MY SCHOOLINGby@jeanhenrifabre


by Jean-Henri FabreMay 15th, 2023
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Too Long; Didn't Read

I am back in the village, in my father's house. I am now seven years old; and it is high time that I went to school. Nothing could have turned out better: the master is my godfather. What shall I call the room in which I was to become acquainted with the alphabet? It would be difficult to find the exact word, because the room served for every purpose. It was at once a school, a kitchen, a bedroom, a dining room and, at times, a chicken house and a piggery. Palatial schools were not dreamt of in those days; any wretched hovel was thought good enough.
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The Life of the Fly; With Which are Interspersed Some Chapters of Autobiography by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. MY SCHOOLING


I am back in the village, in my father's house. I am now seven years old; and it is high time that I went to school. Nothing could have turned out better: the master is my godfather. What shall I call the room in which I was to become acquainted with the alphabet? It would be difficult to find the exact word, because the room served for every purpose. It was at once a school, a kitchen, a bedroom, a dining room and, at times, a chicken house and a piggery. Palatial schools were not dreamt of in those days; any wretched hovel was thought good enough.

A broad fixed ladder led to the floor above. Under the ladder stood a big bed in a boarded recess. What was there upstairs? I never quite knew. I would see the master sometimes bring down an armful of hay for the ass, sometimes a basket of potatoes which the housewife emptied into the pot in which the little porkers' food was cooked. It must have been a loft of sorts, a storehouse of provisions for man and beast. Those two apartments composed the whole building.

To return to the lower one, the schoolroom: a window faces south, the only window in the house, a low, narrow window whose frame you can touch at the same time with your head and both your shoulders. This sunny aperture is the only lively spot in the dwelling, it overlooks the greater part of the village, which straggles along the slopes of a slanting valley. In the window recess is the master's little table.

The opposite wall contains a niche in which stands a gleaming copper pail full of water. Here the parched children can relieve their thirst when they please, with a cup left within their reach. At the top of the niche are a few shelves bright with pewter plates, dishes and drinking vessels, which are taken down from their sanctuary on great occasions only.

More or less everywhere, at any spot which the light touches, are crudely colored pictures, pasted on the walls. Here is Our Lady of the Seven Dolours, the disconsolate Mother of God opening her blue cloak to show her heart pierced with seven daggers. Between the sun and moon, which stare at you with their great, round eyes, is the Eternal Father, whose robe swells as though puffed out with the storm. To the right of the window, in the embrasure, is the Wandering Jew. He wears a three-cornered hat, a large, white leather apron, hobnailed shoes and a stout stick. 'Never was such a bearded man seen before or after,' says the legend that surrounds the picture. The draftsman has not forgotten this detail: the old man's beard spreads in a snowy avalanche over the apron and comes down to his knees. On the left is Genevieve of Brabant, accompanied by the roe, with fierce Golo hiding in the bushes, sword in hand. Above hangs The Death of Mr. Credit, slain by defaulters at the door of his inn; and so on and so on, in every variety of subject, at all the unoccupied spots of the four walls.

I was filled with admiration of this picture gallery, which held one's eyes with its great patches of red, blue, green and yellow. The master, however, had not set up his collection with a view to training our minds and hearts. That was the last and least of the worthy man's ambitions. An artist in his fashion, he had adorned his house according to his taste; and we benefited by the scheme of decoration.

While the gallery of halfpenny pictures made me happy all the year round, there was another entertainment which I found particularly attractive in winter, in frosty weather, when the snow lay long on the ground. Against the far wall stands the fireplace, as monumental in size as at my grandmother's. Its arched cornice occupies the whole width of the room, for the enormous redoubt fulfils more than one purpose. In the middle is the hearth, but, on the right and left, are two breast-high recesses, half wood and half stone. Each of them is a bed, with a mattress stuffed with chaff of winnowed corn. Two sliding planks serve as shutters and close the chest if the sleeper would be alone. This dormitory, sheltered under the chimney mantel, supplies couches for the favored ones of the house, the two boarders. They must lie snug in there at night, with their shutters closed, when the north wind howls at the mouth of the dark valley and sends the snow awhirl. The rest is occupied by the hearth and its accessories: the three-legged stools; the salt box, hanging against the wall to keep its contents dry; the heavy shovel which it takes two hands to wield; lastly, the bellows similar to those with which I used to blow out my cheeks in grandfather's house. They consist of a mighty branch of pine, hollowed throughout its length with a red-hot iron. By means of this channel, one's breath is applied, from a convenient distance, to the spot which is to be revived. With a couple of stones for supports, the master's bundle of sticks and our own logs blaze and flicker, each of us having to bring a log of wood in the morning, if he would share in the treat.

