Part 2 out of 5
taking any refreshment. Besides, what would it eat? In the cocoon
invaded there is nothing but the larva of the mason bee; and the
worm cannot make use of this before acquiring the sucker that comes
with the second form. Nevertheless, this life of abstinence is not
a life of idleness. The animalcule explores its dish, now here,
now elsewhere; it runs all over it with looper strides; it pries
into the neighborhood by lifting and shaking its head.
I see a need for this long wait under a transitory form that
requires no feeding. The egg is laid by the mother on the surface
of the nest, somewhere near a suitable cell, I dare say, but still
at a distance from the fostering larva, which is protected by a
thick rampart. It is for the new born grub to make its own way to
the provisions, not by violence and house breaking, of which it is
incapable, but by patiently slipping through a maze of cracks,
first tried, then abandoned, then tried again. It is a very
difficult task, even for this most slender worm, for the bee's
masonry is exceedingly compact. There are no chinks due to bad
building; no fissures due to the weather; nothing but an apparently
impenetrable homogeneity. I see but one weak part and that only in
a few nests: it is the line where the dome joins the surface of the
stone. An imperfect soldering between two materials of different
nature, cement and flint, may leave a breach wide enough to admit
besiegers as thin as a hair. Nevertheless, the lens is far from
always finding an inlet of this kind on the nests occupied by
And so I am ready to allow that the animalcule wandering in search
of its cell has the whole area of the dome at its disposal when
selecting an entrance. Where the line auger of the Leucospis can
enter, is there not room enough for the even slimmer Anthrax grub?
True, the Leucospis possesses muscular force and a hard boring
tool. The Anthrax is extremely weak and has nothing but invincible
patience. It does at great length of time what the other,
furnished with superior implements, accomplishes in three hours.
This explains the fortnight spent by the Anthrax under the initial
form, the object of which is to overcome the obstacle of the
mason's wall, to pierce through the texture of the cocoon and to
reach the victuals.
I even believe that it takes longer. The work is so laborious and
the worker so feeble! I cannot tell how long it is since my
bantlings attained their object. Perhaps, aided by easy roads,
they had reached their fostering larvae long before the completion
of their first babyhood, the end of which they were spending before
my eyes, with no apparent purpose, in exploring their provisions.
The time had not yet come for them to change their skins and take
their seats at the table. Their fellows must still, for the most
part, be wandering through the pores of the masonry; and this was
what made my search so vain at the start.
A few facts seem to suggest that the entrance into the cell may be
delayed for several months by the difficulty of the passages.
There are a few Anthrax grubs beside the remains of pupae not far
removed from the final metamorphosis; there are others, but very
rarely, on Mason bees already in the perfect state. These grubs
are sickly and appear to be ailing; the provisions are too solid
and do not lend themselves to the delicate suckling of the worms.
Who can these laggards be but animalcules that have roamed too long
in the walls of the nest? Failing to make their entrance at the
proper time, they no longer find viands to suit them. The primary
larva of the Sitaris continues from the autumn to the following
spring. Even so the initial form of the Anthrax might well
continue, not in inactivity, but in stubborn attempts to overcome
the thick bulwark.
My young worms, when transferred with their provisions into tubes,
remained stationary, on the average, for a couple of weeks. At
last, I saw them shrink and then rid themselves of their epidermis
and become the grub which I was so anxiously expecting as the final
reply to all my doubts. It was indeed, from the first, the grub of
the Anthrax, the cream-colored cylinder with the little button of a
head, followed by a hump. Applying its cupping glass to the mason
bee, the worm, without delay, began its meal, which lasts another
fortnight. The reader knows the rest.
Before taking leave of the animalcule, let us devote a few lines to
its instinct. It has just awakened to life under the fierce kisses
of the sun. The bare stone is its cradle, the rough clay its
welcomer, as it makes its entrance into the world, a poor thread of
scarce cohering albumen. But safety lies within; and behold the
atom of animated glair embarking on its struggle with the flint.
Obstinately, it sounds each pore; it slips in, crawls on, retreats,
begins again. The radical of the germinating seed is no more
persevering in its efforts to descend into the cool earth than is
the Anthrax grub in creeping into the lump of mortar. What
inspiration urges it towards its food at the bottom of the clod,
what compass guides it? What does it know of those depths, of what
lies therein or where? Nothing. What does the root know of the
earth's fruitfulness? Again nothing. Yet both make for the
nourishing spot. Theories are put forward, most learned theories,
introducing capillary action, osmosis and cellular imbibition, to
explain why the caulicle ascends and the radical descends. Shall
physical or chemical forces explain why the animalcule digs into
the hard clay? I bow profoundly, without understanding or even
trying to understand. The question is far above, our inane means.
The biography of the Anthrax is now complete, save for the details
relating to the egg, as yet unknown. In the vast majority of
insects subject to metamorphoses, the hatching yields the larval
form which will remain unchanged until the nymphosis. By virtue of
a remarkable variation, revealing a new vein of observation to the
entomologist, the Anthrax flies, in the larval state, assume two
successive shapes, differing greatly one from the other, both in
structure and in the part which they are called upon to play. I
will describe this double stage of the organism by the phrase
'larval dimorphism.' The initial form, that issuing from the egg, I
will call 'the primary larva;' the second form shall be 'the
secondary larva.' Among the Anthrax flies, the function of the
primary larva is to reach the provisions, on which the mother is
unable to lay her egg. It is capable of moving and endowed with
ambulatory bristles, which allow the slim creature to glide through
the smallest interstices in the wall of a Bee's nest, to slip
through the woof of the cocoon and to make its way to the larva
intended for its successor's food. When this object is attained,
its part is played. Then appears the secondary larva, deprived of
any means of progression. Relegated to the inside of the invaded
cell, as incapable of leaving it by its own efforts as it was of
entering, this one has no mission in life but that of eating. It
is a stomach that loads itself, digests and goes on adding to its
reserves. Next comes the pupa, armed for the exit even as the
primary larva was equipped for entering. When the deliverance is
accomplished, the perfect insect appears, busy with its laying.
The Anthrax cycle is thus divided into four periods, each of which
corresponds with special forms and functions. The primary larva
enters the casket containing provisions; the secondary larva
consumes these provisions; the pupa brings the insect to light by
boring through the enclosing wall; the perfect insect strews its
eggs; and the cycle starts afresh.
CHAPTER V HEREDITY
Facts which I have set forth elsewhere prove that certain dung
beetles' make an exception to the rule of paternal indifference--a
general rule in the insect world--and know something of domestic
cooperation. The father works with almost the same zeal as the
mother in providing for the settlement of the family. Whence do
these favored ones derive a gift that borders on morality?
One might suggest the cost of installing the youngsters. Once they
have to be furnished with a lodging and to be left the wherewithal
to live, is it not an advantage, in the interests of the race, that
the father should come to the mother's assistance? Work divided
between the two will ensure the comfort which solitary work, its
strength overtaxed, would deny. This seems excellent reasoning;
but it is much more often contradicted than confirmed by the facts.
Why is the Sisyphus a hard working paterfamilias and the sacred
beetle an idle vagabond? And yet the two pill rollers practice the
same industry and the same method of rearing their young. Why does
the Lunary Copris know what his near kinsman, the Spanish Copris,
does not? The first assists his mate, never forsakes her. The
second seeks a divorce at an early stage and leaves the nuptial
roof before the children's rations are massed and kneaded into
shape. Nevertheless, on both sides, there is the same big outlay
on a cellarful of egg-shaped pills, whose neat rows call for long
and watchful supervision. The similarity of the produce leads one
to believe in similarity of manners; and this is a mistake.
Let us turn elsewhere, to the wasps and bees, who unquestionably
come first in the laying up of a heritage for their offspring.
