Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Here I am, run wild, and I shall be so till the end"

A few more words about J. Henri Fabre.

His works are voluminous, and my college library has a representative sample. As I take down those century-old translations today I see my name filling the old check-out cards in the back pockets. I apparently read a lot of Fabre as a young man. Not that I was particularly interested in insects. I was interested in learning how to see. And how to describe what I saw. Fabre was a master.

The best selected introduction to Fabre's work these days is Edwin Way Teale's The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, a selection of his writing, with a photo on the cover of the master's laboratory, preserved today as a museum as Fabre left it, like Darwin's study in England.

Fabre's life was rather more stressed than Darwin's, at least as far as finances were concerned. At age eighteen, in 1842, he began to earn his living as a schoolteacher, his meager salary often in arrears. In 1852 he became a professor at the Lycee of Avignon, where he labored for eighteen years at a salary that never increased in all that time, spending his few personal hours in the study of insects. In 1870 he was dismissed -- and denounced from the pulpit -- for admitting girls to his science class.

Now began a long hard struggle to support his family with his pen, all the while pursuing his great life's work in isolation from the professional scientific establishment. One by one, his classic books on the lives of insects were issued to little attention.

Finally, in his mid-eighties, Fabre was discovered by the literary and scientific establishments, and showered by international acclaim, scientific awards, a generous government pension, and the laboratory instruments he had never been able to afford. Edwin Way Teale writes of the old man, as he neared his nineties, "His sense of wonder outlived his sense of sight; his interest and enthusiasm outlasted his strength."

May we all be so generously blessed with wonder and delight.