Kevin Short writes about his retelling of “The Insect Stories of J. Henri Fabre”

NATURE IN SHORT By Kevin Short

Fabre’s book on insects remains a classic after more than 100 years

Feb 9, 2008 The Daily Yomiuri

Greeting’s readers. If you don’t mind, I’d like to use this week’s story as a chance to introduce a new English language book that has just become available. The book, entitled The Insect Stories of J. Henri Fabre is a condensed, edited version of the famous Souvenirs Entomologiques, a series of popular stories describing the ecology and behavior of insects, originally written in French between the years 1878 and 1907.

The author of these books, Jean Henri Fabre, was born in 123 in Saint-Leon, deep in the mountains east of Avignon in the Provence region of southern France. Although he remained poor throughout most of his life, Fabre was blessed from childhood with an infinite curiosity about the natural world. In his own words he “made for the flowers and insects as the butterfly makes for the cabbage!”

Fabre was also endowed with a keen eye and ear, an inexhaustible reserve of patience and perseverance, and a cool logic. When faced with a nuatural history puzzle, he first collected data through detailed observations and experiments, then sifted through varous competing explanations, eliminating wrong ones until finally arriving at the truth.

A century of naturalists, myself included, have revered Fabre as a founding father of our discipline. His rigorous approach to observation and tireless pursuit of knowledge has set a standard that we still strive to live up to. But Fabre was more than just a naturalist. He was also a superb writer, turning what in lesser hands would be dry science into picturesque, flowing prose. Charles Darwin was a great fan of Fabre’s work, and his biographer referred to him as the “Poet of Science.”

Unfortunately, Fabre’s superb work has not been readily ccessible to modern day English readers. The Souvenirs were translated into English during the early decades of thsi century by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. These original editions, however, are long out of print, and are available only as used books on the Internet. Modern reprints have appeared, but these are expensive and also must be specially ordered.

Another problem with the Souvenirs is their sheer length. Fabre wrote these stories over a 30 year period, and they filled 10 thick volumes! We professional naturalists insist on owning and reading the volumes cover to cover (my bookshelves sag under the weight of several complete collections in English and Japanese), but to the casual reader the length alone is often a bit intimidating.

Last year I was contacted by my editor at Kodansha Ltd. and asked to work up a short volume that would serve as a basic introduction to Fabre and his work. This was a task that I accepted gladly, and undertook as a labor of love.

To begin with, Ipicked 14 of my faborite Souvenir stories. These I carefully whittled down to bite-szie, while trying my best to preserve the flow and color of the excellent original English translations. My main concern was that readers experience the great sense of awe and wonder that Fabre felt for the natural world.

The first story I settled on was Favre’s classic study of the sacred dung beetle. These insects live off the dung of herbivores such as sheep, cows and horses. They roll the dung into perfectly round balls, which they then push away to consume at leisure. Fabre’s detailed descrotion of a beeetle trying desperately to roll his ball p a steep slope is hilarious. On the other hand, his research was the first to accuratelydescribe how this species reproduces. The female lays her egg inside a specially constructed ball fashioned from the richest dung. When the egg hatches the growing larva simply eats his way out.

I also included some of Gabre’s famous work with cicadas. His experiments provided the first accurate accoutn of how these insects produce their distinctive songs. In Fabre’s prose the mating dance of scorpions turns into a romantic but somewhat bizarre waltz–the dance ends iwth the female consuming her partner!

Many of the Souvenir stories read like Edgar Allen Poe murder mysteries. How does a tarantula manage to kill a huge bee with a single bite? By what devious techniques can a hunting wasp completely paralyze her victims without actually killing them? Is a “praying” mantis really so pious, or are her reverently folded forearms actually the horrible weapons of a brutal murderess in disguise?

Why do animal corpses disappear in a matter of days? Fabre’s superb work on greenbottle fly maggots marked the beginning of forensic entomology. It also presaged many of our modern concepts of ecology. The maggots secrete chemicals that dissolve flesh, turning it into a liquid, which they can then digest. Rather than despise these creatures as disgusting agents of evil, as was the wont in thsoe days, Fabre correctly recognized their vital role as recyclers of organic material. “The Greenbottle maggot is a power in this world, to give back to life, with all speed, the remains of that which has died. It distills in corpses an essence wherein the Earth may be noursihed and enriched.

Fabre’s passion for nature is a truly timeless gift, as vibrant and meaningful today as it was a century ago. This little volume, just published in Kodansha’s popular English Library paperback series (Kodansha Eigo Bunko), makes his magic readily available to everyone. It includes a brief biography of Fabre, some illustrations by my son Luke (a college student–I needed something to keep him out of trouble during last year’s summer vacation) and notes in Japanese to help non-native English readers. The price is only a little over 800 yen and the book is stocked in the English learning section of most bookstores.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences

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