For that matter, the fire was not exactly lit for us, but, above all, to warm a row of three pots in which simmered the pigs' food, a mixture of potatoes and bran. That, despite the tribute of a log, was the real object of the brushwood fire. The two boarders, on their stools, in the best places, and we others sitting on our heels formed a semicircle around those big cauldrons, full to the brim and giving off little jets of steam, with puff-puff-puffing sounds. The bolder among us, when the master's eyes were engaged elsewhere, would dig a knife into a well cooked potato and add it to their bit of bread; for I must say that, if we did little work in my school, at least we did a deal of eating. It was the regular custom to crack a few nuts and nibble at a crust while writing our page or setting out our rows of figures.

We, the smaller ones, in addition to the comfort of studying with our mouths full, had every now and then two other delights, which were quite as good as cracking nuts. The back door communicated with the yard where the hen, surrounded by her brood of chicks, scratched at the dung hill, while the little porkers, of whom there were a dozen, wallowed in their stone trough. This door would open sometimes to let one of us out, a privilege which we abused, for the sly ones among us were careful not to close it on returning. Forthwith, the porkers would come running in, one after the other, attracted by the smell of the boiled potatoes. My bench, the one where the youngsters sat, stood against the wall, under the copper pail to which we used to go for water when the nuts had made us thirsty, and was right in the way of the pigs. Up they came trotting and grunting, curling their little tails; they rubbed against our legs; they poked their cold pink snouts into our hands in search of a scrap of crust; they questioned us with their sharp little eyes to learn if we happened to have a dry chestnut for them in our pockets. When they had gone the round, some this way and some that, they went back to the farmyard, driven away by a friendly flick of the master's handkerchief. Next came the visit of the hen, bringing her velvet-coated chicks to see us. All of us eagerly crumbled a little bread for our pretty visitors. We vied with one another in calling them to us and tickling with our fingers their soft and downy backs. No, there was certainly no lack of distractions.

What could we learn in such a school as that! Let us first speak of the young ones, of whom I was one. Each of us had, or rather was supposed to have, in his hands a little penny book, the alphabet, printed on gray paper. It began, on the cover, with a pigeon, or something like it. Next came a cross, followed by the letters in their order. When we turned over, our eyes encountered the terrible ba, be, bi, bo, bu, the stumbling block of most of us. When we had mastered that formidable page, we were considered to know how to read and were admitted among the big ones. But, if the little book was to be of any use, the least that was required was that the master should interest himself in us to some extent and show us how to set about things. For this, the worthy man, too much taken up with the big ones, had not the time. The famous alphabet with the pigeon was thrust upon us only to give us the air of scholars. We were to contemplate it on our bench, to decipher it with the help of our next neighbor, in case he might know one or two of the letters. Our contemplation came to nothing, being every moment disturbed by a visit to the potatoes in the stew pots, a quarrel among playmates about a marble, the grunting invasion of the porkers or the arrival of the chicks. With the aid of these distractions, we would wait patiently until it was time for us to go home. That was our most serious work.

The big ones used to write. They had the benefit of the small amount of light in the room, by the narrow window where the Wandering Jew and ruthless Golo faced each other, and of the large and only table with its circle of seats. The school supplied nothing, not even a drop of ink; every one had to come with a full set of utensils. The inkhorn of those days, a relic of the ancient pen case of which Rabelais speaks, was a long cardboard box divided into two stages. The upper compartment held the pens, made of goose or turkey quills trimmed with a penknife; the lower contained, in a tiny well, ink made of soot mixed with vinegar.

The master's great business was to mend the pens—a delicate work, not without danger for inexperienced fingers—and then to trace at the head of the white page a line of strokes, single letters or words, according to the scholar's capabilities. When that is over, keep an eye on the work of art which is coming to adorn the copy! With what undulating movements of the wrist does the hand, resting on the little finger, prepare and plan its flight! All at once, the hand starts off, flies, whirls; and, lo and behold, under the line of writing is unfurled a garland of circles, spirals and flourishes, framing a bird with outspread wings, the whole, if you please, in red ink, the only kind worthy of such a pen. Large and small, we stood awestruck in the presence of these marvels. The family, in the evening, after supper, would pass from hand to hand the masterpiece brought back from school: 'What a man!' was the comment. 'What a man, to draw you a Holy Ghost with a stroke of the pen!'

