Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I walked the three miles to my son's house on Sunday afternoon. A bright day, the temperature in the 50s. As I moved along a open stretch of path connecting two parts of town forest I was accompanied by a mourning cloak butterfly. It stayed near my shoulder as if it appreciated my company. I certainly appreciated its company.

The mourning cloak is the most prominent New England butterfly that over-winters as an adult. Other species pass the frigid months in the larval stage, or wrapped up tight in egg cases. The monarch migrates to warmer climes. The mourning cloak seeks out some protected spot and hibernates like a bear -- without the bear's fur coat or layers of fat. Then, on the first warm day of spring it sallies forth in all of its black and golden glory, a fragile slip of promise of greater warmth to come.

That first mourning cloaks usually appear in March, and sometimes as early as February. But I was in the tropics till the first of April, so the mourning cloak that accompanied me on the path was certainly not the season's pioneer. No matter. For me it was the reason I had returned to New England -- to watch the earth awaken after a long sleep. green and golden, flecked with sunlight, tipped with buds.

I have written at length about the mourning cloak before, in the chapter of The Soul of the Night about nucleosynthesis in stars. If you've read the book you will recognize Michael McCurdy's linoprint above. Michael is an artist of renown and a good and gentle man. My book is graced by his illustrations.

In England, where I will be in a few weeks, the mourning cloak is known as the Camberwell beauty. (Camberwell is an inner suburb of London, south of the City, more rural in 1748 when the species was first identified there.) It is an occasional migrant from the continent, all the more prized for its rarity. Nabokov uses the English name in his autobiography Speak, Memory, in a lovely passage recalling the first blush of passion in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1916. The love-struck youngster sees a "Camberwell beauty, exactly as old as [his] romance, sunning its bruised wings, their boarders now bleached by hibernation, on the back of a park bench in Alexandrovski Garden." Spring, young love, and a fine big butterfly with funereal wings fringed with the gold of resurrection, an Easter week apparition risen from winter sleep, an equinoctial harbinger of all that renews itself eternally in a sometimes violent and broken world.