A brief conversation last week with a chemistry teacher who said she started as an entomologist and still enjoys collecting beetles sent me back to one of my earliest heroes, J. Henri Fabre (1823-1915), friend to Pasteur and John Stuart Mill, and who, out of a lifelong love of insects, blurred the always dubious line between amateur and professional. With Montaigne and Proust, he is among my favorite French writers, author of the 10-volume Souvenirs Entomologiques (more than 2,500 pages, almost 850,000 words). Darwin called him an “incomparable observer,” though Fabre never accepted the theory of evolution. I pulled out The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, the selection edited by Edwin Way Teale in 1949 that I read as a kid.
Fabre was an autodidact in an age when enthusiasts with little or no formal training could do pioneering work in science and elsewhere. He blithely anthropomorphizes. His descriptions of field work sound like miniature dramas. They’re reminiscent of the epic battle between the ants in Walden, minus the portentousness. Fabre’s entomological equipment was laughably primitive and served him well. In “Wasps of the Bois des Issarts” he writes of his early insect studies (translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos):
“A fig for Mariotte’s flak and Toricelli’s tube! This is the thrice-blest period when I cease to be a schoolmaster and become a schoolboy, the schoolboy in love with animals. Like a madder-cutter off for his day’s work, I set out carrying over my shoulder a solid digging-implement, the local luchet, and on my back my game-bag with boxes, bottles, trowel, glass tubes, tweezers, lenses and other impedimenta. A large umbrella saves me from sunstroke.”
Fabre’s pieces on the predatory wasps – Sphex wasps, or diggers -- are probably his best known work. The wasps sting and paralyze other insects, hoard them in underground burrows and lay their eggs on them. When they hatch, the larvae go to work on the well-stocked pantry. In “The Hunting Wasp,” Fabre writes:
“A quarry that is not too big to permit the effort of flying makes the Yellow-winged Sphex a semi-social species, that is to say, one seeking the company of her fellows; a quarry too heavy to carry through the air makes of the Languedocian Sphex a species vowed to solitary labour, a sort of savage disdainful of the pleasures that come from the proximity of one’s kind.”
I brought Fabre with me to school and the latter portion of this passage seemed applicable to the student I minded for seven hours on Monday. He was serving an in-school suspension, and except for bathroom and lunch breaks we remained the entire time in a small conference room, at opposite ends of a table.
I was more than a babysitter but less than a tutor. He fumed when I told him to get rid of the iPod and cell phone. He was suspended for pushing a female teacher last week. He had homework but would read only a driver’s manual, claiming he wanted to get his license because his uncle was giving him a car. A counselor told me this kid had recently gotten a girl pregnant and had no intention of marrying her or raising the child. With a straight face, the same counselor said he had “anger issues.” His conversation was rudimentary -- mutters and grunts delivered with a whining inflection. He was full of grievances and hardly seemed part of the same species as sweet-natured Fabre. When I got home I sought “Wasp,” a prose poem Zbigniew Herbert included in his second collection, Hermes, Dog and Star (1957). Here is the translation by Alissa Valles:
“When the flowered tablecloth, honey, and fruit were mowed from the table in one fell swoop, the wasp made an attempt to fly off. Wrapped in stifling clouds of net curtain, it went on buzzing for a long time. Finally it made it to the window. Again and again it beat its weakening body against the cold welded air of the pane. In the last movement of its wings there lingered the same faith that the body’s unrest can raise a wind carrying us to longed-for worlds.
“You who have stood under a beloved’s window, you who have seen your happiness on display – can you find it in yourselves to extract the sting of this death?”
In Herbert’s poetry I find flies, bees, wasps and beetles but no butterflies.