Saturday, October 29, 2005

Natural history

While I'm on the subject of Virginia Woolf, I am reminded of a passage from a biography of Woolf by her nephew Quentin Bell, describing the "bug hunting" adventures of young Virginia and her sibs.
As blood sports go, the killing of lepidoptera has a good deal to recommend it: it can offend only the most squeamish of humanitarians; it involves all the passion and skill of the naturalist, the charm of summer excursions and sudden exhilarating pursuits, the satisfaction of filling gaps in the collection, the careful study of text books, and, above all, the mysterious pleasure of staying up late, and walking softly through the night to where a rag, soaked in rum and treacle, has attracted dozens of slugs, crawly-bobs and, perhaps, some great lamp-eyed, tipsy, extravagantly gaudy moth.

If you know Woolf's work, you will know that moths, especially, reappear affectionately in her writing. The collecting of insects, plants and fossils were common activities among Victorians of a certain class. Children from an early age engaged in natural history activities, with all of the intellectual and sensual pleasures enumerated by Bell. We have become more squeamish than were Victorians about killing for collecting, although the digital camera makes a satisfying substitute. Still, I cannot imagine children today tearing themselves away from their video games long enough to be attracted to slugs and crawly-bobs (whatever they are) -- or even a lamp-eyed, tipsy, extravagantly gaudy moth.