Jean-Henri FABRE The Life of the Fly - Chap. V



Facts which I have set forth elsewhere prove that certain dung beetles' make an exception to the rule of paternal indifference — a general rule in the insect world — and know something of domestic cooperation. The father works with almost the same zeal as the mother in providing for the settlement of the family. Whence do these favored ones derive a gift that borders on morality?

One might suggest the cost of installing the youngsters. Once they have to be furnished with a lodging and to be left the wherewithal to live, is it not an advantage, in the interests of the race, that the father should come to the mother's assistance? Work divided between the two will ensure the comfort which solitary work, its strength overtaxed, would deny. This seems excellent reasoning; but it is much more often contradicted than confirmed by the facts. Why is the Sisyphus a hard working paterfamilias and the sacred beetle an idle vagabond? And yet the two pill rollers practice the same industry and the same method of rearing their young. Why does the Lunary Copris know what his near kinsman, the Spanish Copris, does not? The first assists his mate, never forsakes her. The second seeks a divorce at an early stage and leaves the nuptial roof before the children's rations are massed and kneaded into shape. Nevertheless, on both sides, there is the same big outlay on a cellarful of egg-shaped pills, whose neat rows call for long and watchful supervision. The similarity of the produce leads one to believe in similarity of manners; and this is a mistake.

Let us turn elsewhere, to the wasps and bees, who unquestionably come first in the laying up of a heritage for their offspring. Whether the treasure hoarded for the benefit of the sons be a pot of honey or a bag of game, the father never takes the smallest part in the work. He does not so much as give a sweep of the broom when it comes to tidying the outside of the dwelling. To do nothing is his invariable rule. The bringing up of the family, therefore, however expensive it may be in certain cases, has not given rise to the instinct of paternity. Then where are we to look for a reply?

Let us make the question a wider one. Let us leave the animal, for a moment, and occupy ourselves with man. We have our own instincts, some of which take the name of genius when they attain a degree of might that towers over the plain of mediocrity. We are amazed by the unusual, springing out of flat commonplaces; we are spellbound by the luminous speck shining in the wonted darkness. We admire; and, failing to understand whence came those glorious harvests in this one or in that, we say of them: "They have the gift."

A goatherd amuses himself by making combinations with heaps of little pebbles. He becomes an astoundingly quick and accurate reckoner without other aid than a moment's reflection. He terrifies us with the conflict of enormous numbers which blend in an orderly fashion in his mind, but whose mere statement overwhelms us by its inextricable confusion. This marvelous arithmetical juggler has an instinct, a genius, a gift for figures.

A second, at the age when most of us delight in tops and marbles, leaves the company of his boisterous playmates and listens to the echo of celestial harps singing within him. His head is a cathedral filled with the strains of an imaginary organ. Rich cadences, a secret concert heard by him and him alone, steep him in ecstasy. All hail to that predestined one who, some day, will rouse our noblest emotions with his musical chords. He has an instinct, a genius, a gift for sounds.

A third, a brat who cannot yet eat his bread and jam without smearing his face all over, takes a delight in fashioning clay into little figures that are astonishingly lifelike for all their artless awkwardness. He takes a knife and makes the briar root grin into all sorts of entertaining masks; he carves boxwood in the semblance of a horse or sheep; he engraves the effigy of his dog on sandstone. Leave him alone; and, if Heaven second his efforts, he may become a famous sculptor. He has an instinct, a gift, a genius for form.

And so with others in every branch of human activity: art and science, industry and commerce, literature and philosophy. We have within us, from the start, that which will distinguish us from the vulgar herd. Now to what do we owe this distinctive character? To some throwback of atavism, men tell us. Heredity, direct in one case, remote in another, hands it down to us, increased or modified by time. Search the records of the family and you will discover the source of the genius, a mere trickle at first, then a stream, then a mighty river.

The darkness that lies behind that word heredity! Metaphysical science has tried to throw a little light upon it and has succeeded only in making unto itself a barbarous jargon, leaving obscurity more obscure than before. As for us, who hunger after lucidity, let us relinquish abstruse theories to whoever delights in them and confine our ambition to observable facts, without pretending to explain the quackery of the plasma. Our method certainly will not reveal to us the origin of instinct; but it will at least show us where it would be waste of time to look for it.

In this sort of research, a subject known through and through, down to its most intimate peculiarities, is indispensable. Where shall we find that subject? There would be a host of them and magnificent ones, if it were possible to read the sealed pages of others' lives; but no one can sound an existence outside his own and even then he can think himself lucky if a retentive memory and the habit of reflection give his soundings the proper accuracy. As none of us is able to project himself into another's skin, we must needs, in considering this problem, remain inside our own.

