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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, favoured by thistles and

by Wasps and Bees. Here, without fear of being troubled by the

passers-by, I could consult the Ammophila and the Sphex (two species of

Digger-or Hunting-wasps.--Translator's Note.) and engage in that

onversation 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 species of Digger-wasp.--Translator's

Note.) 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 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 armour-clads--take up my defence and bear

witness in my favour. 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 whoso

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 labour in a

torture-chamber and dissecting-room, I make my observations under the

blue sky, to the song of the Cicadae (The Cicada Cigale, an insect akin

to the Grasshopper and found more particularly in the south of

France.--Translator's Note.); 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.--Translator's

Note.), to an untilled, pebbly expanse abandoned to the vegetation of

the thyme. It is too poor to repay the work of the plough; 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 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 armour 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 knap-weed, 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's 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 the 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 paste-board, 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 Cotton-bee.--Translator's Note.) 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.--Translator's Note.),

carrying under their bellies their black, white, or blood-red

reaping-brushes. They will leave the thistles to visit the neighbouring

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.--Translator's Note.), 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 (a species of Wild Bees.--Translator's Note.),

who live in the old walls and the sunny banks of the neighbourhood.

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 manyfold

in species; the slender-bellied Halicti. (Osmiae, Macrocerae, Eucerae,

Dasypodae, Andrenae, and Halicti are all different species of Wild

Bees.--Translator's Note.) 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 stuck on a pin in a cabinet. The whole

secret of my hunting is reduced to my dense nursery of thistles and


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 of 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 wide-mouthed

both man and dog, had selected a cave wherein to lie in wait for the

passing Scarab (A Dung-beetle known also as the Sacred

Beetle.--Translator's Note.); 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 neighbour. The

Eyed Lizard I do not regret at all.

The sand sheltered a different colony. Here, the Bembeces (A species of

Digger-wasps.--Translator's Note.) were sweeping the threshold of their

burrows, flinging a curve of dust behind them; the Languedocian Sphex

was dragging her Ephippigera (A species of Green

Grasshopper--Translator's Note.) by the antennae; a Stizus (A species

of Hunting-wasp.--Translator's Note.) was storing her preserves of

Cicadellae. (Froghoppers--Translator's Note.) To my sorrow, the masons

ended by evicting the sporting tribe; but, should I ever wish to recall

it, I have but to renew the mounds of sand: they will soon all be


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 (The Pompilus is a species of Hunting-wasp known also as

the Ringed Calicurgus--Translator's Note.), 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--Translator's Note.), 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--Translator's Note.) an inch and a half long, who

fly gracefully and dive into the heap, attracted by a rich prey, the

grubs of Lamellicorns, Oryctes, and Cetoniae. (Different species of

Beetles. The Cetonia is the Rose-chafer--Translator's Note.)

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 hind-legs: 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

become 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. To-day I find her

at my door; we are intimate neighbours. The embrasure of the closed

window provides an apartment of a mild temperature for the Pelopaeus.

(A species of Mason-wasp--Translator's Note.) 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 mouldings of the Venetian blinds, a few stray

Mason-bees build their group of cells; inside the outer shutters, left

ajar, a Eumenes (Another Mason-wasp--Translator's Note.) constructs her

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

Common Wasp and the Polistes (A Wasp that builds her nest in

trees--Translator's Note.) 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 (Mont Ventoux,

an outlying summit of the Alps, 6,270 feet high.--Translator's Note.)

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

meagre 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 (A

red-blooded Worm.--Translator's Note.) 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-fibre of a Cirriped ends (Cirripeds are sea-animals with

hair-like legs, including the Barnacles and Acorn-shells.--Translator's

Note.); 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 Mollusc and

the Zoophyte. (Zoophytes are plant-like sea-animals, including

Star-fishes, Jelly-fishes, Sea-anemones, and Sponges.--Translator's

Note.) 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.