Whether the treasure hoarded for the benefit of the sons be a pot
of honey or a bag of game, the father never takes the smallest part
in the work. He does not so much as give a sweep of the broom when
it comes to tidying the outside of the dwelling. To do nothing is
his invariable rule. The bringing up of the family, therefore,
however expensive it may be in certain cases, has not given rise to
the instinct of paternity. Then where are we to look for a reply?
Let us make the question a wider one. Let us leave the animal, for
a moment, and occupy ourselves with man. We have our own
instincts, some of which take the name of genius when they attain a
degree of might that towers over the plain of mediocrity. We are
amazed by the unusual, springing out of flat commonplaces; we are
spellbound by the luminous speck shining in the wonted darkness.
We admire; and, failing to understand whence came those glorious
harvests in this one or in that, we say of them: "They have the
A goatherd amuses himself by making combinations with heaps of
little pebbles. He becomes an astoundingly quick and accurate
reckoner without other aid than a moment's reflection. He
terrifies us with the conflict of enormous numbers which blend in
an orderly fashion in his mind, but whose mere statement overwhelms
us by its inextricable confusion. This marvelous arithmetical
juggler has an instinct, a genius, a gift for figures.
A second, at the age when most of us delight in tops and marbles,
leaves the company of his boisterous playmates and listens to the
echo of celestial harps singing within him. His head is a
cathedral filled with the strains of an imaginary organ. Rich
cadences, a secret concert heard by him and him alone, steep him in
ecstasy. All hail to that predestined one who, some day, will
rouse our noblest emotions with his musical chords. He has an
instinct, a genius, a gift for sounds.
A third, a brat who cannot yet eat his bread and jam without
smearing his face all over, takes a delight in fashioning clay into
little figures that are astonishingly lifelike for all their
artless awkwardness. He takes a knife and makes the briar root
grin into all sorts of entertaining masks; he carves boxwood in the
semblance of a horse or sheep; he engraves the effigy of his dog on
sandstone. Leave him alone; and, if Heaven second his efforts, he
may become a famous sculptor. He has an instinct, a gift, a genius
And so with others in every branch of human activity: art and
science, industry and commerce, literature and philosophy. We have
within us, from the start, that which will distinguish us from the
vulgar herd. Now to what do we owe this distinctive character? To
some throwback of atavism, men tell us. Heredity, direct in one
case, remote in another, hands it down to us, increased or modified
by time. Search the records of the family and you will discover
the source of the genius, a mere trickle at first, then a stream,
then a mighty river.
The darkness that lies behind that word heredity! Metaphysical
science has tried to throw a little light upon it and has succeeded
only in making unto itself a barbarous jargon, leaving obscurity
more obscure than before. As for us, who hunger after lucidity,
let us relinquish abstruse theories to whoever delights in them and
confine our ambition to observable facts, without pretending to
explain the quackery of the plasma. Our method certainly will not
reveal to us the origin of instinct; but it will at least show us
where it would be waste of time to look for it.
In this sort of research, a subject known through and through, down
to its most intimate peculiarities, is indispensable. Where shall
we find that subject? There would be a host of them and
magnificent ones, if it were possible to read the sealed pages of
others' lives; but no one can sound an existence outside his own
and even then he can think himself lucky if a retentive memory and
the habit of reflection give his soundings the proper accuracy. As
none of us is able to project himself into another's skin, we must
needs, in considering this problem, remain inside our own.
To talk about one's self is hateful, I know. The reader must have
the kindness to excuse me for the sake of the study in hand. I
shall take the silent beetle's place in the witness box, cross-
examining myself in all simplicity of soul, as I do the animal, and
asking myself whence that one of my instincts which stands out
above the others is derived.
Since Darwin bestowed upon me the title of 'incomparable observer,'
the epithet has often come back to me, from this side and from
that, without my yet understanding what particular merit I have
shown. It seems to me so natural, so much within everybody's
scope, so absorbing to interest one's self in everything that
swarms around us! However, let us pass on and admit that the
compliment is not unfounded.
My hesitation ceases if it is a question of admitting my curiosity
in matters that concern the insect. Yes, I possess the gift, the
instinct that impels me to frequent that singular world; yes, I
know that I am capable of spending on those studies an amount of
precious time which would be better employed in making provision,
if possible, for the poverty of old age; yes, I confess that I am
an enthusiastic observer of the animal. How was this
characteristic propensity, at once the torment and delight of my
life, developed? And, to begin with, how much does it owe to
The common people have no history: persecuted by the present, they
cannot think of preserving the memory of the past. And yet what
surpassingly instructive records, comforting too and pious, would
be the family papers that should tell us who our forebears were and
speak to us of their patient struggles with harsh fate, their
stubborn efforts to build up, atom by atom, what we are today. No
story would come up with that for individual interest. But by the
very force of things the home is abandoned; and, when the brood has
flown, the nest is no longer recognized.
I, a humble journeyman in the toilers' hive, am therefore very poor
in family recollections. In the second degree of ancestry, my
facts become suddenly obscured. I will linger over them a moment
for two reasons: first, to inquire into the influence of heredity;
and, secondly, to leave my children yet one more page concerning
I did not know my maternal grandfather. This venerable ancestor
was, I have been told, a process server in one of the poorest
parishes of the Rouergue. He used to engross on stamped paper in a
primitive spelling. With his well-filled pen case and ink horn, he
went drawing out deeds up hill and down dale, from one insolvent
wretch to another more insolvent still. Amid his atmosphere of
pettifoggery, this rudimentary scholar, waging battle on life's
acerbities, certainly paid no attention to the insect; at most, if
he met it, he would crush it under foot. The unknown animal,
suspected of evil doing, deserved no further enquiry. Grandmother,
on her side, apart from her housekeeping and her beads, knew still
less about anything. She looked on the alphabet as a set of
hieroglyphics only fit to spoil your sight for nothing, unless you
were scribbling on paper bearing the government stamp. Who in the
world, in her day, among the small folk, dreamt of knowing how to
read and write? That luxury was reserved for the attorney, who
himself made but a sparing use of it. The insect, I need hardly
say, was the least of her cares. If sometimes, when rinsing her
salad at the tap, she found a caterpillar on the lettuce leaves,
with a start of fright she would fling the loathsome thing away,
thus cutting short relations reputed dangerous. In short, to both
my maternal grandparents, the insect was a creature of no interest
whatever and almost always a repulsive object, which one dared not
touch with the tip of one's finger. Beyond a doubt, my taste for
animals was not derived from them.
I have more precise information regarding my grandparents on the
father's side, for their green old age allowed me to know them
both. They were people of the soil, whose quarrel with the
alphabet was so great that they had never opened a book in their
lives; and they kept a lean farm on the cold granite ridge of the
Rouergue tableland. The house, standing alone among the heath and
broom, with no neighbor for many a mile around and visited at
intervals by the wolves, was to them the hub of the universe. But
for a few surrounding villages, whither the calves were driven on
fair days, the rest was only very vaguely known by hearsay. In
this wild solitude, the mossy fens, with their quagmires oozing
with iridescent pools, supplied the cows, the principal source of
wealth, with rich, wet grass. In summer, on the short swards of
the slopes, the sheep were penned day and night, protected from
beasts of prey by a fence of hurdles propped up with pitchforks.
When the grass was cropped close at one spot, the fold was shifted
elsewhere. In the center was the shepherd's rolling hut, a straw
cabin. Two watchdogs, equipped with spiked collars, were
answerable for tranquillity if the thieving wolf appeared in the
night from out the neighboring woods.
