Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Observing the Details of Nature ~ Naturalist Jean Henri Fabre

That inimitable observer, M. Fabre, . . . .
~ Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

The ability to observe, to pay attention to detail – yes, a desirable attribute, particularly for someone interested in natural history.

A recent incident just served to confirm that it’s not really one of mine.  Guided by my skillful proofreading hand, an article in my fossil club’s newsletter offered up three different ways of spelling the name of a river in Mississippi.  Cold comfort that one variant was actually correct.  To cap it off, one of the misspellings was in the article’s title.  Human trumped technology since I ran a spell checker and evidently accepted each of those spellings.

Then there’s the great naturalist Jean Henri Fabre (1823 – 1915), whose close, careful observations of insect life in nature came to define him.  My recent, very belated discovery of Fabre prompts this post, and, nicely, it’s within striking range of his birthday on the 22nd of December.

Employed as a teacher until late middle age, Fabre was a keen cataloger of the minute details of the natural world around him.  For nearly the last four decades of his life, he supported himself with many articles and books, and the natural world he examined was largely defined by the limits of a small walled-in plot of land in Serignan in Provence, France.  Primarily, he studied insects – their anatomy and their behavior – and did it with such skill that, even as a young man, he impressed that consummate observer Charles Darwin.

Darwin cited him in On The Origin of Species when Fabre was only in his late 30s.  In Darwin’s discussion of how natural selection might modify animals’ instincts by taking advantage of an occasional, opportunistic action, he notes that:

. . . M. Fabre has lately shown good reason for believing that although the Tachytes nigra [a predatory solitary wasp] generally makes its own burrow and stores it with paralysed prey for its own larvae to feed on, yet that when this insect finds a burrow already made and stored by another sphex [a digger wasp], it takes advantage of the prize, and becomes for the occasion parasitic.  In this case, as with the supposed case of the cuckoo, I can see no difficulty in natural selection making an occasional habit permanent, if of advantage to the species, and if the insect whose next and stored food are those feloniously appropriated, be not thus exterminated.  (1859 edition)
Though the two communicated warmly on occasion late in Darwin’s life, Fabre remained a critic of the theory of evolution by natural selection.  In a letter to Fabre dated January 31, 1880, Darwin is quintessentially Darwin, friendly, deferential, and assertive.  He begins by praising a recent volume of Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques (which ultimately grew to a 10-volume series of books published over some 30 years).  Darwin writes, “Never have the wonderful habits of insects been more vividly described, and it is almost as good to read about them as to see them.”  He then goes on the offensive, first, gently asking Fabre to correct an incident involving Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin that was recounted in the book; he generously presumes it was due to a faulty translation Fabre read about the incident.  More pointedly, he takes Fabre to task for his dismissal of the theory.  Darwin delivers a somewhat stinging rebuke within the cloak of a compliment – pure Darwin:
I am sorry that you are so strongly opposed to the Descent theory; I have found the searching for the history of each structure or instinct an excellent aid to observation; and wonderful observer as you are, it would suggest new points to you.  (The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887)
Fabre had ended his book with a lament about the death of his young son.  Darwin, who knew first hand the pain of the loss of a child, responds with heartfelt emotion:   “Permit me to add, that when I read the last sentence in your book, I sympathised deeply with you.”  But, science will out, and he immediately adds a postscript in which he comments approvingly on Fabre’s account of insects finding their way home, and suggests an experiment for Fabre to try.

Fabre wedded his powers of observation to a writing style of passion, poetry, and immediacy.  It is interesting to contrast his prose with Darwin’s.  The latter’s is eminently serviceable and readable, but the syntax can be complex and the prose seldom rises to the heights Fabre seemed to achieve effortlessly.  Their differing motives for writing had much to do with it.  Darwin built scientific arguments, proposed profound theories and defended same.  Fabre wrote to chronicle his observations and, perhaps even more relevant, to put bread on the table; by necessity, he was seeking a broader, popular audience.

