The way of a naturalist (part 2)

(Part 1 appeared on Tuesday, January 13. Click here for the permalink.)

Maurice Maeterlinck called him “the Insect’s Homer . . . one of the most profound and inventive scholars and also one of the purest writers . . . of the century now past [the 19th].”

To Edwin Way Teale, this “humble chronicler of the commonplace” was like Diogenes, Ponce de Leon and Thoreau rolled into one.

Phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel may very well have had his famous countryman in mind when he wrote about “the naturalist,”

For him, the word ‘insignificant’ has no sense. In the passionate study of a particular species he has triumphed for all time over such reactions. The living organism he considers subsists in a dimension of being to which we, the profane, have access only with difficulty. Even leaving aside any belief in a divine creator, the naturalist experiences a kind of wonder before the fineness and complexity of the structure he observes. Here, in a very unexpected way, beyond our world of the profane and the ignorant, some connection is realized between the scientist and someone who must perhaps be called the saint. (Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, 1968)

If one pictures the saint as someone touched with an abnormal, slightly mad sense of dedication toward a single goal that most of us never give more than a passing thought to, then J. Henri Fabre definitely fits the bill. Born in 1823 and living almost a century until 1915, Fabre lived essentially two lives in succession. In the first, this son of French peasants clawed his way up out of the extreme poverty of his childhood into the more-respectable penuriousness of a rural schoolteacher in Provence, scrimping and saving toward his retirement at the age of sixty.

Along the way, he was fired for trying to admit girls into his science classes. (Though his one visit to Paris had left him appalled at the lonely existence of modern city-dwellers, he was no reactionary.) He had managed to befriend John Stuart Mill, whose loan of $600 was enough to keep the wolf from the door while he threw himself into writing popular science books and even pot-boilers to make enough money to support his wife and five children. During these especially lean years an audacious and (to most) incomprehensible dream took root. And in 1879, at the age of 55, with his children grown and the loan paid off, Fabre began to put his plans into action. He bought “a small foothold of earth,” Teale writes, “sun-scorched and thistle-ridden, unfit for grazing or agriculture, an area known locally as a harmas, at the edge of the village of Serignan. It was the first bit of land Fabre had owned in his life. To him, the stony soil, arid and rusty-red, formed an Eden.” (The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, 1949).

For the next 36 years, this was to form his outdoor laboratory for many of the imaginative experiments and the countless hours of observations that went into his second life’s work. The idea he’d hatched was to write a great, multi-volume, encyclopedic work on the lives of insects and other arthropods: Souvenirs Entomologiques. With his beloved oldest son and wife recently deceased, at the age of 60 he remarried and fathered three more children. He spent virtually every day either out in the field or in the shed he’d converted into an indoor laboratory, though being too poor to afford even a microscope, his chief instruments were, he once remarked, “Time and Patience.”

When the last of the ten magisterial volumes was finally complete, Fabre did enjoy (if that’s the word) a brief, incandescent renown among scientists, government officials and men of letters. Entomologists revere him to this day. What is puzzling to me is that he not more celebrated by the champions of French literature for what one English translator called his “simple, durable prose,” reminiscent of John Steinbeck or George Orwell. Through regular, humorous asides and occasional longer musings upon his task, and with countless classical and popular references to make his subject matter more sympathetic, Fabre quickly endears himself to even the least nature-savvy of readers. In the first excerpt Teale included in his anthology, Fabre admits that some critics “have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obscure.”

Of course, if some of the critics may have looked down their noses, that was nothing compared to reactions he elicited from his fellow villagers. He describes one incident in which a rural policeman attempted to arrest him for suspicious behavior while he was lying in the sand engrossed in the hunting activities of a wasp. He uses the present tense to describe another incident he describes as characteristic:

Ever since daybreak I have been ambushed, sitting on a stone, at the bottom of a ravine. The subject of my matutinal visit is the Languedocian Sphex. Three women, vine-pickers, pass in a group, on their way to work. They give a glance at the man seated, apparently absorbed in reflection. At sunset, the same pickers pass again, carrying their full baskets on their heads. The man is still there, sitting on the same stone, with his eyes fixed on the same place. My motionless attitude, my long persistency in remaining at that deserted spot, must have impressed them deeply. As they passed by me, I saw one of them tap her forehead and heard her whisper to the others: ‘Un paore inoucent, pecaire!’ And all three made the sign of the Cross.

An innocent, she had said, un inoucent, an idiot, a poor creature, quite harmless, but half-witted; and they had all made the sign of the Cross, an idiot being to them one with God’s seal stamped upon him.