Padded with a perpetual layer of cow dung, in which I sank to my
knees, broken up with shimmering puddles of dark brown liquid
manure, the farmyard also boasted a numerous population. Here the
lambs skipped, the geese trumpeted, the fowls scratched the ground
and the sow grunted with her swarm of little pigs hanging to her
The harshness of the climate did not give husbandry the same
chances. In a propitious season, they would set fire to a stretch
of moorland bristling with gorse and send the swing plow across the
ground enriched with the cinders of the blaze. This yielded a few
acres of rye, oats and potatoes. The best corners were kept for
hemp, which furnished the distaffs and spindles of the house with
the material for linen and was looked upon as grandmother's private
Grandfather, therefore, was, before all, a herdsman versed in
matters of cows and sheep, but completely ignorant of aught else.
How dumbfounded he would have been to learn that, in the remote
future, one of his family would become enamoured of those
insignificant animals to which he had never vouchsafed a glance in
his life! Had he guessed that that lunatic was myself, the
scapegrace seated at the table by his side, what a smack I should
have caught in the neck, what a wrathful look!
"The idea of wasting one's time with that nonsense!" he would have
For the patriarch was not given to joking. I can still see his
serious face, his unclipped head of hair, often brought back behind
his ears with a flick of the thumb and spreading its ancient Gallic
mane over his shoulders. I see his little three-cornered hat, his
small clothes buckled at the knees, his wooden shoes, stuffed with
straw, that echoed as he walked. Ah, no! Once childhood's games
were past, it would never have done to rear the Grasshopper and
unearth the Dung beetle from his natural surroundings.
Grandmother, pious soul, used to wear the eccentric headdress of
the Rouergue highlanders: a large disk of black felt, stiff as a
plank, adorned in the middle with a crown a finger's breadth high
and hardly wider across than a six franc piece. A black ribbon
fastened under the chin maintained the equilibrium of this elegant,
but unsteady circle. Pickles, hemp, chickens, curds and whey,
butter; washing the clothes, minding the children, seeing to the
meals of the household: say that and you have summed up the
strenuous woman's round of ideas. On her left side, the distaff,
with its load of flax; in her right hand, the spindle turning under
a quick twist of her thumb, moistened at intervals with her tongue:
so she went through life, unwearied, attending to the order and the
welfare of the house. I see her in my mind's eye particularly on
winter evenings, which were more favorable to family talk. When
the hour came for meals, all of us, big and little, would take our
seats round a long table, on a couple of benches, deal planks
supported by four rickety legs. Each found his wooden bowl and his
tin spoon in front of him. At one end of the table always stood an
enormous rye loaf, the size of a cartwheel, wrapped in a linen
cloth with a pleasant smell of washing, and remained until nothing
was left of it. With a vigorous stroke, grandfather would cut off
enough for the needs of the moment; then he would divide the piece
among us with the one knife which he alone was entitled to wield.
It was now each one's business to break up his bit with his fingers
and to fill his bowl as he pleased.
Next came grandmother's turn. A capacious pot bubbled lustily and
sang upon the flames in the hearth, exhaling an appetizing savor of
bacon and turnips. Armed with a long metal ladle, grandmother
would take from it, for each of us in turn, first the broth,
wherein to soak the bread, and next the ration of turnips and
bacon, partly fat and partly lean, filling the bowl to the top. At
the other end of the table was the pitcher, from which the thirsty
were free to drink at will. What appetites we had and what festive
meals those were, especially when a cream cheese, homemade, was
there to complete the banquet!
Near us blazed the huge fireplace, in which whole tree trunks were
consumed in the extreme cold weather. From a corner of that
monumental, soot-glazed chimney, projected, at a convenient height,
a bracket with a slate shelf, which served to light the kitchen
when we sat up late. On this we burnt chips of pine wood, selected
among the most translucent, those containing the most resin. They
shed over the room a lurid red light, which saved the walnut oil in
When the bowls were emptied and the last crumb of cheese scraped
up, grandam went back to her distaff, on a stool by the chimney
corner. We children, boys and girls, squatting on our heels and
putting out our hands to the cheerful fire of furze, formed a
circle round her and listened to her with eager ears. She told us
stories, not greatly varied, it is true, but still wonderful, for
the wolf often played a part in them. I should have very much
liked to see this wolf, the hero of so many tales that made our
flesh creep; but the shepherd always refused to take me into his
straw hut, in the middle of the fold, at night. When we had done
talking about the horrid wolf, the dragon and the serpent and when
the resinous splinters had given out their last gleams, we went to
sleep the sweet sleep that toil gives. As the youngest of the
household, I had a right to the mattress, a sack stuffed with oat
chaff. The others had to be content with straw.
I owe a great deal to you, dear grandmother: it was in your lap
that I found consolation for my first sorrows. You have handed
down to me, perhaps, a little of your physical vigor, a little of
your love of work; but certainly you were no more accountable than
grandfather for my passion for insects.
Nor was either of my own parents. My mother, who was quite
illiterate, having known no teacher than the bitter experience of a
harassed life, was the exact opposite of what my tastes required
for their development. My peculiarity must seek its origin
elsewhere: that I will swear. But I do not find it in my father,
either. The excellent man, who was hard working and sturdily built
like granddad, had been to school as a child. He knew how to
write, though he took the greatest liberties with spelling; he knew
how to read and understood what he read, provided the reading
presented no more serious literary difficulties than occurred in
the stories in the almanac. He was the first of his line to allow
himself to be tempted by the town and he lived to regret it. Badly
off, having but little outlet for his industry, making God knows
what shifts to pick up a livelihood, he went through all the
disappointments of the countryman turned townsman. Persecuted by
bad luck, borne down by the burden, for all his energy and good
will, he was far indeed from starting me in entomology. He had
other cares, cares more direct and more serious. A good cuff or
two when he saw me pinning an insect to a cork was all the
encouragement that I received from him. Perhaps he was right.
The conclusion is positive: there is nothing in heredity to explain
my taste for observation. You may say that I do not go far enough
back. Well, what should I find beyond the grandparents where my
facts come to a stop? I know, partly. I should find even more
uncultured ancestors: sons of the soil, plowmen, sowers of rye,
neat herds; one and all, by the very force of things, of not the
least account in the nice matters of observation.
And yet, in me, the observer, the inquirer into things began to
take shape almost in infancy. Why should I not describe my first
discoveries? They are ingenuous in the extreme, but will serve
notwithstanding to tell us something of the way in which tendencies
first show themselves. I was five or six years old. That the poor
household might have one mouth less to feed, I had been placed in
grandmother's care, as I have just been saying. Here, in solitude,
my first gleams of intelligence were awakened amidst the geese, the
calves and the sheep. Everything before that is impenetrable
darkness. My real birth is at that moment when the dawn of
personality rises, dispersing the mists of unconsciousness and
leaving a lasting memory. I can see myself plainly, clad in a
soiled frieze frock flapping against my bare heels; I remember the
handkerchief hanging from my waist by a bit of string, a
handkerchief often lost and replaced by the back of my sleeve.
There I stand one day, a pensive urchin, with my hands behind my
back and my face turned to the sun. The dazzling splendor
fascinates me. I am the Moth attracted by the light of the lamp.
With what am I enjoying the glorious radiance: with my mouth or my
eyes? That is the question put by my budding scientific curiosity.
Reader, do not smile: the future observer is already practicing and
experimenting. I open my mouth wide and close my eyes: the glory
disappears. I open my eyes and shut my mouth: the glory reappears.
I repeat the performance, with the same result. The question's
solved: I have learnt by deduction that I see the sun with my eyes.
Oh, what a discovery! That evening, I told the whole house all
about it. Grandmother smiled fondly at my simplicity: the others
laughed at it. 'Tis the way of the world.
