Tuesday, January 19, 2010

`Each Time I Am Delighted Anew'

For his first extensive research project my fourth-grader has decided to ask: “Why is it so hard to hit a fly with a fly swatter?” The question has all the requisite elements to hold the attention of a 9-year-old boy – bugs and violence. Michael has taken a stack of pertinent books out of the library, found useful web sites and identified a researcher to question by e-mail. I too learned some interesting things:

Thomas Eisner is an emeritus professor of chemical ecology at Cornell and one of the best-known entomologists in the world. As a newspaper reporter I interviewed him several times and he was always articulate and generous with his time. As the epigraph to For Love of Insects (2003), Eisner chose a sentence from “Exploring Our Universe and Others,” an article by Martin Rees published in the December 1999 issue of Scientific American:

“What makes things baffling is their degree of complexity, not their sheer size... a star is simpler than an insect.”

A marvelously counterintuitive observation, worthy of Blake (who, in “Little Fly,” wrote: “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?”) in one of his saner moments. I’ve also learned a new word, ommatidium (the plural: ommatidia) meaning “one of the elements corresponding to a small simple eye that make up the compound eye of an arthropod.” In other words, one of many clusters of photoreceptor cells in the eye of a fly. To move briefly from entomology to etymology, the word is from omma, Greek for “eye.”

Another book from the library is Peter E. Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly: The Genetics of Animal Design (1992). His choice of epigraphs is also noteworthy, and in one case unexpected. The first is from a scientist, C. Stern, who wrote in excellent prose in a 1954 article in American Scientist:

“For more than 25 years I have looked at the little fly Drosophilia and each time I am delighted anew. When I see it under moderate magnification of a binocular microscope I marvel at the clear-cut form of the head with giant red eyes, the antennae, and elaborate mouth parts; at the arch of the sturdy thorax bearing a pair of beautifully iridescent, transparent wings and three pairs of legs; at the design of the simple abdomen composed of a series of ringlike segments. A shining, waxed armor of chitin covers the whole body of the insect. In some regions this armor is bare; in other regions there arise short or long outgrowths, strong and wide at the base and gently tapering to a fine point. These are the bristles. Narrow grooves, as in fluted columns with a slightly baroque twist, extend along their lengths.”

This reminds me of nothing so much as a passage in Centuries of Meditation by Thomas Traherne, surely one of literature’s happiest men. Traherne examines a “curious and high stomached” fly under an early microscope and writes:

“The infinite workmanship about his body, the marvellous consistence of his limbs, the most neat and exquisite distinction of his joints, the subtle and imperceptible ducture of his nerves, and endowments of his tongue, and ears, and eyes, and nostrils; the stupendous union of his soul and body, the exact and curious symmetry of all his parts, the feeling of his feet and the swiftness of his wings, the vivacity of his quick and active power…”

Lawrence’s other epigraph is the surprise. He takes it from one of Masha’s speeches in the second act of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (as translated by Michael Frayn):

“To live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars [back, like Rees, to the stars] are in the sky. Either you know why you’re alive or it’s all nonsense, it’s all dust in the wind.”

Lawrence doesn’t mention it but on April 11, 1889, Chekhov wrote in a letter to his brother, Alexander, also a writer:

“Brevity is the sister of talent. Remember, by the way, that declarations of love, the infidelity of husbands and wives; widows', orphans', and all other tears, have long since been written up. The subject ought to be new, but there need be no `fable.’ And the main thing is--father and mother must eat. Write. Flies purify the air, and plays--the morals.”


Bob said...

Let Hashum bless with the Fly, whose health is the honey of the air


Fran Manushkin said...

There's a wonderful half-hour BBC 4 Radio program about a visit to Chekhov's house in the Crimea. The most revealing and powerful moments are descriptions of the garden he planted, which is still preserved. The program will be available for only a few more days at this link: