Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Insects and the National Holiday
By Jean-Henri Fabre (1823–1915)
From ‘Souvenirs Entomologiques,’ Vol. vi., Chapter xii.: Translation of Leland Hall

HHERE we are in mid-July. The dog days are about to begin, but as a matter of fact the torrid weather has gained upon the calendar, and for several weeks the heat has been overpowering.  1
  In the village this evening there is a great celebration of our national holiday. The youngsters of the neighborhood are rollicking round a bonfire, the glow of which on the church steeple I catch a glimpse of now and then through the trees. There is a pompous racket of drums as each rocket soars into the air. Meanwhile, alone in a dark corner of my garden, in the relative coolness of nine o’clock, I am listening to the concert of a holiday of the open, a holiday of harvests, much more impressive than that being celebrated now on the village green with powder, with blazing piles of wood, with Japanese lanterns, and most of all with much drinking. It is as simple as beauty; it is as calm as power.  2
  It is late, and the Cicadæ are silent. All day long, soothed with light and warmth, they were prodigal of their symphonies. Come night, rest for them; but rest often broken. From the thick branches of the plane trees there comes a sudden noise, piercing and short, like a shriek of anguish. That is the despairing cry of the Cicada, surprised in her repose by the Green Locust, fervid night huntress, who pounces upon her, grips her sides, tears her open, and disembowels her. After an orgie of music, slaughter.  3
  I find nothing to regret in that I have never seen, and never shall see, the supreme expression of our national jubilance,—the military review at Longchamps. The newspapers tell me enough about it. They give me a picture of the place. I see here and there in the shrubbery the sinister red cross, with its placard: Military Ambulance, Civil Ambulance. So there will be broken bones to set, sunstrokes to take care of, perhaps even deaths to deplore. It is all provided for; it is all in the program.  4
  Even here in my village, usually so peaceful, I’d be willing to wager my hand that the celebration will not end without someone coming to blows, inevitable seasoning to a day of merrymaking. Apparently, fully to relish our pleasure we must have some spice of pain.  5
  Let us listen and meditate, here, far away from the hubbub. While the gored Cicada still protests, the fête goes on up there in the plane trees, with a change in the orchestra. The night singers now have their turn. In the thick mass of leaves about the murder spot the fine ear catches the rustling of Locusts. It is a noise like the whirring of a spinning wheel, very delicate, a faint scraping of dry pellicules. Over this ground bass there breaks out now and then a sudden click, very sharp, almost metallic. Here we have the song and the strophe, broken by interludes of silence. The rest is the accompaniment.  6
  A thin concert, very thin after all, in spite of the re-enforcement of the bass, although there are perhaps a dozen performers right about me. The sound lacks intensity. My old eardrum cannot always catch these tenuous sonorities. The little I gather is of an extreme sweetness; nothing could be more appropriate to the calm, soft twilight. A little more sweep to your bow, Green Locust, my friend, and you would be preferable as a virtuoso to the harsh Cicada, whose name and whose reputation the people of the north have thrust upon you.  7
  Yet you will never be a match for your neighbor, the tiny Tree Toad, ringer of little bells, who tinkles at the foot of the plane trees while you click up aloft. He is the smallest of my batrachian population, the most adventurous as well.  8
  How many times have I not chanced upon him when, in the last light of evening, I wandered aimlessly through my garden in search of fugitive ideas? Something tries to get away, rolls and bumps awkwardly from under my feet. Is it a dead leaf stirred by the wind? No, it is the dainty little toad, whom I have troubled in his wayfaring. Hastily he takes refuge under a stone, a bit of earth, a tuft of grass; and waiting only to master his emotion, takes up again his clear note.  9
  On this evening of national rejoicing there are wellnigh a dozen about me, striving to outdo each other in chiming. Most of them are hidden in the deep shadows round the flower pots which, in close lines, form a vestibule before my dwelling. Each has his peculiar note, always the same; some high, some low, a short, clear note, ringing full in the ear and of an exquisite purity. Slow in rhythm and in measured cadence, they seem to intone a litany. This one goes cluck; that one—his throat is finer—replies click; and a third one, the tenor of the choir, adds, clock. And this goes on indefinitely, like the carillon in the village on feast days: cluck, click, clock; cluck, click, clock.  10
  This chorus of toads puts me in mind of a simple musical instrument I ardently longed to possess when I was six years old and my ears were beginning to be sensitive to the magic of sounds. It was a series of strips of glass of various lengths fixed across two bands of ribbon. A bit of cork on the end of a wire served to tap them. Imagine an unskilled hand striking this keyboard haphazard, in the liveliest confusion of octaves and dissonance, and chords topsy-turvy, and you will have a good idea of the litany of toads.  11
  As a song this litany has neither rhyme nor reason; as pure sound it is delicious. So it is with all music in the concerts of nature. Our ear finds in it superb beauty of sound; then, becoming sensitive to something beyond the actual sounds, it develops a feeling for order, the first condition of beauty.  12
  Now this sweet calling from one hiding place to another is the matrimonial oratorio, the discrete appeal of each to his mate. What follows the concert it is easy to guess; but one would never foresee the strange outcome of the nuptials. What happens is this: there comes a day when the father, in this case the true paterfamilias, in the noblest sense of the word, leaves his home in a quite unrecognizable state.  13