Another find. At nightfall, amidst the neighboring bushes, a sort
of jingle attracted my attention, sounding very faintly and softly
through the evening silence. Who is making that noise? Is it a
little bird chirping in his nest? We must look into the matter and
that quickly. True, there is the wolf, who comes out of the woods
at this time, so they tell me. Let's go all the same, but not too
far: just there, behind that clump of groom. I stand on the look
out for long, but all in vain. At the faintest sound of movement
in the brushwood, the jingle ceases. I try again next day and the
day after. This time, my stubborn watch succeeds. Whoosh! A grab
of my hand and I hold the singer. It is not a bird; it is a kind
of Grasshopper whose hind legs my playfellows have taught me to
like: a poor recompense for my prolonged ambush. The best part of
the business is not the two haunches with the shrimpy flavor, but
what I have just learnt. I now know, from personal observation,
that the Grasshopper sings. I did not publish my discovery, for
fear of the same laughter that greeted my story about the sun.
Oh, what pretty flowers, in a field close to the house! They seem
to smile to me with their great violet eyes. Later on, I see, in
their place, bunches of big red cherries. I taste them. They are
not nice and they have no stones. What can those cherries be? At
the end of the summer, grandfather comes with a spade and turns my
field of observation topsy-turvy. From under ground there comes,
by the basketful and sackful, a sort of round root. I know that
root; it abounds in the house; time after time I have cooked it in
the peat stove. It is the potato. Its violet flower and its red
fruit are pigeonholed for good and all in my memory.
With an ever watchful eye for animals and plants, the future
observer, the little six-year-old monkey, practiced by himself, all
unawares. He went to the flower, he went to the insect, even as
the large white butterfly goes to the cabbage and the red admiral
to the thistle. He looked and inquired, drawn by a curiosity
whereof heredity did not know the secret. He bore within him the
germ of a faculty unknown to his family; he kept alive a glimmer
that was foreign to the ancestral hearth. What will become of that
infinitesimal spark of childish fancy? It will die out, beyond a
doubt, unless education intervene, giving it the fuel of example,
fanning it with the breath of experience. In that case, schooling
will explain what heredity leaves unexplained. This is what we
will examine in the next chapter.
CHAPTER VI 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.'
CHAPTER VII THE POND
The pond, the delight of my early childhood, is still a sight
whereof my old eyes never tire. What animation in that verdant
world! On the warm mud of the edges, the frog's little tadpole
basks and frisks in its black legions; down in the water, the
orange-bellied newt steers his way slowly with the broad rudder of
his flat tail; among the reeds are stationed the flotillas of the
caddis worms, half protruding from their tubes, which are now a
tiny bit of stick and again a turret of little shells.
In the deep places, the water beetle dives, carrying with him his
reserves of breath: an air bubble at the tip of the wing cases and,
under the chest, a film of gas that gleams like a silver
breastplate; on the surface, the ballet of those shimmering pearls,
the whirligigs, turns and twists about; hard by there skims the
unsubmersible troop of the pond skaters, who glide along with side
strokes similar to those which the cobbler makes when sewing.
Here are the water boatmen, who swim on their backs with two oars
spread cross-wise, and the flat water scorpions; here, squalidly
clad in mud, is the grub of the largest of our dragonflies, so
curious because of its manner of progression: it fills its hinder
parts, a yawning funnel, with water, spurts it out again and
advances just so far as the recoil of its hydraulic cannon.
The mollusks abound, a peaceful tribe. At the bottom, the plump
river snails discreetly raise their lid, opening ever so little the
shutters of their dwelling; on the level of the water, in the
glades of the aquatic garden, the pond snails--Physa, Limnaea and
Planorbis--take the air. Dark leeches writhe upon their prey, a
chunk of earthworm; thousands of tiny, reddish grubs, future
mosquitoes, go spinning around and twist and curve like so many
Yes, a stagnant pool, though but a few feet wide, hatched by the
sun, is an immense world, an inexhaustible mine of observation to
the studious man and a marvel to the child who, tired of his paper
boat, diverts his eyes and thoughts a little with what is happening
in the water. Let me tell what I remember of my first pond, at a
time when ideas began to dawn in my seven-year-old brain.
How shall a man earn his living in my poor native village, with its
inclement weather and its niggardly soil? The owner of a few acres
of grazing land rears sheep. In the best parts, he scrapes the
soil with the swing plow; he flattens it into terraces banked by
walls of broken stones. Pannierfuls of dung are carried up on
donkey-back from the cowshed. Then, in due season, comes the
excellent potato, which, boiled and served hot in a basket of
plaited straw, is the chief stand-by in winter.
Should the crop exceed the needs of the household, the surplus goes
to feed a pig, that precious beast, a treasure of bacon and ham.
The ewes supply butter and curds; the garden boasts cabbages,
turnips and even a few hives in a sheltered corner. With wealth
like that one can look fate in the face.
But we, we have nothing, nothing but the little house inherited by
my mother and its adjoining patch of garden. The meager resources
of the family are coming to an end. It is time to see to it and
that quickly. What is to be done? That is the stern question
which father and mother sat debating one evening.
Hop-o'-my-Thumb, hiding under the woodcutter's stool, listened to
his parents overcome by want. I also, pretending to sleep, with my
elbows on the table, listen not to blood curdling designs, but to
grand plans that set my heart rejoicing. This is how the matter
stands: at the bottom of the village, near the church, at the spot
where the water of the large roofed spring escapes from its
underground weir and joins the brook in the valley, an enterprising
man, back from the war, has set up a small tallow factory. He
sells the scrapings of his pans, the burnt fat, reeking of candle
grease, at a low price. He proclaims these wares to be excellent
for fattening ducks.
"Suppose we bred some ducks," says mother. "They sell very well in
town. Henri would mind them and take them down to the brook."
"Very well," says father, "let's breed some ducks. There may be
difficulties in the way; but we'll have a try."
That night, I had dreams of paradise: I was with my ducklings, clad
in their yellow suits; I took them to the pond, I watched them have
their bath, I brought them back again, carrying the more tired ones
in a basket.
A month or two after, the little birds of my dreams were a reality.
There were twenty-four of them. They had been hatched by two hens,
of whom one, the big, black one, was an inmate of the house, while
the other was borrowed from a neighbor.
To bring them up, the former is sufficient, so careful is she of
her adopted family. At first, everything goes perfectly: a tub
with two fingers' depth of water serves as a pond. On sunny days,
the ducklings bathe in it under the anxious eye of the hen.
A fortnight later, the tub is no longer enough. It contains
neither cresses crammed with tiny shellfish nor worms and tadpoles,
dainty morsels both. The time has come for dives and hunts amid
the tangle of the water weeds; and for us the day of trouble has
also come. True, the miller, down by the brook, has fine ducks,
easy and cheap to bring up; the tallow smelter, who has extolled
his burnt fat so loudly, has some as well, for he has the advantage
of the waste water from the spring at the bottom of the village;
but how are we, right up there, at the top, to procure aquatic
sports for our broods? In summer, we have hardly water to drink!
Near the house, in a freestone recess, a scanty source trickles
into a basin made in the rock. . Four or five families have, like
ourselves, to draw their water there with copper pails. By the
time that the schoolmaster's donkey has slaked her thirst and the
neighbors have taken their provision for the day, the basin is dry.
We have to wait for four-and-twenty hours for it to fill. No, this
is not the hole in which the ducks would delight nor indeed in
which they would be tolerated.
There remains the brook. To go down to it with the troop of
ducklings is fraught with danger. On the way through the village,
we might meet cats, bold ravishers of small poultry; some surly
mongrel might frighten and scatter the little band; and it would be
a hard puzzle to collect it in its entirety. We must avoid the
traffic and take refuge in peaceful and sequestered spots.
On the hills, the path that climbs behind the chateau soon takes a
sudden turn and widens into a small plain beside the meadows. It
skirts a rocky slope whence trickles, level with the ground, a
streamlet, forming a pond of some size. Here profound solitude
reigns all day long. The ducklings will be well off; and the
journey can be made in peace by a deserted footpath.