What was read at my school? At most, in French, a few selections from sacred history. Latin recurred oftener, to teach us to sing vespers properly. The more advanced pupils tried to decipher manuscript, a deed of sale, the hieroglyphics of some scrivener.

And history, geography? No one ever heard of them. What difference did it make to us whether the earth was round or square! In either case, it was just as hard to make it bring forth anything.

And grammar? The master troubled his head very little about that; and we still less. We should have been greatly surprised by the novelty and the forbidding look of such words in the grammatical jargon as substantive, indicative and subjunctive. Accuracy of language, whether of speech or writing, must be learnt by practice. And none of us was troubled by scruples in this respect. What was the use of all these subtleties, when, on coming out of school, a lad simply went back to his flock of sheep!

And arithmetic? Yes, we did a little of this but not under that learned name. We called it sums. To put down rows of figures, not too long, add them and subtract them one from the other was more or less familiar work. On Saturday evenings, to finish up the week, there was a general orgy of sums. The top boy stood up and, in a loud voice, recited the multiplication table up to twelve times. I say twelve times, for in those days, because of our old duodecimal measures, it was the custom to count as far as the twelve times table, instead of the ten times of the metric system. When this recital was over, the whole class, the little ones included, took it up in chorus, creating such an uproar that chicks and porkers took to flight if they happened to be there. And this went on to twelve times twelve, the first in the row starting the next table and the whole class repeating it as loud as it could yell. Of all that we were taught in school, the multiplication table was what we knew best, for this noisy method ended by dinning the different numbers into our ears. This does not mean that we became skilful reckoners. The cleverest of us easily got muddled with the figures to be carried in a multiplication sum. As for division, rare indeed were they who reached such heights. In short, the moment a problem, however insignificant, had to be solved, we had recourse to mental gymnastics much rather than to the learned aid of arithmetic.

When all is said, our master was an excellent man who could have kept school very well but for his lack of one thing; and that was time. He devoted to us all the little leisure which his numerous functions left him. And, first of all, he managed the property of an absentee landowner, who only occasionally set foot in the village. He had under his care an old castle with four towers, which had become so many pigeon houses; he directed the getting in of the hay, the walnuts, the apples and the oats. We used to help him during the summer, when the school, which was well attended in winter, was almost deserted. All that remained, because they were not yet big enough to work in the fields, were a few children, including him who was one day to set down these memorable facts. Lessons at that time were less dull. They were often given on the hay or on the straw; oftener still, lesson time was spent in cleaning out the dovecote or stamping on the snails that had sallied in rainy weather from their fortresses, the tall box borders of the garden belonging to the castle.

Our master was a barber. With his light hand, which was so clever at beautifying our copies with curlicue birds, he shaved the notabilities of the place: the mayor, the parish priest, the notary. Our master was a bell ringer. A wedding or a christening interrupted the lessons: he had to ring a peal. A gathering storm gave us a holiday: the great bell must be tolled to ward off the lightning and the hail. Our master was a choir singer. With his mighty voice, he filled the church when he led the Magnificat at vespers. Our master wound up and regulated the village clock. This was his proudest function. Giving a glance at the sun, to ascertain the time more or less nearly, he would climb to the top of the steeple, open a huge cage of rafters and find himself in a maze of wheels and springs whereof the secret was known to him alone.

With such a school and such a master and such examples, what will become of my embryo tastes, as yet so imperceptible? In that environment, they seem bound to perish, stifled for ever. Yet no, the germ has life; it works in my veins, never to leave them again. It finds nourishment everywhere, down to the cover of my penny alphabet, embellished with a crude picture of a pigeon which I study and contemplate much more zealously than the A B C. Its round eye, with its circlet of dots, seems to smile upon me. Its wing, of which I count the feathers one by one, tells me of flights on high, among the beautiful clouds; it carries me to the beeches raising their smooth trunks above a mossy carpet studded with white mushrooms that look like eggs dropped by some vagrant hen; it takes me to the snow-clad peaks where the birds leave the starry print of their red feet. He is a fine fellow, my pigeon friend: he consoles me for the woes hidden behind the cover of my book. Thanks to him, I sit quietly on my bench and wait more or less till school is over.