To talk about one's self is hateful, I know. The reader must have the kindness to excuse me for the sake of the study in hand. I shall take the silent beetle's place in the witness box, cross- examining myself in all simplicity of soul, as I do the animal, and asking myself whence that one of my instincts which stands out above the others is derived.

Since Darwin bestowed upon me the title of 'incomparable observer,' the epithet has often come back to me, from this side and from that, without my yet understanding what particular merit I have shown. It seems to me so natural, so much within everybody's scope, so absorbing to interest one's self in everything that swarms around us! However, let us pass on and admit that the compliment is not unfounded.

My hesitation ceases if it is a question of admitting my curiosity in matters that concern the insect. Yes, I possess the gift, the instinct that impels me to frequent that singular world; yes, I know that I am capable of spending on those studies an amount of precious time which would be better employed in making provision, if possible, for the poverty of old age; yes, I confess that I am an enthusiastic observer of the animal. How was this characteristic propensity, at once the torment and delight of my life, developed? And, to begin with, how much does it owe to heredity?

The common people have no history: persecuted by the present, they cannot think of preserving the memory of the past. And yet what surpassingly instructive records, comforting too and pious, would be the family papers that should tell us who our forebears were and speak to us of their patient struggles with harsh fate, their stubborn efforts to build up, atom by atom, what we are today. No story would come up with that for individual interest. But by the very force of things the home is abandoned; and, when the brood has flown, the nest is no longer recognized.

I, a humble journeyman in the toilers' hive, am therefore very poor in family recollections. In the second degree of ancestry, my facts become suddenly obscured. I will linger over them a moment for two reasons: first, to inquire into the influence of heredity; and, secondly, to leave my children yet one more page concerning them.

I did not know my maternal grandfather. This venerable ancestor was, I have been told, a process server in one of the poorest parishes of the Rouergue. He used to engross on stamped paper in a primitive spelling. With his well-filled pen case and ink horn, he went drawing out deeds up hill and down dale, from one insolvent wretch to another more insolvent still. Amid his atmosphere of pettifoggery, this rudimentary scholar, waging battle on life's acerbities, certainly paid no attention to the insect; at most, if he met it, he would crush it under foot. The unknown animal, suspected of evil doing, deserved no further enquiry. Grandmother, on her side, apart from her housekeeping and her beads, knew still less about anything. She looked on the alphabet as a set of hieroglyphics only fit to spoil your sight for nothing, unless you were scribbling on paper bearing the government stamp. Who in the world, in her day, among the small folk, dreamt of knowing how to read and write? That luxury was reserved for the attorney, who himself made but a sparing use of it. The insect, I need hardly say, was the least of her cares. If sometimes, when rinsing her salad at the tap, she found a caterpillar on the lettuce leaves, with a start of fright she would fling the loathsome thing away, thus cutting short relations reputed dangerous. In short, to both my maternal grandparents, the insect was a creature of no interest whatever and almost always a repulsive object, which one dared not touch with the tip of one's finger. Beyond a doubt, my taste for animals was not derived from them.

I have more precise information regarding my grandparents on the father's side, for their green old age allowed me to know them both. They were people of the soil, whose quarrel with the alphabet was so great that they had never opened a book in their lives; and they kept a lean farm on the cold granite ridge of the Rouergue tableland. The house, standing alone among the heath and broom, with no neighbor for many a mile around and visited at intervals by the wolves, was to them the hub of the universe. But for a few surrounding villages, whither the calves were driven on fair days, the rest was only very vaguely known by hearsay. In this wild solitude, the mossy fens, with their quagmires oozing with iridescent pools, supplied the cows, the principal source of wealth, with rich, wet grass. In summer, on the short swards of the slopes, the sheep were penned day and night, protected from beasts of prey by a fence of hurdles propped up with pitchforks. When the grass was cropped close at one spot, the fold was shifted elsewhere. In the center was the shepherd's rolling hut, a straw cabin. Two watchdogs, equipped with spiked collars, were answerable for tranquillity if the thieving wolf appeared in the night from out the neighboring woods.

Padded with a perpetual layer of cow dung, in which I sank to my knees, broken up with shimmering puddles of dark brown liquid manure, the farmyard also boasted a numerous population. Here the lambs skipped, the geese trumpeted, the fowls scratched the ground and the sow grunted with her swarm of little pigs hanging to her dugs.

The harshness of the climate did not give husbandry the same chances. In a propitious season, they would set fire to a stretch of moorland bristling with gorse and send the swing plow across the ground enriched with the cinders of the blaze. This yielded a few acres of rye, oats and potatoes. The best corners were kept for hemp, which furnished the distaffs and spindles of the house with the material for linen and was looked upon as grandmother's private crop.