  The future is packed round his hind legs; he moves out of his house laden with a cluster of eggs about the size of peppercorns. The bulky load binds his legs, hampers his thighs, pushes up on his back like a knapsack. He loses his shape under it.  14
  Where is he going, thus dragging himself along, quite unable to hop, so heavily is he burdened? In the tenderness of his heart he is going whither the mother refuses to go; he is betaking himself to the neighboring swamp, the warmish waters of which are indispensable both to the hatching of the eggs and to the life of the nurslings. With the eggs, ripened to the point of hatching, about his legs, from under the moldy roof of a stone, he resolutely faces moisture and the full light of day,—he who is so fond of being dry and of dark places. In short stages he makes his way forward, his lungs bursting with fatigue. Maybe the swamp is a long way off. No matter; the determined little pilgrim will find it.  15
  At last he is there. Without a moment’s hesitation he dives in, in spite of his deep aversion to the bath; and at that moment the eggs drop from him, freed by the rubbing of his legs. The eggs are now in their element; the rest will be done without him. Having fulfilled his duty by this immersion, the father hastens to his dry home. Hardly has he turned his back before the little nurslings break from their eggs and wriggle about. To burst their shells they awaited only the contact with the water.  16
  Among the singers of the July twilight there is one who, if there were variety in his song, might rival the harmonious little chimes of the Tree Toad. That is the Scops, graceful night raider with round golden eyes. On his forehead there are two feathery horns which have won for him hereabouts the name of Machoto banarudo, or Horned Owl. His song, though the quality of his note is rich enough to fill of itself the silence of the night, is depressingly monotonous. Tchô, tchô, he goes, with an imperturbable regularity, as hour after hour he sends up his cantata to the moon.  17
  Just now, driven from the plane trees round the village square by the joyous racket of the celebration, one has come to beg hospitality of me. I hear him in the topmost branches of a neighboring cypress. From his perch high above the lyrical assembly he breaks regularly into the orchestral confusion of Locusts and Tree Toads.  18
  Sharply in contrast with this sweet note there comes at intervals from another spot a sound like the miaul of a cat. This is the call of the ordinary owl, Pallas Athene’s bird of wise meditations. All day she lurked in the hollow of an olive tree; then after the shadows of evening began to fall she set forth on her wanderings. With smooth graceful flight, like the swaying of a swing, she has come to the pines in my garden, whence she adds to the concert her discordant miauling, a little softened by distance.  19
  The click of the Locust is much too fine to be caught in the midst of these louder songs. Only now and then in a moment of silence does a bit of it come to me. For her music she has but a little stretch of membrane to scrape; while they, more favored, have breath and the power of lungs to send forth a vibrant column of air. A comparison is impossible. Let us come back to the insects.  20
  One of these, even smaller than the Locust and not less meagrely equipped, surpasses her greatly in singing at night,—the pale and slender Italian Cricket (Œcanthus pellucens), so fragile that one hardly dares to seize him for fear of crushing him. He joins in the concert from the rosemary bushes on every side, while to add the last touch to the fête, the glowworms light the blue fires of their little lamps.  21
  This fine instrumentalist is made up above all of broad wings, delicate and sparkling like blades of mica. Thanks to this dry spread of sail, he is able to overpower the Tree Toads with his bowing and scraping. One would say it was the song of the ordinary black cricket, perhaps mors brilliant and with more tremolo in the bow. Indeed such a mistake is almost inevitable for one who does not know that the true cricket is a springtime singer and that in these days of scorching heat he has disappeared. But the place of his charming violin has been taken by another still more pleasing and worthy of special study. We will come back to it in the proper place.  22
  Limiting ourselves to the really distinguished, these would be the chief singers in our evening musical: the Horned Owl, with his languorous solos; the Tree Toad, chiming sonatas; the Italian Cricket scraping on his high E string; and the Green Locust, who taps a tiny steel triangle.  23
  We, to-day, are celebrating with much more noise than conviction the new era, dated—in politics—from the taking of the Bastille; they, with superb indifference to human affairs, celebrate the fête of the sun. They sing the bliss of life; they shout hosanna for the fiery heat of the dog days. What to them are man and his rejoicings, so changing!  24
  For whom, for what, for what idea shall we set off the thunder of our guns a few years hence? He must indeed be a seer who can tell. Fashions change and bring in the unforeseen. Our compliant rockets are ever ready to burst into flower of sparks in the sky for the hated and cursed of yesterday, become the idol of to-day. To-morrow they will show themselves off no less for another.  25
  In a century or two will there be any question of the taking of the Bastille, save, perhaps, among a few learned ones? It is very doubtful. We shall have other gladness, other grief.  26
  Dip deeper into the future. Everything seems to point to a day that will come when man, progressing, progressing, will at last succumb, killed by too much of what he calls civilization. Too full of zeal to rise to godhead, he cannot hope to endure as the beasts; he will have vanished from off the face of the earth while still the little Tree Toad sings his litany together with the Locust, the Owl, and yet others. They sang before us on the planet; they will sing after us, celebrating the Immutable, the torrid glory of the sun.  27

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