School out of doors has other charms. When the master takes us to kill the snails in the box borders, I do not always scrupulously fulfil my office as an exterminator. My heel sometimes hesitates before coming down upon the handful which I have gathered. They are so pretty! Just think, there are yellow ones and pink, white ones and brown, all with dark spiral streaks. I fill my pockets with the handsomest, so as to feast my eyes on them at my leisure.

On hay making days in the master's field, I strike up an acquaintance with the frog. Flayed and stuck at the end of a split stick, he serves as bait to tempt the crayfish to come out of his retreat by the brook side. On the alder trees I catch the Hoplia, the splendid scarab who pales the azure of the heavens. I pick the narcissus and learn to gather, with the tip of my tongue, the tiny drop of honey that lies right at the bottom of the cleft corolla. I also learn that too long indulgence in this feast brings a headache; but this discomfort in no way impairs my admiration for the glorious white flower, which wears a narrow red collar at the throat of its funnel.

When we go to beat the walnut trees, the barren grass plots provide me with locusts spreading their wings, some into a blue fan, others into a red. And thus the rustic school, even in the heart of winter, furnished continuous food for my interest in things. There was no need for precept and example: my passion for animals and plants made progress of itself.

What did not make progress was my acquaintance with my letters, greatly neglected in favor of the pigeon. I was still at the same stage, hopelessly behindhand with the intractable alphabet, when my father, by a chance inspiration, brought me home from the town what was destined to give me a start along the road of reading. Despite the not insignificant part which it played in my intellectual awakening, the purchase was by no means a ruinous one. It was a large print, price six farthings, colored and divided into compartments in which animals of all sorts taught the A B C by means of the first letters of their names.

Where should I keep the precious picture? As it happened, in the room set apart for the children at home, there was a little window like the one in the school, opening in the same way out of a sort of recess and in the same way overlooking most of the village. One was on the right, the other on the left of the castle with the pigeon house towers; both afforded an equally good view of the heights of the slanting valley. I was able to enjoy the school window only at rare intervals, when the master left his little table; the other was at my disposal as often as I liked. I spent long hours there, sitting on a little fixed window seat.

The view was magnificent. I could see the ends of the earth, that is to say, the hills that blocked the horizon, all but a misty gap through which the brook with the crayfish flowed under the alders and willows. High up on the skyline, a few wind-battered oaks bristled on the ridges; and beyond there lay nothing but the unknown, laden with mystery.

At the back of the hollow stood the church, with its three steeples and its clock; and, a little higher, the village square, where a spring, fashioned into a fountain, gurgled from one basin into another, under a wide arched roof. I could hear from my window the chatter of the women washing their clothes, the strokes of their beaters, the rasping of the pots scoured with sand and vinegar. Sprinkled over the slopes are little houses with their garden patches in terraces banked up by tottering walls, which bulge under the thrust of the earth. Here and there are very steep lanes, with the dents of the rock forming a natural pavement. The mule, sure-footed though he be, would hesitate to enter these dangerous passes with his load of branches.

Further on, beyond the village, half-way up the hills, stood the great ever-so-old lime tree, the Tel, as we used to call it, whose sides, hollowed out by the ages, were the favorite hiding places of us children at play. On fair days, its immense, spreading foliage cast a wide shadow over the herds of oxen and sheep. Those solemn days, which only came once a year, brought me a few ideas from without: I learnt that the world did not end with my amphitheater of hills. I saw the inn keeper's wine arrive on mule back and in goat skin bottles. I hung about the market place and watched the opening of jars full of stewed pears, the setting out of baskets of grapes, an almost unknown fruit, the object of eager covetousness. I stood and gazed in admiration at the roulette board on which, for a sou, according to the spot at which its needle stopped on a circular row of nails, you won a pink poodle made of barley sugar, or a round jar of aniseed sweets, or, much oftener, nothing at all. On a piece of canvas on the ground, rolls of printed calico with red flowers, were displayed to tempt the girls. Close by rose a pile of beechwood clogs, tops and boxwood flutes. Here the shepherds chose their instruments, trying them by blowing a note or two. How new it all was to me! What a lot of things there were to see in this world! Alas, that wonderful time was of but short duration! At night, after a little brawling at the inn, it was all over; and the village returned to silence for a year.