Grandfather, therefore, was, before all, a herdsman versed in matters of cows and sheep, but completely ignorant of aught else. How dumbfounded he would have been to learn that, in the remote future, one of his family would become enamoured of those insignificant animals to which he had never vouchsafed a glance in his life! Had he guessed that that lunatic was myself, the scapegrace seated at the table by his side, what a smack I should have caught in the neck, what a wrathful look!

"The idea of wasting one's time with that nonsense!" he would have thundered.

For the patriarch was not given to joking. I can still see his serious face, his unclipped head of hair, often brought back behind his ears with a flick of the thumb and spreading its ancient Gallic mane over his shoulders. I see his little three-cornered hat, his small clothes buckled at the knees, his wooden shoes, stuffed with straw, that echoed as he walked. Ah, no! Once childhood's games were past, it would never have done to rear the Grasshopper and unearth the Dung beetle from his natural surroundings.

Grandmother, pious soul, used to wear the eccentric headdress of the Rouergue highlanders: a large disk of black felt, stiff as a plank, adorned in the middle with a crown a finger's breadth high and hardly wider across than a six franc piece. A black ribbon fastened under the chin maintained the equilibrium of this elegant, but unsteady circle. Pickles, hemp, chickens, curds and whey, butter; washing the clothes, minding the children, seeing to the meals of the household: say that and you have summed up the strenuous woman's round of ideas. On her left side, the distaff, with its load of flax; in her right hand, the spindle turning under a quick twist of her thumb, moistened at intervals with her tongue: so she went through life, unwearied, attending to the order and the welfare of the house. I see her in my mind's eye particularly on winter evenings, which were more favorable to family talk. When the hour came for meals, all of us, big and little, would take our seats round a long table, on a couple of benches, deal planks supported by four rickety legs. Each found his wooden bowl and his tin spoon in front of him. At one end of the table always stood an enormous rye loaf, the size of a cartwheel, wrapped in a linen cloth with a pleasant smell of washing, and remained until nothing was left of it. With a vigorous stroke, grandfather would cut off enough for the needs of the moment; then he would divide the piece among us with the one knife which he alone was entitled to wield. It was now each one's business to break up his bit with his fingers and to fill his bowl as he pleased.

Next came grandmother's turn. A capacious pot bubbled lustily and sang upon the flames in the hearth, exhaling an appetizing savor of bacon and turnips. Armed with a long metal ladle, grandmother would take from it, for each of us in turn, first the broth, wherein to soak the bread, and next the ration of turnips and bacon, partly fat and partly lean, filling the bowl to the top. At the other end of the table was the pitcher, from which the thirsty were free to drink at will. What appetites we had and what festive meals those were, especially when a cream cheese, homemade, was there to complete the banquet!

Near us blazed the huge fireplace, in which whole tree trunks were consumed in the extreme cold weather. From a corner of that monumental, soot-glazed chimney, projected, at a convenient height, a bracket with a slate shelf, which served to light the kitchen when we sat up late. On this we burnt chips of pine wood, selected among the most translucent, those containing the most resin. They shed over the room a lurid red light, which saved the walnut oil in the lamp.

When the bowls were emptied and the last crumb of cheese scraped up, grandam went back to her distaff, on a stool by the chimney corner. We children, boys and girls, squatting on our heels and putting out our hands to the cheerful fire of furze, formed a circle round her and listened to her with eager ears. She told us stories, not greatly varied, it is true, but still wonderful, for the wolf often played a part in them. I should have very much liked to see this wolf, the hero of so many tales that made our flesh creep; but the shepherd always refused to take me into his straw hut, in the middle of the fold, at night. When we had done talking about the horrid wolf, the dragon and the serpent and when the resinous splinters had given out their last gleams, we went to sleep the sweet sleep that toil gives. As the youngest of the household, I had a right to the mattress, a sack stuffed with oat chaff. The others had to be content with straw.

I owe a great deal to you, dear grandmother: it was in your lap that I found consolation for my first sorrows. You have handed down to me, perhaps, a little of your physical vigor, a little of your love of work; but certainly you were no more accountable than grandfather for my passion for insects.

