J. Henri Fabre : My Souvenirs entomologiques (2006.10.2[Mon])


I have to admit I have been a bit reluctant to write about Fabre in this column, for fear of it turning into just one more in a long list of personal commentary. But there's no getting around the fact that Fabre's work is undergoing something of a boom in recent years. There's now a new Japanese version by Daisaburo Okumoto, and a reissue of volume one of the anarchist Sakae Osugi's own noteworthy translation. It might fairly be said that Japan has always adored Fabre even more than the French do, and it seems that that fascination is enjoying yet another revival. Given that widespread popularity, I think it's safe for me to forego a rehearsal of the more basic aspects of Fabre's oeuvre here.

 As a child, I had already decided that I would become an entomologist. When my kindergarten teacher asked everyone what they wanted to become when they grew up, I remember saying, I want tobe an entomologist. I was only five but I was very clear on that. Not a bug scientist or somebody who studies insects - an entomologist. I think my teacher began to take notice of me after that. But in fact it's only very recently that I have actually started to study insect biology - more than forty years after I announced that as my dream career.

 I can't remember if I had already fallen under Fabre's spell at that early age, but I know that even then I was more of a morphologist than a physiologist at heart. Whenever my mother would take me to the entomological museum at Mino, I would stand transfixed in front of the display cases, staring at the rows of wonderful specimens. And when I read Fabre, the mental picture I had developed of the collection in his own laboratory sparked my imagination even more than his descriptions of insect behavior or biology. I suppose the curator's itch must be in my blood. When Fabre wondered what would become of his desk after he was gone, his concern resonated deeply within me. Happily, it has been preserved in his home, just as he left it.

 In any event, as a child I spent my days chasing insects. As soon as I came home from kindergarten, I would grab my net and set off on the hunt, without even waiting for my after school snack. I lived in the city of Toyonaka in greater Osaka, and there were plenty of empty lots overrun with weeds and karatachi orange trees planted in people's gardens, providing homes to swallowtails and longhorn beetles, and the occasional kinkamemushi (Eucorysses grandis ) and mulberry borer ( Apriona japonica ), prized rarities (at least to me). And if I was really lucky, I would catch a glimpse of jewel beetles (Chrysochroa fulgidissima ) flitting iridescent in the treetops. As night fell, sometimes a huge Cynthia moth would fly in through my open window, and frighten me with the aposematic patterning of its outspread wings. In its way, it was actually quite a biodiverse environment. That said, we certainly never saw any oak silk moths (Antheraea yamamai) or Japanese stag beetles in my neighborhood. The suburban ecosystem was a bit different than what you'd see up in the mountains. I was most interested in exactly those insects that were hardest to catch where I lived and, like many others from the generation that grew up during Japan's rapid economic expansion in the 1960s, I had an unusual fascination with insects. But in the sixties, an apartment building was put up in the lot near my home that had once been inhabited by Japanese ratsnakes and shimahebi (Elaphe quadrivirgata ) and now the land has been paved over and turned into a parking lot; I doubt one would see that wildlife there now.

 When I collected insects as a child, I didn't pursue it in a systematic way of seeking to acquire everything in a given class or genus. Basically, I just chased whatever I saw. As an adult I have gained an appreciation for the arts and humanities, but that is a relatively recent development - as a child I had no love for literature. The one exception was the excerpts from Fabre's Souvenirs entomologiques published by Hakusuisha. If I remember correctly, the book actually belonged to my aunt. The frontispiece was graced with a photo of a European praying mantis, with its head so different from that of its Japanese cousin. To me, that book was literature, and given Hakusuisha's strength in publishing works from the French, perhaps that is how the publishers viewed it as well. Perhaps it was because they saw me actually reading that book on my own, but my parents started to buy me the full 6-volume set of the juvenile edition of Fabre, translated by Haruo Furukawa and published by Kaiseisha, thereafter. T hose books, denuded of their slipcases and jackets, sat bare-spined on my shelves for many years. For me, Fabre's work will always be associated with that Kaiseisha junior edition. All the wonderful stories - the famous recounting of scarab beetle's industriousness; the picture of the hundreds of male peacock moths thronging to the phenomenal lure of a single female; the carrion beetles doing battle with a dead mole; the courtship dance of the scorpion (even if it's not an insect) - I encountered them all first here...(Look, I've done it - this has turned into yet another personal commentary, just as I'd feared.) At any rate, with the exception of some picture books, Fabre was my first introduction to the life sciences literature.

 The first time I really read the Souvenirs entomologiques was in college. By really read,I mean the Japanese edition published by Iwanami - other full-length translations are hard to come by, and few have the time and perseverance to attempt the entire work in the original French. The Iwanami set was published by a team of translators, led by Tatsuo Hayashi, and is one of the few editions to include plates. For a while, I would read the Iwanami collection whenever I had some spare time. Unlike now, I had quite a bit of time as a young undergrad, and I can remember my friends in the music club I played in would check on my progress, asking if I had gotten through Fabre yet. It's a 20-volume series, so completing it was something of an accomplishment. Two years later, when I chose my major, it dawned on me that the students could be grouped into two categories: those who had read Fabre's opus and those who had read The Origin of Species. Very few could say that they'd neither or both. These two works, both published in Japanese by Iwanami Bunko, represented the pillars that defined and delimited the field. And both required a great commitment of time and effort to read. Some time later, there was a survey that asked people to name the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century. Many biologists chose the identification of the double helical structure of DNA. But for me, both then and now, it was the discovery of the coelacanth. And I can't help but think that others who answered the same way are also devotees of Fabre.

Reference: "Souvenirs entomologiques Vol.1-10"