But I must not linger over these memories of the dawn of life. We were speaking of the memorable picture brought from town. Where shall I keep it, to make the best use of it? Why, of course, it must be pasted on the embrasure of my window. The recess, with its seat, shall be my study cell; here I can feast my eyes by turns on the big lime tree and the animals of my alphabet. And this was what I did.

And now, my precious picture, it is our turn, yours and mine. You began with the sacred beast, the ass, whose name, with a big initial, taught me the letter A. The boeuf, the ox, stood for B; the canard, the duck, told me about C; the dindon, the turkey, gave me the letter D. And so on with the rest. A few compartments, it is true, were lacking in clearness. I had no friendly feeling for the hippopotamus, the kamichi, or horned screamer, and the zebu, who aimed at making me say H, K and Z. Those outlandish beasts, which failed to give the abstract letter the support of a recognized reality, caused me to hesitate for a time over their recalcitrant consonants. No matter: father came to my aid in difficult cases; and I made such rapid progress that, in a few days, I was able to turn in good earnest the pages of my little pigeon book, hitherto so undecipherable. I was initiated; I knew how to spell. My parents marveled. I can explain this unexpected progress today. Those speaking pictures, which brought me amongst my friends the beasts, were in harmony with my instincts. If the animal has not fulfilled all that it promised in so far as I am concerned, I have at least to thank it for teaching me to read. I should have succeeded by other means, I do not doubt, but not so quickly nor so pleasantly. Animals forever!

Luck favored me a second time. As a reward for my prowess, I was given La Fontaine's Fables, in a popular, cheap edition, crammed with pictures, small, I admit, and very inaccurate, but still delightful. Here were the crow, the fox, the wolf, the magpie, the frog, the rabbit, the ass, the dog, the cat: all persons of my acquaintance. The glorious book was immensely to my taste, with its skimpy illustrations on which the animal walked and talked. As to understanding what it said, that was another story! Never mind, my lad! Put together syllables that say nothing to you as yet; they will speak to you later and La Fontaine will always remain your friend.

I come to the time when I was ten years old and at Rodez College. My functions as a serving boy in the chapel entitled me to free instruction as a day boarder. There were four of us in white surplices and red skull-caps and cassocks. I was the youngest of the party and did little more than walk on. I counted as a unit; and that was about all, for I was never certain when to ring the bell or move the missal. I was all of a tremble when we gathered two on this side and two on that, with genuflection's, in the middle of the sanctuary, to intone the Domine, salvum fac regern at the end of mass. Let me make a confession: tongue-tied with shyness, I used to leave it to the others.

Nevertheless, I was well thought of, for, in the school, I cut a good figure in composition and translation. In that classical atmosphere, there was talk of Procas, King of Alba, and of his two sons, Numitor and Amulius. We heard of Cynoegirus, the strong jawed man, who, having lost his two hands in battle, seized and held a Persian galley with his teeth, and of Cadmus the Phoenician, who sowed a dragon's teeth as though they were beans and gathered his harvest in the shape of a host of armed men, who killed one another as they rose up from the ground. The only one who survived the slaughter was one as tough as leather, presumably the son of the big back grinder.

Had they talked to me about the man in the moon, I could not have been more startled. I made up for it with my animals, which I was far from forgetting amid this phantasmagoria of heroes and demigods. While honoring the exploits of Cadmus and Cynoegirus, I hardly ever failed, on Sundays and Thursdays [the weekly half-holiday in French schools], to go and see if the cowslip or the yellow daffodil was making its appearance in the meadows, if the Linnet was hatching on the juniper bushes, if the Cockchafers were plopping down from the wind shaken poplars. Thus was the sacred spark kept aglow, ever brighter than before.

By easy stages, I came to Virgil and was very much smitten with Meliboeus, Corydon, Menalcas, Damoetas and the rest of them. The scandals of the ancient shepherds fortunately passed unnoticed; and within the frame in which the characters moved were exquisite details concerning the bee, the cicada, the turtle dove, the crow, the nanny goat and the golden broom. A veritable delight were these stories of the fields, sung in sonorous verse; and the Latin poet left a lasting impression on my classical recollections.

