Future Perfect: Sands, Butterflies Modernism...

Exploring loss and longing, dreams of universal education and Nabokov’s endangered butterflies.

by Jennifer Kabat

The Butterfly Effect

by Jennifer Kabat


In the photo, Nelson Rockefeller heaves a shovelful of sand. It’s 1962. He’s in a suit; his face grimaces into a smile. I think it’s determination, and he throws overhanded––what you might have called then, “throwing like a girl.” Because of this toss, the dirt is captured in midair just above his head, and somewhere at the same time tiny butterflies beat their wings. They lift from the sand, "showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots…and flutter like blue snowflakes before settling again." That’s how Nabokov described them, and this is not one of those stories about a butterfly on one continent causing a hurricane on another; this is all much closer than that. It’s in Albany.

The butterfly is the endangered Karner Blue, discovered in 1944 by Vladimir Nabokov, and the sand Rockefeller tossed launches construction of the SUNY Albany campus. Together they’re connected across millennia, although the events are less than twenty years apart. Here we have sand and butterflies, education, progress, hope and hubris. The butterfly shares its name with a road, and on that road was once a village that has disappeared, and more recently a bank (also disappeared). It was taken over with eminent domain and dedicated to the butterfly. Now it’s a visitors’ center, four miles from the Albany campus as the crow flies (or the butterfly). The butterfly can’t live without the sand, because in it grows the one plant on which the butterfly feeds, and that one plant, the wild blue lupine, is dependent on forest fires and a single bacteria that results from the burn. SUNY Albany is built on these same sands.

Rockefeller’s Dream

The campus has a dizzying effect, and I am lost. My breath is tight. I ask for help. I ask directions. I am here for a reading. Then I’m here for a workshop. Then another time for an exhibition, and each time the wind whips past me. It always seems to be winter when I visit. I’m disoriented and anxious, but that just cements the details in my mind (cement, too, will return later) because being lost makes me notice things more acutely. Now I picture the grid of squares repeating in the pavement. They set out the campus’s proportions. Long colonnades play up the one-point perspective, as if this were some Palladian fantasy and the entire place has been built on a mathematic system of rational order. The style looks Moorish too, with the arches overhead and windows in tight narrow lines down the buildings’ sides. Above the entrances a cauldron hangs, or maybe a UFO. It dangles on wires. It is, apparently, a lantern. All of this is rendered in concrete (which is made of sand). The very values of the place are inscribed in the fact that I am lost, and I’m lost not because the school was meant to be disorienting, but democratic. Everything is the same, the four dorms towering at the outer corners, pinning down the campus in space (maybe to secure it to the sand), and at the center is the fountain from which all else flows. Around it the buildings look the same, so visually nothing is better, nothing is prioritized, not math or science, arts or languages. They’re all equal.

That is Rockefeller’s dream––equality––and for it he threw sand. It billowed like clouds and smoke, and that I get lost seems important because his dream was for education to be equalizing.

Universal Truth

He was governor and wanted a great university, the biggest state system in the country. He believed in universal education. It would set us free, and this belief was, perhaps, the last gasp of the Enlightenment, with its notions of progress and the perfectibility of mankind (with just that word “man” at the center). Education could improve us all and make us equal; all we needed was access.

This was a dream of that half-century between wars that drove the country in vastly different directions, between World War II and the GI Bill and Vietnam and the draft. The first increased access to higher education, while Vietnam drove students to college to avoid the draft, but only served to show how the dream had frayed. Baby boomers became protesters, not realizing that avoiding war meant someone with less means would have to serve. Those young men who did serve became cannon fodder (serving a different canon than the one taught here). Just before the draft began, on the nascent campus we can see the last moment of hope as Rockefeller sends the dirt flying. This is before we become a country with a trillion dollars of student debt, or realize how decidedly unequal the return on a college education is. (A typical white family’s return on a four-year university degree is $55,869; while a black family’s is $4,846, and a Hispanic one’s $4,191).1

1Laura Shin, “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why A Typical White Household Has 16 Times The Wealth Of A Black One,” Forbes, 3/26/2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/03/26/the-racial-wealth-gap-why-a-typical-white-household-has-16-times-the-wealth-of-a-black-one/#73c5c5dc6c5b. Accessed 6/21/2016.


Rockefeller’s hopes were built of sand––in concrete. The poor man’s marble, it was the material of modernism, a movement that stood for truth-in-materials while espousing the belief that the shape of a building could shape the lives inside. That was part of the modernist promise, a fairy tale maybe, but one that believed architecture could improve the world. Like Rockefeller’s dreams for education, it was also grounded in the Enlightenment. Modernism was a movement full of promise––and concrete. That was the material of ambitious postwar building programs: public schools and public housing, public buildings, even public parking with multi-story garages, because concrete was cheap. The age’s downfall can be pegged to the rise in concrete’s costs, along with the gas crisis and recession in the 70s. By 1980 the price of concrete had quadrupled, and the era ended with Reagan’s election as we began to question investments in the public good.

The Butterfly, or, “Being a territory lying to the west of the present boundary line of the city and which is in large part waste and unoccupied land, the ownership of which is uncertain."