The incident is introduced for reasons beyond mere self-deprecating humorousness; it is the hook: “It is in this ravine with its three grape-gathering women that I would meet the reader,” Fabre explains in The Hunting Wasps. Like the writer,

The Languedocian Sphex frequents these points, not in tribes congregating at the same spot when nest-building begins, but as solitary individuals, sparsely distributed, settling wherever the chances of their vagabondage lead them. Even as her kinswoman, the Yellow-winged Sphex, seeks the society of her kind and the animation of a yard full of workers, the Languedocian Sphex prefers isolation, quiet and solitude. Graver of gait, more formal in her manners, of a larger size and always more sombrely clad, she always lives apart, not caring what others do, disdaining company, a genuine misanthrope among the Sphegidae. The one is sociable, the other is not: a profound difference which in itself is enough to characterize them.

This amounts to saying that, with the Languedocian Sphex, the difficulties of observation increase . . .

As this sample demonstrates, Fabre did not completely abandon the populist techniques he had honed during his years as a hack writer. He had the sense to leaven his detailed descriptions of insects and the experiments he performed on them with plenty of drollery which, somehow, never quite strays into the minefield of unscientific anthropomorphism.

This is of course a particular challenge with insects and other invertebrates, which cannot fail to seem alien to even the most avid reader. Maybe because it IS such a challenge, some of the most engaging natural history classics of the 20th century also took insects for their theme: Teale’s own Near Horizons and Grassroot Jungles; Howard Ensign Evans’ Wasp Farm and Life on a Little Known Planet; Berndt Heinrich’s Bumblebee Economics. Yet I confess that, much as I have enjoyed all these books, the specific details, even the names of the insects they describe so lovingly quickly fade from my memory. Perhaps it’s because I am at heart a humanist, but insects seem simply too foreign for my imagination to fully assimilate.

But the fact is that insects, so supremely endowed with inhuman otherness, are linked to us by a thousand commonalties and unconscious partnerships. The science of ecology, unknown in Fabre’s day, gives ample support to the intuition that, without insects, most complex food webs would collapse and the vast majority of multi-cellular life forms – plants, animals and fungi alike – would rapidly go extinct. In the radically simplified, artificial ecosystems favored by farmers and gardeners, insects appear chiefly as pests. But this gives a distorted impression, since the species so perceived represent a tiny fraction of the total. Even in apparently healthy, “natural” ecosystems, outbreaks of native herbivorous insects are, in many cases, the result of widespread human alteration of landscape patterns and disturbance regimes. In some cases, outbreak behavior is a normal part of local or regional cycles of disturbance and is essential to the propagation of that species, such that its great numbers during an outbreak belie its sensitivity to environmental change. The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) for instance, became extinct within a few decades of the introduction of the plow and the cow to the river valleys of the Great Plains and the intermontane West.

Insects challenge us in many ways. Even apart from their keystone roles in maintaining ecosystem functions, their sheer diversity is daunting. The British naturalist B.S. Haldane, when asked by a clergyman what, if anything, a lifetime of scientific research had led him to conclude about the mind of the Creator, famously replied that God must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

One of the biggest challenges for a scientific observer is simply to come up with reasonable explanations for behavior that, in humans, would be taken as prima facie evidence of reason. Fabre’s ability to disprove, through careful and imaginative experimentation, the obvious and anthropomorphizing explanation was the truest sign of his aptitude for what we call science.

Fabre’s unflagging faith in the power of blind instinct might strike many readers as symptomatic of a stunted imagination or an insensitivity to wonder. But actually I think the opposite was more nearly the case. The fact that insects can accomplish so many amazing feats WITHOUT the ability to anticipate or to ponder cause and effect should be (as it was for Fabre) an inexhaustible source of wonder. In a famous series of experiments with captive burying-beetles, for example, he managed to show how these insects could surmount innumerable obstacles to the burial of a small mammal. The beetles were, Fabre decided, the beneficiaries not of reasoning intelligence but of a limited toolkit of instinctual behaviors and enough time to employ them in, over and over in varying combinations, until at last a solution appeared on its own – or failed to appear, despite the insect’s physical ability to accomplish it.

Fabre’s own instincts have largely been borne out by subsequent research, which too is impressive considering the meagerness of his respective toolkit. He knew nothing, for instance, of the importance of pheromones and other chemicals to insect communication, yet through close observation he was able to document the very haphazard and (to our way of thinking) inefficient way in which insects such as the burying-beetles would “investigate” and “cooperate” to achieve complicated results.