You, little man, shall take them to that delectable spot. What a
day it was that marked my first appearance as a herdsman of ducks!
Why must there be a jar to the even tenor of such joys? The too
frequent encounter of my tender skin with the hard ground had given
me a large and painful blister on the heel. Had I wanted to put on
the shoes stowed away in the cupboard for Sundays and holidays, I
could not. There was nothing for it but to go barefoot over the
broken stones, dragging my leg and carrying high the injured heel.
Let us make a start, hobbling along, switch in hand, behind the
ducks. They too, poor little things, have sensitive soles to their
feet; they limp, they quack with fatigue. They would refuse to go
any farther if I did not, from time to time, call a halt under the
shelter of an ash.
We are there at last. The place could not be better for my
birdlets; shallow, tepid water, interspersed with muddy knolls and
green eyots. The diversions of the bath begin forthwith. The
ducklings clap their beaks and rummage here, there and everywhere;
they sift each mouthful, rejecting the clear water and retaining
the good bits. In the deeper parts, they point their sterns into
the air and stick their heads under water. They are happy; and it
is a blessed thing to see them at work. We will let them be. It
is my turn to enjoy the pond.
What is this? On the mud lie some loose, knotted, soot-colored
cords. One could take them for threads of wool like those which
you pull out of an old ravelly stocking. Can some shepherdess,
knitting a black sock and finding her work turn out badly, have
begun all over again and, in her impatience, have thrown down the
wool with all the dropped stitches? It really looks like it.
I take up one of those cords in my hand. It is sticky and
extremely slack; the thing slips through the fingers before they
can catch hold of it. A few of the knots burst and shed their
contents. What comes out is a black globule, the size of a pin's
head, followed by a flat tail. I recognize, on a very small scale,
a familiar object: the tadpole, the frog's baby. I have seen
enough. Let us leave the knotted cords alone.
The next creatures please me better. They spin round on the
surface of the water and their black backs gleam in the sun. If I
lift a hand to seize them, that moment they disappear, I know not
where. It's a pity: I should have much liked to see them closer
and to make them wriggle in a little bowl which I should have put
ready for them.
Let us look at the bottom of the water, pulling aside those bunches
of green string whence beads of air are rising and gathering into
foam. There is something of everything underneath. I see pretty
shells with compact whorls, flat as beans; I notice little worms
carrying tufts and feathers; I make out some with flabby fins
constantly flapping on their backs. What are they all doing there?
What are their names? I do not know. And I stare at them for ever
so long, held by the incomprehensible mystery of the waters.
At the place where the pond dribbles into the adjoining field are
some alder trees; and here I make a glorious find. It is a scarab-
-not a very large one, oh no! He is smaller than a cherry-stone,
but of an unutterable blue. The angels in paradise must wear
dresses of that color. I put the glorious one inside an empty
snail-shell, which I plug up with a leaf. I shall admire that
living jewel at my leisure, when I get back. Other distractions
summon me away.
The spring that feeds the pond trickles from the rock, cold and
clear. The water first collects into a cup, the size of the hollow
of one's two hands, and then runs over in a stream. These falls
call for a mill: that goes without saying. Two bits of straw,
artistically crossed upon an axis, provide the machinery; some flat
stones set on edge afford supports. It is a great success: the
mill turns admirably. My triumph would be complete, could I but
share it. For want of other playmates, I invite the ducks.
Everything palls in this poor world of ours, even a mill made of
two straws. Let us think of something else: let us contrive a dam
to hold back the waters and form a pool. There is no lack of
stones for the brickwork. I pick the most suitable; I break the
larger ones. And, while collecting these blocks, suddenly I forget
all about the dam which I meant to build.
On one of the broken stones, in a cavity large enough for me to put
my fist in, something gleams like glass. The hollow is lined with
facets gathered in sixes which flash and glitter in the sun. I
have seen something like this in church, on the great saints' days,
when the light of the candles in the big chandelier kindles the
stars in its hanging crystal.
We children, lying, in summer, on the straw of the threshing floor,
have told one another stories of the treasures which a dragon
guards underground. Those treasures now return to my mind: the
names of precious stones ring out uncertainly but gloriously in my
memory. I think of the king's crown, of the princesses' necklaces.
In breaking stones, can I have found, but on a much richer scale,
the thing that shines quite small in my mother's ring? I want more
The dragon of the subterranean treasures treats me generously. He
gives me his diamonds in such quantities that soon I possess a heap
of broken stones sparkling with magnificent clusters. He does
more: he gives me his gold. The trickle of water from the rock
falls on a bed of fine sand which it swirls into bubbles. If I
bent over towards the light, I see something like gold filings
whirling where the fall touches the bottom. Is it really the
famous metal of which twenty-franc pieces, so rare with us at home,
are made? One would think so, from the glitter.
I take a pinch of sand and place it in my palm. The brilliant
particles are numerous, but so small that I have to pick them up
with a straw moistened in my mouth. Let us drop this: they are too
tiny and too bothersome to collect. The big, valuable lumps must
be farther on, in the thickness of the rock. We'll come back
later; we'll blast the mountain.
I break more stones. Oh, what a queer thing has just come loose,
all in one piece! It is turned spiral-wise, like certain flat
snails that come out of the cracks of old walls in rainy weather.
With its gnarled sides, it looks like a little ram's horn. Shell
or horn, it is very curious. How do things like that find their
way into the stone?
Treasures and curiosities make my pockets bulge with pebbles. It
is late and the little ducklings have had all they want to eat.
Come along, youngsters, let's go home. My blistered heel is
forgotten in my excitement.
The walk back is a delight. A voice sings in my ear, an
untranslatable voice, softer than any language and bewildering as a
dream. It speaks to me for the first time of the mysteries of the
pond; it glorifies the heavenly insect which I hear moving in the
empty snail shell, its temporary cage; it whispers the secrets of
the rock, the gold filings, the faceted jewels, the ram's horn
turned to stone.
Poor simpleton, smother your joy! I arrive. My parents catch sight
of my bulging pockets, with their disgraceful load of stones. The
cloth has given way under the rough and heavy burden.
"You rascal!" says father, at sight of the damage. "I send you to
mind the ducks and you amuse yourself picking up stones, as though
there weren't enough of them all round the house! Make haste and
throw them away!"
Broken hearted, I obey. Diamonds, gold dust, petrified ram's horn,
heavenly beetle are all flung on a rubbish heap outside the door.
Mother bewails her lot: "A nice thing, bringing up children to see
them turn out so badly! You'll bring me to my grave. Green stuff I
don't mind: it does for the rabbits. But stones, which ruin your
pockets; poisonous animals, which'll sting your hand: what good are
they to you, silly? There's no doubt about it: some one has thrown
a spell over you!"
Yes, my poor mother, you were right, in your simplicity: a spell
had been cast upon me; I admit it today. When it is hard enough to
earn one's bit of bread, does not improving one's mind but render
one more meet for suffering? Of what avail is the torment of
learning to the derelicts of life?
A deal better off am I, at this late hour, dogged by poverty and
knowing that the diamonds of the duck pool were rock crystal, the
gold dust mica, the stone horn an Ammonite and the sky-blue beetle
a Hoplia! We poor men would do better to mistrust the joys of
knowledge: let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace,
flee the temptations of the pond, mind our ducks and leave to
others, more favored by fortune, the job of explaining the world's
mechanism, if the spirit moves them.
And yet no! Alone among living creatures, man has the thirst for
knowledge; he alone pries into the mysteries of things. The least
among us will utter his whys and his wherefores, a fine pain
unknown to the brute beast. If these questionings come from us
with greater persistence, with a more imperious authority, if they
divert us from the quest of lucre, life's only object in the eyes
of most men, does it become us to complain? Let us be careful not
to do so, for that would be denying the best of all our gifts.
