Saturday, April 25, 2009

Of Insects and Men

This was the best of the lot, I'm afraid. I believe it is a member of Carabidae, a ground beetle, out for its evening jog. I sighted several of these at one stop in my cloud-hunting on Thursday, but I was quite pressed for time, and they are amazingly quick. I came away with several fair close-ups of sand, but nothing so fair of the beetle. When time restraints drove me back into the car, I counted four of the swift creatures through the windshield, running all over the side of the road. Probably laughing at me.

Back in my university days (ah! so long ago!) I had a pet ground beetle for a few days. His name was Plato because that was what we were supposed to be studying for that week. Well, that is, we were supposed to be studying an essay by the philosopher, but it comes out the same if somebody asks you what you are studying and you reply, "Plato." Not that I did study the creature as much as I had hoped (indeed, I don't know if it was a him), but I brought him earthworms and finally, noting that he wasn't all that crazy about earthworms, and reading that his ilk prefer slugs (if I remember aright), and that it was the other Plato and his ilk who were truly demanding my attention, I took him back out to the woods and left him free to hunt his own supper.

If you would like to read accounts of more successful entomological research, it's an excellent time of year to look up Jean Henri Fabre. You can read his Book of Insects in its entirety there on Google Books. The descriptions of insect habits, translated from the French, are quite lively and even amusing at times, but, even more impressive than the obvious attention to detail is Fabre's delighted passion for his work. If you have ever enjoyed a few moments on your hands and knees listening to the miraculous, distant sound of a caterpillar chewing through a leaf, or if you have ever frozen yourself into some impossible position by a lake, holding your breath and wondering if that sky-blue slip of a damselfly would possibly take a notion to land were you might get a better look, well, you will thoroughly enjoy an hour or two with Fabre. He did what he loved best to do--and it shows through every word.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, you might vaguely recall that Fabre's own life story makes a classic in its own right. Born into a poor farming family and largely self-educated, even lacking a microscope for years, he filled volumes with his painstaking observations, serving as an inspiration to countless future scientists. Though that is an impressive story, to say the least, struggle and stamina are not the themes of his writing, so much as joy, pure and simple. As Edwin Way Teale wrote in the introduction to The Insect World of Jean Henri Fabre:

Fabre found the delights of a lifetime--adventure and fame, as well--in
observing the near-at-home. He was an explorer whose jungles were weed-lots and whose deserts were sandbanks. . .Throughout his long life. . .Fabre never lost
his zest for the insect world with its multitudinous mysteries. And no man ever
lived who transmitted that enthusiasm to more of his fellow-men.

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