Thursday, April 4, 2013

THE SACRED BEETLE: JEAN-HENRI FABRÉ'S BOOK OF INSECTS


"Sometimes the Scarab seems to enter into partnership with a friend"--

On my trip to Pittsburgh, I was welcomed by Dru Hoyt, who lives in rural Ohio, along with her husband home-schooled their five kids (all of whom play a classical instrument or two), makes her own bread, farms, gleans, does for the sick, and drove three hours RT in the driving rain to ferry me out to her place, which was full of good cheer, good food, music, warmth and books.

One of the books she turned me onto that day was Jean-Henri Fabre's Book of Insects, a 1921 classic, with tissue-paper-protected color plates by E.J. Detmold.

After returning home, I found a copy, same edition, in the L.A. Public Library and therein discovered a whole wondrous world.

The wasp, the cicada, the praying mantis--all your favorite insect pals are here. Jean-Henri and his trusty young son would steal out in the dead of night with cardboard boxes, torches, nets, magnifiying glasses, spades, and rulers. They gathered eggs, nests, grubs, larvae...which they would then bring home and obsessively, patiently, minutely, experiment with and observe--for hours, days, weeks, months at a time...

From wikipedia: "In one of Fabre's most famous experiments, he arranged Pine Processionary caterpillars to form a continuous loop around the edge of a pot. As each caterpillar instinctively followed the silken trail of the caterpillars in front of it, the group moved around in a circle for seven days."

How much fun would that be!
He kind of LOOKS like an insect, Jean-Henri!
Even better, he was born poor and largely taught himself...
Here's a chapter called The Sacred Beetle.

FABRE'S BOOK OF INSECTS -- RETOLD FROM ALEXANDER TEIXEIRA DE MATTOS' TRANSLATION OF FABRE'S "SOUVENIRS ENTOMOLOGIQUES"

CHAPTER 2: THE SACRED BEETLE

I: THE BALL

IT is six or seven thousand years since the Sacred Beetle was first talked about. The peasant of ancient Egypt, as he watered his patch of onions in the spring, would see from time to time a fat black insect pass close by, hurriedly trundling a ball backwards. He would watch the queer rolling thing in amazement, as the peasant of Provence watches it to this day.

The early Egyptians fancied that this ball was a symbol of the earth, and that all the Scarab's actions were prompted by the movements of the heavenly bodies. So much knowledge of astronomy in a Beetle seemed to them almost divine, and that is why he is called the Sacred Beetle. They also thought that the ball he rolled on the ground contained the egg, and that the young Beetle came out of it. But as a matter of fact, it is simply his store of food.

It is not at all nice food. For the work of this Beetle is to scour the filth from the surface of the soil. The ball he rolls so carefully is made of his sweepings from the roads and fields.

This is how he sets about it. The edge of his broad, flat head is notched with six teeth arranged in a semi-circle, like a sort of curved rake; and this he uses for digging and cutting up, for throwing aside the stuff he does not want, and scraping together the food he chooses. His bow-shaped fore-legs are also useful tools, for they are very strong, and they too have five teeth on the outside. So if a vigorous effort be needed to remove some obstacle the Scarab makes use of his elbows, that is to say he flings his toothed legs to right and left, and clears a space with an energetic sweep. Then he collects arm-fuls of the stuff he has raked together, and pushes it beneath him, between the four hinder-legs. These are long and slender, especially the last pair, slightly bowed and finished with a sharp claw. The Beetle then presses the stuff against his body with his hind-legs, curving it and spinning it round and round till it forms a perfect ball. In a moment a tiny pellet grows to the size of a walnut, and soon to that of an apple. I have seen some gluttons manufacture a ball as big as a man's fist.

When the ball of provisions is ready it must be moved to a suitable place. The Beetle begins the journey. He clasps the ball with his long hind-legs and walks with his fore-legs, moving backwards with his head down and his hind-quarters in the air. He pushes his load behind him by alternate thrusts to right and left. One would expect him to choose a level road, or at least a gentle in- cline. Not at all! Let him find himself near some steep slope, impossible to climb, and that is the very path the obstinate creature will attempt. The ball, that enor- mous burden, is painfully hoisted step by step, with in- finite precautions, to a certain height, always backwards. Then by some rash movement all this toil is wasted: the ball rolls down, dragging the Beetle with it. Once more the heights are climbed, and another fall is the result. Again and again the insect begins the ascent. The merest trifle ruins everything; a grass-root may trip him up or a smooth bit of gravel make him slip, and down come ball and Beetle, all mixed up together. Ten or twenty times he will start afresh, till at last he is successful, or else sees the hopelessness of his efforts and resigns himself to taking the level road.