Nor was either of my own parents. My mother, who was quite illiterate, having known no teacher than the bitter experience of a harassed life, was the exact opposite of what my tastes required for their development. My peculiarity must seek its origin elsewhere: that I will swear. But I do not find it in my father, either. The excellent man, who was hard working and sturdily built like granddad, had been to school as a child. He knew how to write, though he took the greatest liberties with spelling; he knew how to read and understood what he read, provided the reading presented no more serious literary difficulties than occurred in the stories in the almanac. He was the first of his line to allow himself to be tempted by the town and he lived to regret it. Badly off, having but little outlet for his industry, making God knows what shifts to pick up a livelihood, he went through all the disappointments of the countryman turned townsman. Persecuted by bad luck, borne down by the burden, for all his energy and good will, he was far indeed from starting me in entomology. He had other cares, cares more direct and more serious. A good cuff or two when he saw me pinning an insect to a cork was all the encouragement that I received from him. Perhaps he was right.

The conclusion is positive: there is nothing in heredity to explain my taste for observation. You may say that I do not go far enough back. Well, what should I find beyond the grandparents where my facts come to a stop? I know, partly. I should find even more uncultured ancestors: sons of the soil, plowmen, sowers of rye, neat herds; one and all, by the very force of things, of not the least account in the nice matters of observation.

And yet, in me, the observer, the inquirer into things began to take shape almost in infancy. Why should I not describe my first discoveries? They are ingenuous in the extreme, but will serve notwithstanding to tell us something of the way in which tendencies first show themselves. I was five or six years old. That the poor household might have one mouth less to feed, I had been placed in grandmother's care, as I have just been saying. Here, in solitude, my first gleams of intelligence were awakened amidst the geese, the calves and the sheep. Everything before that is impenetrable darkness. My real birth is at that moment when the dawn of personality rises, dispersing the mists of unconsciousness and leaving a lasting memory. I can see myself plainly, clad in a soiled frieze frock flapping against my bare heels; I remember the handkerchief hanging from my waist by a bit of string, a handkerchief often lost and replaced by the back of my sleeve.

There I stand one day, a pensive urchin, with my hands behind my back and my face turned to the sun. The dazzling splendor fascinates me. I am the Moth attracted by the light of the lamp. With what am I enjoying the glorious radiance: with my mouth or my eyes? That is the question put by my budding scientific curiosity. Reader, do not smile: the future observer is already practicing and experimenting. I open my mouth wide and close my eyes: the glory disappears. I open my eyes and shut my mouth: the glory reappears. I repeat the performance, with the same result. The question's solved: I have learnt by deduction that I see the sun with my eyes. Oh, what a discovery! That evening, I told the whole house all about it. Grandmother smiled fondly at my simplicity: the others laughed at it. 'Tis the way of the world.

Another find. At nightfall, amidst the neighboring bushes, a sort of jingle attracted my attention, sounding very faintly and softly through the evening silence. Who is making that noise? Is it a little bird chirping in his nest? We must look into the matter and that quickly. True, there is the wolf, who comes out of the woods at this time, so they tell me. Let's go all the same, but not too far: just there, behind that clump of groom. I stand on the look out for long, but all in vain. At the faintest sound of movement in the brushwood, the jingle ceases. I try again next day and the day after. This time, my stubborn watch succeeds. Whoosh! A grab of my hand and I hold the singer. It is not a bird; it is a kind of Grasshopper whose hind legs my playfellows have taught me to like: a poor recompense for my prolonged ambush. The best part of the business is not the two haunches with the shrimpy flavor, but what I have just learnt. I now know, from personal observation, that the Grasshopper sings. I did not publish my discovery, for fear of the same laughter that greeted my story about the sun.

Oh, what pretty flowers, in a field close to the house! They seem to smile to me with their great violet eyes. Later on, I see, in their place, bunches of big red cherries. I taste them. They are not nice and they have no stones. What can those cherries be? At the end of the summer, grandfather comes with a spade and turns my field of observation topsy-turvy. From under ground there comes, by the basketful and sackful, a sort of round root. I know that root; it abounds in the house; time after time I have cooked it in the peat stove. It is the potato. Its violet flower and its red fruit are pigeonholed for good and all in my memory.

With an ever watchful eye for animals and plants, the future observer, the little six-year-old monkey, practiced by himself, all unawares. He went to the flower, he went to the insect, even as the large white butterfly goes to the cabbage and the red admiral to the thistle. He looked and inquired, drawn by a curiosity whereof heredity did not know the secret. He bore within him the germ of a faculty unknown to his family; he kept alive a glimmer that was foreign to the ancestral hearth. What will become of that infinitesimal spark of childish fancy? It will die out, beyond a doubt, unless education intervene, giving it the fuel of example, fanning it with the breath of experience. In that case, schooling will explain what heredity leaves unexplained. This is what we will examine in the next chapter.

Jean-Henri Fabre, Virgil of insects

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Chapter 6