Then, suddenly, goodbye to my studies, goodbye to Tityrus and Menalcas. Ill luck is swooping down on us, relentlessly. Hunger threatens us at home. And now, boy, put your trust in God; run about and earn your penn'orth of potatoes as best you can. Life is about to become a hideous inferno. Let us pass quickly over this phase. Amid this lamentable chaos, my love for the insect ought to have gone under. Not at all. It would have survived the raft of the Medusa. I still remember a certain pine cockchafer met for the first time. The plumes on her antennae, her pretty pattern of white spots on a dark brown ground were as a ray of sunshine in the gloomy wretchedness of the day.

To cut a long story short: good fortune, which never abandons the brave, brought me to the primary normal school at Vaucluse where I was assured food: dried chestnuts and chickpeas. The principal, a man of broad views, soon came to trust his new assistant. He left me practically a free hand, so long as I satisfied the school curriculum, which was very modest in those days. Possessing a smattering of Latin and grammar, I was a little ahead of my fellow pupils. I took advantage of this to get some order into my vague knowledge of plants and animals. While a dictation lesson was being corrected around me, with generous assistance from the dictionary, I would examine, in the recesses of my desk, the oleander's fruit, the snapdragon's seed vessel, the wasp's sting and the ground beetle's wing-case.

With this foretaste of natural science, picked up haphazard and by stealth, I left school more deeply in love than ever with insects and flowers. And yet I had to give it all up. That wider education, which would have to be my source of livelihood in the future, demanded this imperiously. What was I to take in hand to raise me above the primary school, whose staff could barely earn their bread in those days? Natural history could not bring me anywhere. The educational system of the time kept it at a distance, as unworthy of association with Latin and Greek. Mathematics remained, with its very simple equipment: a blackboard, a bit of chalk and a few books.

So I flung myself with might and main into conic sections and the calculus: a hard battle, if ever there was one, without guides or counselors, face to face for days on end with the abstruse problem which my stubborn thinking at last stripped of its mysteries. Next came the physical sciences, studied in the same manner, with an impossible laboratory, the work of my own hands.

The reader can imagine the fate of my favorite branch of science in this fierce struggle. At the faintest sign of revolt, I lectured myself severely, lest I should let myself be seduced by some new grass, some unknown Beetle. I did violence to my feelings. My natural history books were sentenced to oblivion, relegated to the bottom of a trunk.

And so, in the end, I am sent to teach physics and chemistry at Ajaccio College. This time, the temptation is too much for me. The sea, with its wonders, the beach, whereon the tide casts such beautiful shells, the maquis of myrtles, arbutus and mastic trees: all this paradise of gorgeous nature has too much on its side in the struggle with the sine and the cosine. I succumb. My leisure time is divided into two parts. One, the larger, is allotted to mathematics, the foundation of my academical future, as planned by myself; the other is spent, with much misgiving, in botanizing and looking for the treasures of the sea. What a country and what magnificent studies to be made, if, unobsessed by x and y, I had devoted myself wholeheartedly to my inclinations!

We are the wisp of straw, the plaything of the winds. We think that we are making for a goal deliberately chosen; destiny drives us towards another. Mathematics, the exaggerated preoccupation of my youth, did me hardly any service; and animals, which I avoided as much as ever I could, are the consolation of my old age. Nevertheless, I bear no grudge against the sine and the cosine, which I continue to hold in high esteem. They cost me many a pallid hour at one time, but they always afforded me some first rate entertainment: they still do so, when my head lies tossing sleeplessly on its pillow.

Meanwhile, Ajaccio received the visit of a famous Avignon botanist, Requien by name, who, with a box crammed with paper under his arm, had long been botanizing all over Corsica, pressing and drying specimens and distributing them to his friends. We soon became acquainted. I accompanied him in my free time on his explorations and never did the master have a more attentive disciple. To tell the truth, Requien was not a man of learning so much as an enthusiastic collector. Very few would have felt capable of competing with him when it came to giving the name or the geographical distribution of a plant. A blade of grass, a pad of moss, a scab of lichen, a thread of seaweed: he knew them all. The scientific name flashed across his mind at once. What an unerring memory, what a genius for classification amid the enormous mass of things observed! I stood aghast at it. I owe much to Requien in the domain of botany. Had death spared him longer, I should doubtless have owed more to him, for his was a generous heart, ever open to the troubles of novices.

