or L. samuelis would have been extinct in New York long before Nabokov encountered it there.

Today, only two old houses from the original Karner village are left, separated by a grassed gap that used to be a street. The old railroad which Nabokov fondly remembered is also gone, its only semblance being an eroded embankment that used to hold up the tracks. The railway station, where Nabokov would have disembarked if he had come to visit by train, is now part of a rickety old storage building for what appears to be a junkyard or parking lot for worn out heavy machinery.

Karner, New York, is as good as gone, and perhaps the Karner Blues at these preserves may soon share its fate. Even Mr. Janeway, who might have reason to present a more glowing picture of the situation on the preserve, estimated that last years number of adults butterflies was perhaps only 500. Save the Pine Bush members say that in Nabokov’s day the numbers must have been “millions”.

The Karner Blue in New York, and Save the Pine Bush, are in constant need of help. SPB members confided in me they’ve often given up hope for the “big donations” that might keep the coffers for their lawsuits at adequate capacity. They now hope that a wider range of smaller donations, even the 10’s and 15’s of dollars, or the “singles and change” local high school student allies raise yearly, may help them continue to stem the tide of Pine Bush incursion.

The address for Save the Pine Bush donations [make checks to “Save the Pine Bush”] is Lucy Clark; Save the Pine Bush, Treasurer; 2348 Cayuga Road, Niskayuna, New York. In addition, copies of the book Nabokov’s Blues, ordered by a letter to Lucy at the retail price ($27.00) [make checks to Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture Environmental Affairs] net SPB 20% profit; and a catchy Karner Blue cartoon, colored by framed by cartoonist Thomas McAnany (yes, you’ve seen him in the New Yorker magazine) and ordered by a letter to Lucy [make checks to Thomas McAnany, and, lower left write “Karner Blue Cartoon”] at $30.00 nets SPB 25%. If you have questions inquire of SPB at pinebush@aol.com.

As I returned to Lynne and her husband Dan’s home on the outskirts of Albany (a frame house whose narrow winding back stairs reminded me of my family’s old farm house in Iowa) things “Nabobovesque” set in once again. This time it was a cupboard filled with chess trophies- the playing of the game being Dan’s other love. I mentioned Nabokov’s enchantment with chess and Dan told me he “had heard about that”. But what struck me was the parallel of the chess trophies and the long saga of moves and countermoves (but far from a game) played by Save the Pine Bush for decades on behalf of Nabokov’s little Karner Blue. It remains unresolved who will ultimately win that match.

Addendum-Dmitri Nabokov’s Recent Statement on Karner Blue Conservation

On the Occasion of Save the Pine Bush’s January 26, 2000 Program on the book Nabokov’s Blues and the fate of the Karner Blue – – “My father, Vladimir Nabokov, made a point of not being a joiner and trying not to be a ‘public figure’. He made an exception to this modus when it came to L. samuelis, whose habitat was already endangered in his lifetime. I am certain he would have been shocked and eloquent in his defense of what little remains of this precious survivor’s Pine Bush habitats.”

DMITRI NABOKOV Montreux, Switerland January 17, 2000

published March/April 2000
Last Updated 3/9/00