Monday, July 10, 2006

Bug-eyed

I'm sure I am not the only person who was nudged toward the study of the natural world by reading the books of the great 19th-century entomologist J. Henri Fabre.

Fabre made bugs -- ordinary bugs of the household and garden -- as exciting as the great beasts of the African veld. He told stories of their nestings and matings, their languages and societies, and their roles as predators and prey, all based on his own careful observations.

But in spite of his popular success, Fabre was never made a welcome member of the scientific community. His folksy, literary prose style was resented by his fellow entomologists. They were further put off by his resistance to dissection and laboratory experiments. Stymied in his career, Fabre never advanced beyond an assistant professorship at a tiny salary.

He believed that the methods of science must be consistent with our motives for knowing; that is to say, if we are motivated by love for the thing we study, our way of knowing will be loving. He entered as intimately as possible into the lives of insects. His laboratory was the field. "I make my observations under the blue sky," he wrote, "to the song of the cicada."

He wore himself out discovering the secrets of the natural world, on his knees in the grass, ears alert to the cicada's song.