The power of Fabre’s writing was not lost on the naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell who, at age 10 in the mid 1930s, was introduced to Fabre’s books by his older brother Lawrence, the novelist.  Gerald Durrell wrote that Fabre “opened up a magical world” in which, not only was strange insect behavior described and explained, but all of nature was at play, “from mushrooms to fossils and his writing meant that you were suddenly transported out into the open air instead of, as with so many Victorian naturalists, into a museum.”  (The Amateur Naturalist:  A Practical Guide, 1984)

Of Fabre’s written work that I’ve sampled, some essays absolutely enthrall me, and other pieces, despite the lyricism of the writing, leave me a bit cold, particularly when the naturalist delights in describing some of the more egregious behaviors of insects.  In the latter category, here’s Fabre on the Ammophila, a wasp, whose larvae are parasitic on caterpillars and sawflies:
Let us recall the table-manners of a larva living on prey, the Ammophila’s for instance, when devouring its Caterpillar.  A hole is made in the victim’s side; and the head and neck of the nursling dive deep into the wound, to root luxuriously among the entrails.  (The Life of the Fly, 1913)
Writing is lovely, topic not so much.  Easy to understand the attraction of a passage like this to a 10-year old.

Then there’s the Fabre who delights me, and it is telling, I suppose, that much of what I really like is often not the careful, detailed observations of insects and their behavior, but the personal asides and his expansive prose sojourns through natural history.  For example, in The Life of the Weevil (a 1922 compilation of the essays on weevils that appeared in the 10 volumes of the Souvenirs entomologiques), Fabre describes how, in the wintertime in Provence when “the insect takes an enforced rest,” he gains some amusement from numismatics, studying the Roman, Greek, and other ancient coins that local farmers find when they till the soil.  A coin strikes his fancy and, in flowing prose, he describes the details of the portrait on it:
On the obverse, a head of Diana of Ephesus, chub-faced, full-cheeked, thick-lipped.  A receding forehead, surmounted by a diadem; an abundant head of hair, streaming down the neck in a cascade of curls; heavy eardrops, a pearl necklace, a bow slung over the shoulder.
Still he finds this study of coins pales in comparison to “another science of numismatics, far superior and less costly, which, with its medals, the fossils, tells us the history of life.  I refer to the numismatics of stones.”  The very stone house in which he lives is the repository of this history of life, inspiring Fabre to language that approaches poetry:
My very window-sill, the confidant of bygone ages, talks to me of a vanished world.  It is, literally speaking, an ossuary, whose every particle retains the imprint of past lives.  That block of stone has lived.  Prickly spines of Sea-urchins, teeth and vertebrae of fish, broken pieces of shells and fragments of madrepores [a kind of coral] form a conglomeration of dead existences.  Examined stone by stone, my house would resolve itself into a reliquary, a rag-fair of ancient things that were once alive.
That block of stone has lived.  A perfect line.

Fabre describes the quarries from which the stone used in the building was dug and expounds on the myriad fossils that come forth from the rock.  He captures perfectly how teeth, particularly shark teeth, stand out from other fossils because they are “still wonderfully polished in the midst of their rough matrix and as bright with enamel as in the fresh state.”  These teeth and the other fossils tell him of a very different ancient landscape, or, more properly, shallow seascape.  How they appear in the matrix suggests to him the nature of waters that were once here, the proximity of land, and how these many creatures died.  Though he may not have embraced Darwin’s theory, Fabre recognized that entire species had been “mown down” by “that patient renewer of the harmony of things.”

Within the sheets that flake from a local stone, he finds perfectly preserved fossil fish.  These stone pages contain marine and terrestrial fossils, including his favorite organisms, insects.  And when he finds tiny gnats, he memorializes them in the contradiction between their life and their death:
What shall we say of these frail Midges enshrined intact in their marly reliquary?  The feeble creature, which our fingers could not pick up without crushing it, remains undisturbed beneath the weight of the mountains!

Source of Pictures
Each picture of Fabre comes from Commons.wikimedia.  Reportedly the copyrights on these images have expired.  The first picture can be found here and the second here.

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