Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana, 2007

It seems appropriate this summer, while we all either marvel at or are revolted by the return of the 17-year cicadas, to dip into a classic of nature writing that is all about bugs. The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre (translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, compiled by Edwin Way Teale), is the kind of book to be dipped into, not read straight through, and probably not read while eating lunch: descriptions of the parasitic midge larvae Microgaster glomeratus feeding on the yellow blood of the cabbage caterpillar do not lend relish to our own meal.

However, it is always pleasant to contemplate the career of a man who loved what he did. J. Henri Fabre was an impoverished nineteenth-century French schoolteacher who spent his summer vacations studying "my dear insects." He lived on a small piece of barren land in southern France, surrounded by a loving and helpful family but a near-recluse to local villagers. Observing insects in the open air and fields of his property, and not in a lab, Fabre was proud of watching and setting down "the exact narrative of facts observed." His great work was the Souvenirs Entomologiques -- The Insect World is a compendium -- which ran to ten volumes and 850,000 words.

Fabre was no mere backyard enthusiast. Although he did for the most part observe his quarry going about their daily businesses, he interfered with their flights and crawlings, and captured them and brought them indoors, when more controlled experiments were needed to learn the truth about their behavior. His patience and ingenuity were infinite. He was willing to sit all day at a sand bank, watching "my beloved Wasps" hunt grasshoppers and bury them in the sand to feed their young; he tried pinning a dung beetle's precious ball of dung to the ground, to see what the creature would do when it could no longer roll its prize away for safekeeping.

His writing has the leisurely elegance of another era. When he says, "If it is in your power to set up your observatory under a meagre olive tree that pretends to protect you from the rays of a pitiless sun, you may bless the fate that treats you as a sybarite," he means Luckily I worked under a shade tree. And his writing helps create in the reader a new respect for insects. He handled bees, wasps, moths, their prey and eggs and egg cases, without fear, and chronicled the female praying mantis' eating of her mate's head, while mating, with amazement but no disgust.

Fabre perhaps did not know about our 17-year cicadas, but one summer day he had cannon fired under his trees to test ordinary cicadas' hearing. Since the bugs did not stop singing, he concluded they were deaf. Who knows how thrilled he would have been, and what trials he could have invented, for our variety?

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