THE HARMAS





This is what I wished for, hoc erat in votis: a bit of land, oh,

not so very large, but fenced in, to avoid the drawbacks of a

public way; an abandoned, barren, sun scorched bit of land,

favored by thistles and by wasps and bees. Here, without fear of

being troubled by the passersby, I could consult the Ammophila and

the Sphex [two digger or hunting wasps] and engage in that

difficult conversation whose questions and answers have experiment

for their language; here, without distant expeditions that take up

my time, without tiring rambles that strain my nerves, I could

contrive my plans of attack, lay my ambushes and watch their

effects at every hour of the day. Hoc erat in votis. Yes, this

was my wish, my dream, always cherished, always vanishing into the

mists of the future.



And it is no easy matter to acquire a laboratory in the open

fields, when harassed by a terrible anxiety about one's daily

bread. For forty years have I fought, with steadfast courage,

against the paltry plagues of life; and the long-wished-for

laboratory has come at last. What it has cost me in perseverance

and relentless work I will not try to say. It has come; and, with

it--a more serious condition--perhaps a little leisure. I say

perhaps, for my leg is still hampered with a few links of the

convict's chain.



The wish is realized. It is a little late, O my pretty insects! I

greatly fear that the peach is offered to me when I am beginning

to have no teeth wherewith to eat it. Yes, it is a little late:

the wide horizons of the outset have shrunk into a low and

stifling canopy, more and more straitened day by day. Regretting

nothing in the past, save those whom I have lost; regretting

nothing, not even my first youth; hoping nothing either, I have

reached the point at which, worn out by the experience of things,

we ask ourselves if life be worth the living.



Amid the ruins that surround me, one strip of wall remains

standing, immovable upon its solid base: my passion for scientific

truth. Is that enough, O my busy insects, to enable me to add yet

a few seemly pages to your history? Will my strength not cheat my

good intentions? Why, indeed, did I forsake you so long? Friends

have reproached me for it. Ah, tell them, tell those friends, who

are yours as well as mine, tell them that it was not forgetfulness

on my part, not weariness, nor neglect: I thought of you; I was

convinced that the Cerceris [a digger wasp] cave had more fair

secrets to reveal to us, that the chase of the Sphex held fresh

surprises in store. But time failed me; I was alone, deserted,

struggling against misfortune. Before philosophizing, one had to

live. Tell them that; and they will pardon me.



Others again have reproached me with my style, which has not the

solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear

lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the

expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are

profound only on condition of being obscure. Come here, one and

all of you--you, the sting bearers, and you, the wing-cased armor-

clads--take up my defense and bear witness in my favor. Tell of

the intimate terms on which I live with you, of the patience with

which I observe you, of the care with which I record your actions.

Your evidence is unanimous: yes, my pages, though they bristle not

with hollow formulas nor learned smatterings, are the exact

narrative of facts observed, neither more nor less; and whoever

cares to question you in his turn will, obtain the same replies.



And then, my dear insects, if you cannot convince those good

people, because you do not carry the weight of tedium, I, in my

turn, will say to them: 'You rip up the animal and I study it

alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I

cause it to be loved; you labor in a torture chamber and

dissecting room, I make my observations under the blue sky to the

song of the cicadas, you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical

tests, I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry

into death, I pry into life. And why should I not complete my

thought: the boars have muddied the clear stream; natural history,

youth's glorious study, has, by dint of cellular improvements,

become a hateful and repulsive thing. Well, if I write for men of

learning, for philosophers, who, one day, will try to some extent

to unravel the tough problem of instinct, I write also, I write

above all things for the young. I want to make them love the

natural history which you make them hate; and that is why, while

keeping strictly to the domain of truth, I avoid your scientific

prose, which too often, alas seems borrowed from some Iroquois

idiom."



But this is not my business for the moment: I want to speak of the

bit of land long cherished in my plans to form a laboratory of

living entomology, the bit of land which I have at last obtained

in the solitude of a little village. It is a harmas, the name

given, in this district [the country round Serignan, in Provence],

to an untilled, pebbly expanse abandoned to the vegetation of the

thyme. It is too poor to repay the work of the plow; but the

sheep passes there in spring, when it has chanced to rain and a

little grass shoots up.