Sometimes the Scarab seems to enter into partnership with a friend. This is the way in which it usually happens. When the Beetle's ball is ready he leaves the crowd of workers, pushing his prize backwards. A neighbour, whose own task is hardly begun, suddenly drops his work and runs to the moving ball, to lend a hand to the owner. His aid seems to be accepted willingly. But the new-comer is not really a partner; he is a robber. To make one's own ball needs hard work and patience; to steal one ready-made, or to invite oneself to a neighbour's dinner, is much easier. Some thieving Beetles go to work craftily, others use violence.

Sometimes a thief comes flying up, knocks over the owner of the ball, and perches himself on top of it. With his fore-legs crossed over his breast, ready to hit out, he awaits events. If the owner raises himself to seize his ball the robber gives him a blow that stretches him on his back. Then the other gets up and shakes the ball till it begins rolling, and perhaps the thief falls off. A wrestling-match follows. The two Beetles grapple with one another: their legs lock and unlock, their joints intertwine, their horny armour clashes and grates with the rasping sound of metal under a file. The one who is successful climbs to the top of the ball, and after two or three attempts to dislodge him the defeated Scarab goes off to make himself a new pellet. I have sometimes seen a third Beetle appear, and rob the robber.

But sometimes the thief bides his time and trusts to cunning. He pretends to help the victim to roll the food along, over sandy plains thick with thyme, over cart-ruts and steep places, but he really does very little of the work, preferring to sit on the ball and do nothing. When a suitable place for a burrow is reached the rightful owner begins to dig with his sharp-edged forehead and toothed legs, flinging armfuls of sand behind him, while the thief clings to the ball, shamming dead. The cave grows deeper and deeper, and the working Scarab disappears from view. Whenever he comes to the surface he glances at the ball, on which the other lies, demure and motionless, inspiring confidence. But as the absences of the owner become longer the thief seizes his chance, and hurriedly makes off with the ball, which he pushes behind him with the speed of a pickpocket afraid of being caught. If the owner catches him, as some- times happens, he quickly changes his position, and seems to plead as an excuse that the pellet rolled down the slope, and he was only trying to stop it! And the two bring the ball back as though nothing had happened.

If the thief has managed to get safely away, however, the owner can only resign himself to his loss, which he does with admirable fortitude. He rubs his cheeks, sniffs the air, flies off, and begins his work all over again. I admire and envy his character.

At last his provisions are safely stored. His burrow is a shallow hole about the size of a man's fist, dug in soft earth or sand, with a short passage to the surface, just wide enough to admit the ball. As soon as his food is rolled into this burrow the Scarab shuts himself in by stopping up the entrance with rubbish. The ball fills almost the whole room: the banquet rises from floor to ceiling. Only a narrow passage runs between it and the walls, and here sit the banqueters, two at most, very often only one. Here the Sacred Beetle feasts day and night, for a week or a fortnight at a time, without ceasing.


Thanks for the wonderful visit, Dru--fyi I bought some Kuhlau and Clementi sheet music, too!..

DRU'S VEGETABLE GALETTES
WITH HOME-GROWN PUMPKIN, SWANY WHITE FLOUR, AND SOUR CREAM CRUST
FROM THE SMITTEN KITCHEN COOKBOOK


3 comments:

  1. The story of the Sacred Beetle is so interesting!!! I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would care about the lives of bugs! Last fall my daughter found a leaf bug in our backyard and we kept her for a pet. She lived with us quite happily for several weeks and was so fascinating! I wrote about her and have shared the link if you'd care to learn about this interesting creature. I still miss her! http://annebender.blogspot.com/search?q=ivy+the+leaf+bug

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  2. I am not surprised Jean-Henri Fabre was born poor for it takes a poor man to be so fascinated with, and diligent in the studying of, creepy-crawlers.

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  3. Thanks, AR, and Anne, the leaf bug is amazing! I have never heard of or seen such a thing. It looks EXACTLY LIKE A LEAF!...thanks for sharing...

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