Let us strive, on the contrary, within the measure of our capacity,
to force a gleam of light from the vast unknown; let us examine and
question and, here and there, wrest a few shreds of truth. We
shall sink under the task; in the present ill ordered state of
society, we shall end, perhaps, in the workhouse. Let us go ahead
for all that: our consolation shall be that we have increased by
one atom the general mass of knowledge, the incomparable treasure
As this modest lot has fallen to me, I will return to the pond,
notwithstanding the wise admonitions and the bitter tears which I
once owed to it. I will return to the pond, but not to that of the
small ducks, the pond aflower with illusions: those ponds do not
occur twice in a lifetime. For luck like that, you must be in all
the new glory of your first breeches and your first ideas.
Many another have I come upon since that distant time, ponds very
much richer and, moreover, explored with the ripened eye of
experience. Enthusiastically I searched them with the net, stirred
up their mud, ransacked their trailing weeds. None in my memories
comes up to the first, magnified in its delights and mortifications
by the marvelous perspective of the years.
Nor would any of them suit my plans of today. Their world is too
vast. I should lose myself in their immensities, where life swarms
freely in the sun. Like the ocean, they are infinite in their
fruitfulness. And then any assiduous watching, undisturbed by
passers by, is an impossibility on the public way. What I want is
a pond on an extremely reduced scale, sparingly stocked in my own
fashion an artificial pond standing permanently on my study table.
A louis has been overlooked in a corner of the drawer. I can spend
it without seriously jeopardizing the domestic balance. Let me
make this gift to science, who, I fear, will be none too much
obliged to me. A gorgeous equipment may be all very well for
laboratories wherein the cells and fibers of the dead are consulted
at great expense; but such magnificence is of doubtful utility when
we have to study the actions of the living. It is the humble
makeshift, of no value, that stumbles on the secrets of life.
What did the best results of my studies of instinct cost me?
Nothing but time and, above all, patience. My extravagant
expenditure of twenty francs, therefore, will be a risky
speculation if devoted to the purchase of an apparatus of study.
It will bring me in nothing in the way of fresh views, of that I am
convinced. However, let us try.
The blacksmith makes me the framework of a cage out of a few iron
rods. The joiner, who is also a glazier on occasion--for, in my
village, you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades if you would make both
ends meet--sets the framework on a wooden base and supplies it with
a movable board as a lid; he fixes thick panes of glass in the four
sides. Behold the apparatus, complete, with a bottom of tarred
sheet iron and a trap to let the water out.
The makers express themselves satisfied with their work, a singular
novelty in their respective shops, where many an inquisitive caller
has wondered what use I intend to make of my little glass trough.
The thing creates a certain stir. Some insist that it is meant to
hold my supplies of oil and to take the place of the receptacle in
general use in our parts, the urn dug out of a block of stone.
What would those utilitarians have thought of my crazy mind, had
they known that my costly gear would merely serve to let me watch
some wretched animals kicking about in the water!
Smith and glazier are content with their work. I myself am
pleased. For all its rustic air, the apparatus does not lack
elegance. It looks very well, standing on a little table in front
of a window visited by the sun for the greater part of the day.
Its holding capacity is some ten or eleven gallons. What shall we
call it? An aquarium? No, that would be too pretentious and
would, very unjustly, suggest the aquatic toy filled with rock
work, waterfalls and goldfish beloved of the dwellers in suburbia.
Let us preserve the gravity of serious things and not treat my
learned trough as though it were a drawing room futility. We will
call it the glass pond.
I furnish it with a heap of those limy incrustations wherewith
certain springs in the neighborhood cover the dead clump of rushes.
It is light, full of holes and gives a faint suggestion of a coral
reef. Moreover, it is covered with a short, green, velvety moss, a
downy sward of infinitesimal pond weed. I count on this modest
vegetation to keep the water in a reasonably wholesome state,
without driving me to frequent renewals which would disturb the
work of my colonies. Sanitation and quiet are the first conditions
of success. Now the stocked pond will not be long in filling
itself with gases unfit to breathe, with putrid effluvia and other
animal refuse; it will become a sink in which life will have killed
life. Those dregs must disappear as soon as they are formed, must
be burnt and purified; and from their oxidized ruins there must
even rise a perfect life-giving gas, so that the water may retain
an unchangeable store of the breathable element. The plant effects
this purification in its sewage farm of green cells.
When the sun beats upon the glass pond, the work of the water weeds
is a sight to behold. The green-carpeted reef is lit up with an
infinity of scintillating points and assumes the appearance of a
fairy lawn of velvet, studded with thousands of diamond pin's
heads. From this exquisite jewelry pearls break loose continuously
and are at once replaced by others in the generating casket; slowly
they rise, like tiny globes of light. They spread on every side.
It is a constant display of fireworks in the depths of the water.
Chemistry tells us that, thanks to its green matter and the
stimulus of the sun's rays, the weeds decompose the carbonic acid
gas wherewith the water is impregnated by the breathing of its
inhabitants and the corruption of the organic refuse; it retains
the carbon, which is wrought into fresh tissues; it exhales the
oxygen in tiny bubbles. These partly dissolve in the water and
partly reach the surface, where their froth supplies the atmosphere
with an excess of breathable gas. The dissolved portion keeps the
colonists of the pond alive and causes the unhealthy products to be
oxidized and disappear.
Old hand though I be, I take an interest in this trite marvel of a
bundle of weeds perpetuating hygienic principles in a stagnant
pool; I look with a delighted eye upon the inexhaustible spray of
spreading bubbles; I see in imagination the prehistoric times when
seaweed, the first-born of plants, produced the first atmosphere
for living things to breathe at the time when the silt of the
continents was beginning to emerge. What I see before my eyes,
between the glass panes of my trough, tells me the story of the
planet surrounding itself with pure air.
CHAPTER VIII THE CADDIS WORM
Whom shall I lodge in my glass trough, kept permanently wholesome
by the action of the water weeds? I shall keep caddis worms, those
expert dressers. Few of the self-clothing insects surpass them in
ingenious attire. The ponds in my neighborhood supply me with five
or six species, each possessing an art of its own. Today, but one
of these shall receive historical honors.
I obtain it from the muddy bottomed, stagnant pools crammed with
small reeds. As far as one can judge from the habitation merely,
it should be, according to the specialists, Limnophilus
flavicornis, whose work has earned for the whole corporation the
pretty name of Phryganea, a Greek term meaning a bit of wood, a
stick. In a no less expressive fashion, the Provencal peasant
calls it lou portofais, lou porto-caneu. This is the little grub
that carries through the still waters a faggot of tiny fragments
fallen from the reeds.
Its sheath, a travelling house, is a composite and barbaric piece
of work, a megalithic pile wherein art, retires in favor of
amorphous strength. The materials are many and sundry, so much so
that we might imagine that we had the work of dissimilar builders
before our eyes, if frequent transitions did not tell us the
With the young ones, the novices, it starts with a sort of deep
basket in rustic wicker-work. The twigs employed present nearly
always the same characteristics and are none other than bits of
small, stiff roots, long steeped and peeled under water. The grub
that has made a find of these fibers saws them with its mandibles
and cuts them into little straight sticks, which it fixes one by
one to the edge of its basket, always crosswise, perpendicular to
the axis of the work.
Picture a circle surrounded by a bristling mass of tangents, or
rather a polygon with its sides extended in all directions. On
this assemblage of straight lines we place repeated layers of
others, without troubling about similarity of position, thus
obtaining a sort of ragged fascine, whose sticks project on every
side. Such is the bastion of the child grub, an excellent system
of defense, with its continuous pile of spikes, but difficult to
steer through the tangle of aquatic plants.