My harmas, however, because of its modicum of red earth swamped by

a huge mass of stones, has received a rough first attempt at

cultivation: I am told that vines once grew here. And, in fact,

when we dig the ground before planting a few trees, we turn up,

here and there, remains of the precious stock, half carbonized by

time. The three pronged fork, therefore, the only implement of

husbandry that can penetrate such a soil as this, has entered

here; and I am sorry, for the primitive vegetation has

disappeared. No more thyme, no more lavender, no more clumps of

kermes oak, the dwarf oak that forms forests across which we step

by lengthening our stride a little. As these plants, especially

the first two, might be of use to me by offering the Bees and

Wasps a spoil to forage, I am compelled to reinstate them in the

ground whence they were driven by the fork.



What abounds without my mediation is the invaders of any soil that

is first dug up and then left for a long time to its own

resources. We have, in the first rank, the couch grass, that

execrable weed which three years of stubborn warfare have not

succeeded in exterminating. Next, in respect of number, come the

centauries, grim looking one and all, bristling with prickles or

starry halberds. They are the yellow-flowered centaury, the

mountain centaury, the star thistle and the rough centaury: the

first predominates. Here and there, amid their inextricable

confusion, stands, like a chandelier with spreading, orange

flowers for lights, the fierce Spanish oyster plant, whose spikes

are strong as nails. Above it, towers the Illyrian cotton

thistle, whose straight and solitary stalk soars to a height of

three to six feet and ends in large pink tufts. Its armor hardly

yields before that of the oyster plant. Nor must we forget the

lesser thistle tribe, with first of all, the prickly or 'cruel'

thistle, which is so well armed that the plant collector knows not

where to grasp it; next, the spear thistle, with its ample

foliage, ending each of its veins with a spear head; lastly, the

black knapweed, which gathers itself into a spiky knot. In among

these, in long lines armed with hooks, the shoots of the blue

dewberry creep along the ground. To visit the prickly thicket

when the Wasp goes foraging, you must wear boots that come to mid-

leg or else resign yourself to a smarting in the calves. As long

as the ground retains a few remnants of the vernal rains, this

rude vegetation does not lack a certain charm, when the pyramids

of the oyster plant and the slender branches of the cotton thistle

rise above the wide carpet formed by the yellow-flowered centaury

saffron heads; but let the droughts of summer come and we see but

a desolate waste, which the flame of a match would set ablaze from

one end to the other. Such is, or rather was, when I took

possession of it, the Eden of bliss where I mean to live

henceforth alone with the insect. Forty years of desperate

struggle have won it for me.



Eden, I said; and, from the point of view that interests me, the

expression is not out of place. This cursed ground, which no one

would have had at a gift to sow with a pinch of turnip seed, is an

earthly paradise for the bees and wasps. Its mighty growth of

thistles and centauries draws them all to me from everywhere

around. Never, in my insect hunting memories, have I seen so

large a population at a single spot; all the trades have made it

their rallying point. Here come hunters of every kind of game,

builders in clay, weavers of cotton goods, collectors of pieces

cut from a leaf or the petals of a flower, architects in

pasteboard, plasterers mixing mortar, carpenters boring wood,

miners digging underground galleries, workers handling

goldbeater's skin and many more.



Who is this one? An Anthidium [a tailor bee]. She scrapes the

cobwebby stalk of the yellow-flowered centaury and gathers a ball

of wadding which she carries off proudly in the tips of her

mandibles. She will turn it, under ground, into cotton felt

satchels to hold the store of honey and the egg. And these

others, so eager for plunder? They are Megachiles [leaf-cutting

bees], carrying under their bellies their black, white or blood

red reaping brushes. They will leave the thistles to visit the

neighboring shrubs and there cut from the leaves oval pieces which

will be made into a fit receptacle to contain the harvest. And

these, clad in black velvet? They are Chalicodomae [mason bees],

who work with cement and gravel. We could easily find their

masonry on the stones in the harmas. And these noisily buzzing

with a sudden flight? They are the Anthophorae [wild bees], who

live in the old walls and the sunny banks of the neighborhood.