Beneath the university, the sand on which the butterfly depends is measured in ages and eras much longer than Reagan’s or Rockefeller’s––or even the lifespan of concrete (which can be found in Roman ruins). The sand’s time frame is so far from the human scale (even further the butterfly’s, which lives three, maybe five days) that it’s hard to conceive of. The sands date to the Ice Age. The retreating Wisconsin Glacier left a lake, called Lake Albany (conveniently named for a place that didn’t exist at the time of the lake). It drained, leaving sands. Winds whipped them into dunes, and grasses and stunted trees stabilized them. Finally forty square miles of sand and scrub remained, nearly twice the size of Manhattan. For centuries little happened here—some hunting, firewood collecting. A few footpaths cut through it, and eventually a couple of rudimentary roads. People thought it was a wasteland, a barren, a loss…come the late 1860s, a railroad, crossed the dunes. Land schemes and scams were dreamed up. Theodore Karner (he of the Karner of the butterfly’s name) planned a village; few bought the lots2. All this left an area, the Pine Bush, which was “in large part waste, unoccupied, ownership uncertain.” That was how The Laws Of The State Of New York described it in 1910. No one wanted it. No one could use it. It was up for grabs. Albany annexed it.

After the war, this scrubland was ripe for expansion. One historian described building here like “butter,” the sand was so easy to move3. Then came thruways, highway extensions, strip malls, subdivisions, a university––and the city dump. The same decade that produced a campus designed to be the size of Harvard and provide education for all also created the Albany Infill, a trash heap extending hundreds of acres. It was put on the same road where a large African-American enclave had moved en masse during the Great Migration, which seems far more than just symbolic.

2 Kurt Johnson, “A Journey to Karner New York: A Conservation Dilemma,” Zembla, https://www99.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/karner.htm. Accessed 5/31/16.

3Margaret Mittelback and Michael Crewdson, “Chasing Nabokov’s Elusive and Endangered True Love,” The New York Times, July 14, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/14/arts/chasing-nabokov-s-elusive-and-endangered-true-love.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed 5/31/16.

Pale Undersides with Dark Dots

This is the butterfly’s territory––that place of trash and education, hope and hubris, where the refuse of our daily lives, some 1,000 tons of trash daily (five pounds per person per day, according to the Times Union)4 washes up. In the late 50s, Nabokov wrote of his blue butterflies in the novel Pnin. They’d been sitting in the sand, discovered accidentally by his alter-ego. Like Nabokov, Pnin fled first the Communists, then the Nazis, to land in America, a place maybe of hope (but this being Nabokov, possibly not) and disturb the butterflies. Despite World War II and the rise of totalitarianism, it was an era that still believed the world was improving, that we controlled the land, that our possibilities were endless. And we know how the dream ends.

Here I am now in the sand (redolent with symbolism: time, shifting hopes, instabilities) and all the questions I want to resolve (about time, shifting hopes, instabilities). I’m not ready to give up on those old dreams of modernism and education. The idea of progress may have landed us in a world where we have wreaked incomprehensible damage, but without hope, what do you have? How do you build a better future? (See, I still believe futures can be better). And I don’t want hope to be as evanescent as smoke or clouds, or the sand in the air, or even the life cycle of a butterfly. I want something concrete (in both senses of the word), but how do we tally those failures of the past and build a future?

The sands upon which the university is built are a way to think about the slow time upon which we all stand, while what we get down the road is that dump and millions of dollars for a butterfly. That seems symbolic too. There’s a simplistic joke in this, one that asks about the costs of saving a single species vs. lives being uprooted5. The landfill will slowly be buried section by section in sand to transform the dump into habitat for the Karner Blue. Slated to cost $18 million, recent estimates have the project coming in at over $25 million. Maybe for some that’s too much for a tiny butterfly that lives for five days, but what if landfills can get repurposed? In the age of climate change, when we finally see our impact on the landscape, maybe such experiments have a greater value?

Another kind of math asks what an education is really worth today, when the return is so meager if you’re not white. But how do we give up on education? Rockefeller had such optimism creating the biggest statewide university system. It was a place for all sorts of firsts: the first member of a family who could go to college, could afford college, could begin a path to the future. And it was fueled on faith in the possibility of change and transcendence. What happens, though, if we surrender that belief? That might be my biggest question: what happens when we give up?

To find answers, I’m going to dig around in the sands, looking at everything from the Endangered Species Act to Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon to Nabokov to the rare primordial wilderness on the outskirts of Albany. I want to ask questions of modernism and education, progress and improvement, to see the hopes bound up in the campus as well as in its double in Pakistan. The country’s Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology is a ghostly predecessor and offers hints of Cold War ideals and politics. But I have a feeling there might also be answers in the Albany dump, and that the trash of the past could show us a way out.

4 Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, “Buried in Trash,” Albany Times Union, January 31, 2011. http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Buried-in-trash-985672.php. Accessed 5/31/16.

5 I remember stories on the news as a kid about the snail darter, a fish barely the size of a paperclip and only discovered in the 70s, whose fate went all the way to the Supreme Court. The fight over the fish encompassed conservative opprobrium at how far liberals would extend their sympathies. (It’s still used to this day in Congress as shorthand for liberal values.)

A recent finalist for Notting Hill Editions’ Essay Prize, Jennifer Kabat, who teaches at NYU, is working on a book of linked essays, Growing Up Modern, which explores ideology and the landscape from the modernist suburb where she grew up to where she lives now, in the Catskill Mountains. Harper’s, The White Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books are all running selections from the book. Kabat has also been awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation arts writers grant for her criticism.