In the following year, I met Moquin-Tandon, with whom, thanks to Requien, I had already exchanged a few letters on botany. The illustrious Toulouse professor came to study on the spot the flora which he proposed to describe systematically. When he arrived, all the hotel bedrooms were reserved for the members of the general council which had been summoned; and I offered him board and lodging: a shakedown in a room overlooking the sea; fare consisting of lampreys, turbot and sea urchins: common enough dishes in that land of Cockayne, but possessing no small attraction for the naturalist, because of their novelty. My cordial proposal tempted him; he yielded to my blandishments; and there we were for a fortnight chatting at table de omni re scibili after the botanical excursion was over.

With Moquin-Tandon, new vistas opened before me. Here it was no longer the case of a nomenclator with an infallible memory: he was a naturalist with far-reaching ideas, a philosopher who soared above petty details to comprehensive views of life, a writer, a poet who knew how to clothe the naked truth in the magic mantle of the glowing word. Never again shall I sit at an intellectual feast like that: 'Leave your mathematics,' he said. 'No one will take the least interest in your formula. Get to the beast, the plant; and, if, as I believe, the fever burns in your veins, you will find men to listen to you.'

We made an expedition to the center of the island, to Monte Renoso, with which I was already familiar. I made the scientist pick the hoary everlasting (Helichrysum frigidum), which makes a wonderful patch of silver; the many-headed thrift, or mouflon grass (Armeria multiceps), which the Corsicans call erba muorone; the downy marguerite (Leucanthemum tomosum), which, clad in wadding, shivers amid the snows; and many other rarities dear to the botanist. Moquin-Tandon was jubilant. I, on my side, was much more attracted and overcome by his words and his enthusiasm than by the hoary everlasting. When we came down from the cold mountaintop, my mind was made up: mathematics would be abandoned.

On the day before his departure, he said to me: 'You interest yourself in shells. That is something, but it is not enough. You must look into the animal itself. I will show you how it's done.'

And, taking a sharp pair of scissors from the family work-basket and a couple of needles stuck into a bit of vine shoot which served as a makeshift handle, he showed me the anatomy of a snail in a soup plate filled with water. Gradually he explained and sketched the organs which he spread before my eyes. This was the only, never-to-be-forgotten lesson in natural history that I ever received in my life.

It is time to conclude. I was cross-examining myself, being unable to cross-examine the silent Beetle. As far as it is possible to read within myself, I answer as follows: 'From early childhood, from the moment of my first mental awakening, I have felt drawn towards the things of nature, or, to return to our catchword, I have the gift, the bump of observation.'

After the details which I have already given about my ancestors, it would be ridiculous to look to heredity for an explanation of the fact. Nor would any one venture to suggest the words or example of my masters. Of scientific education, the fruit of college training, I had none whatever. I never set foot in a lecture hall except to undergo the ordeal of examinations. Without masters, without guides, often without books, in spite of poverty, that terrible extinguisher, I went ahead, persisted, facing my difficulties, until the indomitable bump ended by shedding its scanty contents. Yes, they were very scanty, yet possibly of some value, if circumstances had come to their assistance. I was a born animalist. Why and how? No reply.

We thus have, all of us, in different directions and in a greater or lesser degree, characteristics that brand us with a special mark, characteristics of an unfathomable origin. They exist because they exist; and that is all that any one can say. The gift is not handed down: the man of talent has a fool for a son. Nor is it acquired; but it is improved by practice. He who has not the germ of it in his veins will never possess it, in spite of all the pains of a hothouse education.

That to which we give the name of instinct when speaking of animals is something similar to genius. It is, in both cases, a peak that rises above the ordinary level. But instinct is handed down, unchanged and undiminished, throughout the sequence of a species; it is permanent and general and in this it differs greatly from genius, which is not transmissible and changes in different cases. Instinct is the inviolable heritage of the family and falls to one and all, without distinction. Here the difference ends. Independent of similarity of structure, it breaks out like genius, here or elsewhere, for no perceptible reason. Nothing causes it to be foreseen, nothing in the organization explains it. If cross-examined on this point, the Dung beetles and the rest, each with his own peculiar talent, would answer, were we able to understand them: 'Instinct is the animal's genius.'

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This book is part of the public domain. Jean-Henri Fabre (2002). The Life of the Fly; With Which are Interspersed Some Chapters of Autobiography. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October

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