Now come the Osmiae. One stacks her cells in the spiral staircase

of an empty snail shell; another, attacking the pith of a dry bit

of bramble, obtains for her grubs a cylindrical lodging and

divides it into floors by means of partition walls; a third

employs the natural channel of a cut reed; a fourth is a rent-free

tenant of the vacant galleries of some mason bee. Here are the

Macrocerae and the Eucerae, whose males are proudly horned; the

Dasypodae, who carry an ample brush of bristles on their hind legs

for a reaping implement; the Andrenae, so manifold in species; the

slender-bellied Halicti [all wild bees]. I omit a host of others.

If I tried to continue this record of the guests of my thistles,

it would muster almost the whole of the honey yielding tribe. A

learned entomologist of Bordeaux, Professor Perez, to whom I

submit the naming of my prizes, once asked me if I had any special

means of hunting, to send him so many rarities and even novelties.

I am not at all an experienced and, still less, a zealous hunter,

for the insect interests me much more when engaged in its work

than when struck on a pin in a cabinet. The whole secret of my

hunting is reduced to my dense nursery of thistles and centauries.



By a most fortunate chance, with this populous family of honey

gatherers was allied the whole hunting tribe. The builders' men

had distributed here and there in the harmas great mounds of sand

and heaps of stones, with a view to running up some surrounding

walls. The work dragged on slowly; and the materials found

occupants from the first year. The mason bees had chosen the

interstices between the stones as a dormitory where to pass the

night, in serried groups. The powerful eyed lizard, who, when

close pressed, attacks both man and dog, wide mouthed, had

selected a cave wherein to lie in wait for the passing scarab [a

dung beetle also known as the sacred beetle]; the black-eared

chat, garbed like a Dominican, white-frocked with black wings, sat

on the top stone, singing his short rustic lay: his nest, with its

sky blue eggs, must be somewhere in the heap. The little

Dominican disappeared with the loads of stones. I regret him: he

would have been a charming neighbor. The eyed lizard I do not

regret at all.



The sand sheltered a different colony. Here, the Bembeces [digger

wasps] were sweeping the threshold of their burrows, flinging a

curve of dust behind them; the Languedocian Sphex was dragging her

Ephippigera [a green grasshopper] by the antennae; a Stizus [a

hunting wasp] was storing her preserves of Cicadellae


sporting tribe; but, should I ever wish to recall it, I have but

to renew the mounds of sand: they will soon all be there.



Hunters that have not disappeared, their homes being different,

are the Ammophilae, whom I see fluttering, one in spring, the

others in autumn, along the garden walks and over the lawns, in

search of a caterpillar; the Pompili [digger or hunting wasp], who

travel alertly, beating their wings and rummaging in every corner

in quest of a spider. The largest of them waylays the Narbonne

Lycosa [known also as the black-bellied tarantula], whose burrow

is not infrequent in the harmas. This burrow is a vertical well,

with a curb of fescue grass intertwined with silk. You can see

the eyes of the mighty Spider gleam at the bottom of the den like

little diamonds, an object of terror to most. What a prey and

what dangerous hunting for the Pompilus! And here, on a hot summer

afternoon, is the Amazon ant, who leaves her barrack rooms in long

battalions and marches far afield to hunt for slaves. We will

follow her in her raids when we find time. Here again, around a

heap of grasses turned to mould, are Scoliae [large hunting wasps]

an inch and a half long, who fly gracefully and dive into the

heap, attracted by a rich prey, the grubs of Lamellicorns,

Orycotes and Ceotoniae [various beetles].



What subjects for study! And there are more to come. The house

was as utterly deserted as the ground. When man was gone and

peace assured, the animal hastily seized on everything. The

warbler took up his abode in the lilac shrubs; the greenfinch

settled in the thick shelter of the cypresses; the sparrow carted

rags and straw under every slate; the Serin finch, whose downy

nest is no bigger than half an apricot, came and chirped in the

plane tree tops; the Scops made a habit of uttering his

monotonous, piping note here, of an evening; the bird of Pallas

Athene, the owl, came hurrying along to hoot and hiss.



