Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Celebrating the commonplace

The plan was to return from our tropic island to a warm New England spring. Instead, we arrived to rainy, bone-chilling weather, and that aching feeling that we had returned too soon. But the dreary wait was worth it. When spring finally returned last weekend it came in a blaze of sun-drenched glory. What a joy to be in the meadow when the temperature soared overnight from 30 to 70 and the mourning cloak butterfly came flapping out of winter hibernation to semaphore its Gloria in excelsis Deo.

The morning cloak is our only butterfly that overwinters as an adult. It fills its veins with self-manufactured antifreeze and goes to sleep in some crevice or cranny. On the first warm days of spring it bursts forth like a silken hanky from a magician's sleeve.

In all things lepidopterous I have been inspired by Vladimir Nabokov, who from the age of seven chased butterflies across three continents. He published 20 scientific papers in entomological journals, and was invited to be a research associate at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology between 1941 and 1948. His American butterfly collections are now housed at Harvard, Cornell, and the American Natural History Museum. Not bad for someone we know almost exclusively as a novelist.

In his autobiography, Speak Memory, Nabokov wrote: "The highest enjoyment of timelessness...is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude..." The possibility of learning more and more about butterflies drew Nabokov ever deeper into the world of the senses, through layer upon layer of concrete details, receding into inexhaustible mystery.

This, it has always seemed to me, is the proper trajectory of a life: from the concrete to the ineffable, from the particular to the universal. The opposite trajectory is fraught with idolatry and self-deception. Begin with the answers, as many do, and the commonplace becomes shallow, shabby, uninteresting. But begin with a mourning cloak butterfly resurrected from its winter sleep, flagging its magnificent wings of purple velvet trimmed with gold, and maybe -- just maybe -- one might catch an intimation of the spine-tingling Mystery that shines in the face of creation.