Casual readers of this weblog might assume, based on my frequent criticisms of reductionism as a stand-alone basis for human understanding, that I would advocate its complete abandonment in favor of Zen-like direct apprehension or some form of quasi-theistic mysticism. Not so! The fact is that the ability to break a problem down into its constituent parts is usually essential to its solution. To reject all such problems as unfit for the spiritually inclined would be to accept, in most cases, explanations that flatter rather than humble us. The imagination is like a muscle: it needs to be exercised. In this regard – paradoxical as it may seem – skepticism is the imagination’s closest ally. Fabre rightly dismisses the “explanations” of previous naturalists, who lacked his skeptical and wide-open gaze, as so much folklore. But the real folk, his fellow villagers, struck him as superior in their instinct for the truth. When queried about the cause of some mysterious phenomenon, such as the clumps of foam produced by froghoppers, they would answer simply “I don’t know.”

“The theorists, proudly daring, have an answer nowadays for every question,” Fabre wrote in The Mason-Wasps, “but as a thousand theoretical views are not worth a single fact, thinkers untrammeled by preconceived ideas are far from becoming convinced.” He continued:

It is something to observe; but it is not enough: we must experiment, that is to say, we must ourselves intervene and create artificial conditions which oblige the animal to reveal to us what it would not tell if left to the normal course of events. Its actions, marvelously contrived to attain the end pursued, are capable of deceiving us as to their real meaning and of making us accept, in their linked sequence, that which our own logic dictates to us. It is not the animal that we are now consulting upon the nature of its aptitudes, upon the primary motives of its activity, but our own opinions, which always yield a reply in favor of our cherished notions. As I have repeatedly shown, observation in itself is often a snare: we interpret its data according to the exigencies of our theories. To bring out the truth, we must needs resort to experiment . . . Observation sets the problem; experiment solves it, always presuming that it can be solved; or at least, if powerless to yield the full light of truth, it sheds a certain gleam over the edges of the impenetrable cloud.

“Fabre is another Gulliver,” writes Mary Oliver in Blue Pastures. She calls his descriptions of insects and other arthropods “close to miraculous.” That’s why, a century after their first appearance, despite the competition from so many other, more recent classics on one aspect or another of the mammoth Class Insecta, Fabre’s volumes continue to amaze and enchant.

I am a dreamer and a writer of poems. The scientific quest is, in some ways, as strange to me as the world of insects. I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to pursue a scientific career, yet perhaps for that reason I am awestruck by the few latter-day Fabres I have been fortunate enough to meet. The seasoned field naturalist is as unlike the verbose humanist scholar as one can imagine: he or she tends to be much less convinced of the ability of language to capture truth. “The more I observe and experiment,” Fabre confessed, “the more clearly I see rising out of the black mists of possibility an enormous note of interrogation.”

J. Henri Fabre’s life makes for a great morality play: a scientist’s version of the Horatio Alger myth. For all that he may have been a paragon of single-minded dedication to an enormous and exacting task, it is his good sense and wisdom that wins me over in the end. One of his most famous statements of belief comes from a letter he wrote to a friend near the end of his life. If it were up to me to rewrite the Bible, I would put this quote right at the very end:

Because I have shifted a few grains of sand upon the shore, am I in a position to understand the depths of the ocean? Life has unfathomable secrets. Human knowledge will be erased from the world’s archives before we possess the last word that a gnat has to say to us.


Bibliographic note: The Maeterlinck quote comes from the Preface to The Life of the Spider, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, Dodd, Mead and Co., 1919. This preface also contains a slightly different translation of the quote, just given, about the limits to human knowledge. It continues (in part): “Success is for the loud talkers, the self-convinced dogmatists; everything is admitted on condition that it be noisily proclaimed. Let us throw off this sham and recogize that, in reality, we know nothing about anything, if things were probed to the bottom. Scientifically, Nature is a riddle without a definite solution to satisfy man’s curiosity . . . To know how not to know might well be the last word of wisdom.” I’m sure it was statements like this that sparked Teale’s comparison with Diogenes!

All the other Fabre quotes come from the one-volume selection, The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, edited and introduced by Edwin Way Teale. Not only is this book still in print but, according to Amazon, affordable reprints of each translated volume of the full-length Souvenirs Entomologiques are available too. Despite not being exactly a household name, Fabre obviously still has a devoted following.

For more on the extinction of North America’s only native locust species, see Jeffrey Lockwood, “Voices From the Past: Learning From the Rocky Mountain Locust,” Wild Earth, Spring 2002, 21-27.

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