Sooner or later, the worm forsakes this kind of caltrop which
catches on to everything. It was a basket maker, it now turns
carpenter; it builds with little beams and joists--that is to say,
with round bits of wood, browned by the water, often as wide as a
thick straw and a finger's-breadth long, more or less--taking them
as chance supplies them.
For the rest, there is something of everything in this rag bag:
bits of stubble, fag ends of rushes, scraps of plants, fragments of
some tiny twig or other, chips of wood, shreds of bark, largish
grains, especially the seeds of the yellow iris, which were red
when they fell from their capsules and are now black as jet.
The heterogeneous collection is piled up anyhow. Some pieces are
fixed lengthwise, others across, others aslant. There are angles
in this direction and angles in the other, resulting in sharp
little turns and twists; the big is mixed with the little, the
correct rubs shoulders with the shapeless. It is not an edifice,
it is a frenzied conglomeration. Sometimes, a fine disorder is an
effect of art. This is not so here: the work of the Caddis worm is
not a masterpiece worth signing.
And this mad heaping up follows straight upon the regular basket
work of the start. The young grub's fascine did not lack a certain
elegance, with its dainty laths, all stacked crosswise,
methodically; and, lo and behold, the builder, grown larger, more
experienced and, one would think, more skilful, abandons the
orderly plan to adopt another which is wild and incoherent! There
is no transition stage between the two systems. The extravagant
pile rises abruptly from the original basket. But that we often
find the two kinds of work placed one above the other, we would not
dare ascribe to them a common origin. The fact of their being
joined together is the only thing that makes them one, in spite of
But the two storeys do not last indefinitely. When the worm has
grown slightly and is housed to its satisfaction in a heap of
joists, it abandons the basket of its childhood, which has become
too narrow and is now a troublesome burden. It cuts through its
sheath, lops off and lets go the stern, the original work. When
moving to a higher and roomier flat, it understands how to lighten
its portable house by breaking off a part of it. All that remains
is the upper floor, which is enlarged at the aperture, as and when
required, by the same architecture of disordered beams.
Side by side with these cases, which are mere ugly faggots, we find
others just as often of exquisite beauty and composed entirely of
tiny shells. Do they come from the same workshop? It takes very
convincing proofs to make us believe this. Here is order with its
charm, there disorder with its hideousness; on the one hand a
dainty mosaic of shells, on the other a clumsy heap of sticks. And
yet it is all produced by the same laborer.
Proofs abound. On some case which offends the eye with the want of
arrangement in its bits of wood, patches are apt to appear which
are quite regular and made of shells; in the same way, it is not
unusual to see a horrid tangle of joists braced to a masterpiece of
shell work. One feels a certain annoyance at seeing the pretty
sheath so barbarously spoilt.
This mixed construction tells us that the rustic stacker of wooden
beams excels, when occasion offers, in making elegant shell
pavements and that it practices rough carpentry and delicate mosaic
work indifferently. In the latter instance, the scabbard is made,
above all, of Planorbes, selected among the smaller of these pond
snails and laid flat. Without being scrupulously regular, the
work, at its best, does not lack merit. The pretty, close-whorled
spirals, placed one against the other on the same level, have a
very pleasing general effect. No pilgrim returning from Santiago
de Compostella ever slung handsomer tippet from his shoulders.
But only too often the caddis worm dashes ahead, regardless of
proportion. The big is joined to the small, the exaggerated
suddenly stands out, to the great detriment of order. Side by side
with tiny Planorbes, each at most the size of a lentil, others are
fixed as large as one's fingernail; and these cannot possibly be
fitted in correctly. They overlap the regular parts and spoil
To crown the disorder, the caddis worm adds to the flat spirals any
dead shell that comes handy, without distinction of species,
provided it be not excessively large. I notice, in its collection
of bric-a-brac, the Physa, the Paludina, the Limnaea, the Amber
snail [all pond snails] and even the Pisidium [a bivalve], that
little twin-valved casket.
Land shells, swept into the ditches by the rains after the inmate's
death, are accepted quite as readily. In the work made of the
Mollusk's cast-off clothing, I find encrusted the spindle shell of
the Clausilium, the key shell of the pupa, the spiral of the
smaller Helix, the yawning volute of the Vitrina, or glass snail,
the turret shell of the Bulimus [all land snails], denizens all of
the fields. In short, the caddis worm builds with more or less
everything that comes from the plant or the dead mollusk. Among
the diversified refuse of the pond, the only materials rejected are
those of a gravelly nature. Stone and pebble are excluded from the
building with a care that is very rarely absent. This is a
question of hydrostatics to which we will return presently. For
the moment, let us try to follow the construction of the scabbard.
In a tumbler small enough to allow of easy and precise observation,
I install three or four caddis worms, extracted this moment from
their sheaths with every possible precaution. After a number of
attempts which have at last shown me the right road, I place at
their disposal two kinds of materials, possessing opposite
qualities; the supple and the firm, the soft and the hard. On the
one hand, we have a live aquatic plant, such as watercress, for
instance, or ombrelle d'eau, having at its base a tufty bunch of
fine white roots about as thick as a horsehair. In these soft
tresses, the caddis worm, which observes a vegetarian diet, will
find at one and the same time the wherewithal to build and eat. On
the other hand, we have a little faggot of bits of wood, very dry,
equal in length and each possessing the thickness of a good sized
pin. The two sorts of building material lie side by side, mingling
their threads and sticks. The animal can make its choice from the
A few hours later, having recovered from the shock of losing its
sheath, the caddis worm sets to work to manufacture a new one. It
settles across a bunch of tangled rootlets, which are brought
together by the builder's legs and more or less arranged by the
undulating movement of the hinder part. This gives a kind of
incoherent and ill defined suspended belt, a narrow hammock with a
number of loose catches; for the various bits of which it is made
up are respected by the teeth and extended from place to place
beyond the main cords of the roots. Here, without much trouble, is
the support, suitably fixed by natural moorings. A few threads of
silk, casually distributed, make the frail combination a trifle
And now to the work of building. Supported by the suspended belt,
the caddis worm stretches itself and thrusts out its middle legs,
which, being longer than the others, are the grapnels intended to
seize things at a distance. It meets a bit of root, fastens on to
it, climbs above the point gripped, as though it were measuring the
piece to a requisite length, and then, with the fine scissors of
its mandibles, cuts the string.
There is at once a brief recoil, which brings the animal back to
the level of the hammock. The bit detached lies across the worm's
chest, held in its forelegs, which turn it, twist it, wave it
about, lay it down, lift it up, as though trying for the best
position. Those forelegs make admirably dexterous arms. Being
less long than the other two pairs, they are brought into immediate
contact with those primordial implements, the mandibles and the
spinneret. Their delicate terminal jointing, with a movable and
crooked finger, is the caddis worm's equivalent of our hand. They
are the working legs. The second pair, which are exceptionally
long, serve to spear distant materials and to give the worker a
firm footing when measuring a piece and cutting it with the pliers.
Lastly, the hind legs, of medium length, afford a support when the
others are busy.
The caddis worm, I was saying, with the piece which it has removed
held crosswise to its chest, retreats a little way along its
suspended hammock until the spinneret is level with the support
furnished by the close tangle of rootlets. With a quick movement,
it shifts its burden, gets it as nearly by the middle as it can, so
that the two ends stick out equally on either side, and chooses the
spot to place it, whereupon the spinneret sets to work at once,
while the little fore legs hold the scrap of root motionless in its
transversal position. The soldering is effected with a touch of
silk in the middle of the bit and along a certain distance to the
right and left, as far as the bending of the head permits.