In front of the house is a large pond, fed by the aqueduct that

supplies the village pumps with water. Here, from half a mile and

more around, come the frogs and Toads in the lovers' season. The

natterjack, sometimes as large as a plate, with a narrow stripe of

yellow down his back, makes his appointments here to take his

bath; when the evening twilight falls, we see hopping along the

edge the midwife toad, the male, who carries a cluster of eggs,

the size of peppercorns, wrapped round his hindlegs: the genial

paterfamilias has brought his precious packet from afar, to leave

it in the water and afterwards retire under some flat stone,

whence he will emit a sound like a tinkling bell. Lastly, when

not croaking amid the foliage, the tree frogs indulge in the most

graceful dives. And so, in May, as soon as it is dark, the pond

becomes a deafening orchestra: it is impossible to talk at table,

impossible to sleep. We had to remedy this by means perhaps a

little too rigorous. What could we do? He who tries to sleep

and cannot needs becomes ruthless.



Bolder still, the wasp has taken possession of the dwelling house.

On my door sill, in a soil of rubbish, nestles the white-banded

Sphex: when I go indoors, I must be careful not to damage her

burrows, not to tread upon the miner absorbed in her work. It is

quite a quarter of a century since I last saw the saucy cricket

hunter. When I made her acquaintance, I used to visit her at a

few miles' distance: each time, it meant an expedition under the

blazing August sun. Today, I find her at my door; we are intimate

neighbors. The embrasure of the closed window provides an

apartment of a mild temperature for the Pelopaeus [a mason wasp].

The earth-built nest is fixed against the freestone wall. To

enter her home, the spider huntress uses a little hole left open

by accident in the shutters. On the moldings of the Venetian

blinds, a few stray mason bees build their group of cells; inside

the outer shutters, left ajar, a Eumenes [a mason wasp] constructs

her little earthen dome, surmounted by a short, bell-mouthed neck.

The common wasp and the Polistes [a solitary wasp] are my dinner

guests: they visit my table to see if the grapes served are as

ripe as they look.



Here, surely--and the list is far from complete--is a company both

numerous and select, whose conversation will not fail to charm my

solitude, if I succeed in drawing it out. My dear beasts of

former days, my old friends, and others, more recent

acquaintances, all are here, hunting, foraging, building in close

proximity. Besides, should we wish to vary the scene of

observation, the mountain [Ventoux] is but a few hundred steps

away, with its tangle of arbutus, rock roses and arborescent

heather; with its sandy spaces dear to the Bembeces; with its

marly slopes exploited by different wasps and bees. And that is

why, foreseeing these riches, I have abandoned the town for the

village and come to Serignan to weed my turnips and water my

lettuces.



Laboratories are being founded, at great expense, on our Atlantic

and Mediterranean coasts, where people cut up small sea animals,

of but meager interest to us; they spend a fortune on powerful

microscopes, delicate dissecting instruments, engines of capture,

boats, fishing crews, aquariums, to find out how the yolk of an

Annelid's egg is constructed, a question whereof I have never yet

been able to grasp the full importance; and they scorn the little

land animal, which lives in constant touch with us, which provides

universal psychology with documents of inestimable value, which

too often threatens the public wealth by destroying our crops.

When shall we have an entomological laboratory for the study not

of the dead insect, steeped in alcohol, but of the living insect;

a laboratory having for its object the instinct, the habits, the

manner of living, the work, the struggles, the propagation of that

little world, with which agriculture and philosophy have most

seriously to reckon?



To know thoroughly the history of the destroyer of our vines might

perhaps be more important than to know how this or that nerve

fiber of a Cirriped [sea animals with hair-like legs, including

the barnacles and acorn shells] ends; to establish by experiment

the line of demarcation between intellect and instinct; to prove,

by comparing facts in the zoological progression, whether human

reason be an irreducible faculty or not: all this ought surely to

take precedence of the number of joints in a Crustacean's antenna.

These enormous questions would need an army of workers; and we

have not one. The fashion is all for the Mollusk and the

Zoophytes [plant-like sea animals, including starfishes,

jellyfishes, sea anemones and sponges]. The depths of the sea are

explored with many drag nets; the soil which we tread is

consistently disregarded. While waiting for the fashion to

change, I open my harmas laboratory of living entomology; and this

laboratory shall not cost the ratepayers one farthing.





THE HALICTI THE PORTRESS THE HARMAS facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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