Without delay, other sticks are speared in like manner at a
distance, cut off and placed in position. As the immediate
neighborhood is stripped, the material is gathered at a yet greater
distance and the caddis worm bends even farther from its support,
which now holds only its last few segments. It is a curious
gymnastic display, that of this soft, hanging spine turning and
swaying, while the grapnels feel in every direction for a thread.
All this labor results in a sort of casing of little white cords.
The work lacks firmness and regularity. Nevertheless, judging by
the builder's methods, I can see that the building would not be
devoid of merit if the materials gave it a better chance. The
caddis worm estimates the size of its pieces very fairly; it cuts
them all to nearly the same length; it always arranges them
crosswise on the margin of the case; it fixes them by the middle.
Nor is this all: the manner of working helps the general
arrangement considerably. When the bricklayer is building the
narrow shaft of a factory chimney, he stands in the center of his
turret and turns round and round while gradually laying new rows.
The caddis worm acts in the same way. It twists round in its
sheath; it adopts without inconvenience whatever position it
pleases, so as to bring its spinneret full face with the point to
be gummed. There is no straining of the neck to left or right, no
throwing back of the head to reach points behind. The animal has
constantly before it, within the exact range of its implements, the
place at which the bit is to be fixed. When the piece is soldered,
the worm turns a little aside, to a length equal to that of the
last soldering, and here, along an extent which hardly ever varies,
an extent determined by the swing which its head is able to give,
it fixes the next piece.
These several conditions ought to result in a geometrically ordered
dwelling, having a regular polygon as an opening. Then how comes
it that the cylinder of bits of root is so confused, so clumsily
fashioned? The reason is this: the worker possesses talent, but
the materials do not lend themselves to accurate work. The
rootlets supply stumps of very uneven shape and thickness. They
include big and small ones, straight and bent, simple and ramified.
To combine all these dissimilar pieces into an orderly whole is
hardly possible, all the more so as the caddis worm does not appear
to attach very much importance to its cylinder, which is a
temporary work, hurriedly constructed to afford a speedy shelter.
Matters are urgent; and very soft fibers, clipped with a bite of
the mandibles, are more quickly gathered and more easily put
together than joists, which require the patient work of the saw.
The inaccurate cylinder, in short, held in position by numerous guy
ropes, is a base upon which a solid and definite structure will
rise before long. Soon, the original work will crumble to ruins
and disappear, whereas the new one, a permanent structure, will
even outlast the owner.
The insects reared in a tumbler show yet another method of building
the first dwelling. This time, the caddis worm is given a few very
leafy stalks of pond weed (Potamogeton densum) and a bundle of
small dry twigs. It perches on a leaf, which the nippers of the
mandibles cut half across. The portion left untouched will act as
a lanyard and give the necessary steadiness to the early
From an adjoining leaf a section is cut out entirely, an angular
and good sized piece. There is plenty of material and no need for
economy. The piece is soldered with silk to the strip which was
not wholly cut off. The result of three or four similar operations
is to surround the Caddis worm with a conical bag, whose wide mouth
is scalloped with pointed and very irregular notches. The work of
the nippers continues; fresh pieces are fixed, from one to another,
inside the funnel, not far from the edge, so that the bag
lengthens, tapers and ends by wrapping the animal in a light and
Thus clad for the time being, either in the fine silk of the pond
weed or in the linsey-woolsey supplied by the roots of the
watercress, the caddis worm begins to think of building a more
solid sheath. The present casing will serve as a foundation for
the stronger building. But the necessary materials are seldom near
at hand: you have to go and fetch them, you have to move your
position, an effort which has been avoided until now. With this
object, the caddis worm cuts its moorings, that is to say, the
rootlets which keep the cylinder fixed, or else the half-severed
leaf of pond weed on which the cone-shaped bag has come into being.
The worm is now free. The smallness of the artificial pond, the
tumbler, soon brings it into touch with what it is seeking. This
is a little faggot of dry twigs, which I have selected of equal
length and of slight thickness. Displaying greater care than it
did when treating the slender roots, the carpenter measures out the
requisite length on the joist. The distance to which it has to
extend its body in order to reach the point where the break will be
made tells it pretty accurately what length of stick it wants.
The piece is patiently sawn off with the mandibles; it is next
taken in the fore legs and held crosswise below the neck. The
backward movement which brings the caddis worm home also brings the
bit of twig to the edge of the tube. Thereupon, the methods
employed in working with the scraps of root are renewed in
precisely the same manner. The sticks are scaffolded to the
regulation height, all alike in length, amply soldered in the
middle and free at either end.
With the picked materials provided, the carpenter has turned out a
work of some elegance. The joists are all arranged crosswise,
because this way is the handiest for carrying the sticks and
putting them in position; they are fixed by the middle, because the
two arms that hold the stick while the spinneret does its work
require an equal grasp on either side; each soldering covers a
length which is seen to be practically invariable, because it is
equal to the width described by the head in bending first to this
side and then to that when the silk is emitted; the whole assumes a
polygonal shape, not far removed from a rectilinear pentagon,
because, between laying one piece and the next, the caddis worm
turns by the width of an arc corresponding with the length of a
soldering. The regularity of the method produces the regularity of
the work; but it is essential, of course, that the materials should
lend themselves to precise coordination.
In its natural pond, the caddis worm does not often have at its
disposal the picked joists which I give it in the tumbler. It
comes across something of everything; and that something of
everything it employs as it finds
it. Bits of wood, large seeds, empty shells, stubble stalks,
shapeless fragments are used in the building for better or for
worse, just as they occur, without being trimmed by the saw; and
this jumble, the result of chance, results in a shockingly faulty
The caddis worm does not forget its talents; but it lacks choice
pieces. Give it a proper timber yard and it at once reverts to
correct architecture, of which it carries the plans within itself.
With small, dead pond snails, all of the same size, it fashions a
splendid patchwork scabbard; with a cluster of slender roots,
reduced by rotting to their stiff, straight, woody axis, it
manufactures pretty specimens of wicker work which could serve as
models to our basket makers.
Let us watch it at work when it is unable to use its favorite
joist. There is no point in giving it clumsy building stones; that
would only bring us back to the uncouth sheaths. Its propensity to
make use of soaked seeds, those of the iris, for instance, suggests
that I might try grains. I select rice, which, because of its
hardness, will be tantamount to wood and, because of its clean
whiteness and its oval shape, will lend itself to artistic masonry.
Obviously, my denuded caddis worms cannot start their work with
bricks of this kind. Where would they fix their first layer? They
must have a foundation, quick and easy to build. This is once more
supplied by a temporary cylinder of watercress roots. On this
support follow the grains of rice, which, grouped one atop the
other, straight or slanting, end by giving a magnificent turret of
ivory. Next to the sheaths made of tiny snail shells, this is the
prettiest thing with which the caddis worm's industry has furnished
me. A fine sense of order has returned, because the materials,
regular and of identical character, have cooperated with the
correct method of the worker.
The two demonstrations are enough. Sticks and grains of rice make
it plain that the caddis worm is not the bungler that one would
expect from the monstrous buildings in the pond. Those Cyclopean
piles, those mad conglomerations, are the inevitable results of
chance finds, which are used for the best because there is no
choice. The water carpenter has an art of its own, has method and
rules of symmetry. When well served by fortune, it is quite able
to turn out good work; when ill-served, it acts like others: the
work which it turns out is bad. Poverty makes for ugliness.
There is another matter wherein the caddis worm deserves our
attention. With a perseverance which repeated trials do not tire,
it makes itself a new tube when I strip it. This is opposed to the
habits of the generality of insects, which do not recommence the
thing once done, but simply continue it according to the usual
rules, taking no account of the ruined or vanished portions. The
caddis worm is a striking exception: it starts again. Whence does
it derive this capacity?
I begin by learning that, given a sudden alarm, it readily leaves