Chapter XVII. Recollections of Childhood
Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Fly
Almost as much as insects and birds — the former so dear to the child, who loves to rear his cockchafers and rose beetles on a bed of hawthorn in a box pierced with holes; the latter an irresistible temptation, with their nests and their eggs and their little ones opening tiny yellow beaks — the mushroom early won my heart with its varied shapes and colors. I can still see myself as an innocent small boy sporting my first braces and beginning to know my way through the cabalistic mazes of my reading book, I see myself in ecstasy before the first bird's nest found and the first mushroom gathered. Let us relate these grave events. Old age loves to meditate the past.
O happy days when curiosity awakens and frees us from the limbo of unconsciousness, your distant memory makes me live my best years over again. Disturbed at its siesta by some wayfarer, the partridge's young brood hastily disperses. Each pretty little ball of down scurries off and disappears in the brushwood; but, when quiet is restored, at the first summoning note they all return under the mother's wing. Even so, recalled by memory, do my recollections of childhood return, those other fledglings which have lost so many of their feathers on the brambles of life. Some, which have hardly come out of the bushes, have aching heads and tottering steps; some are missing, stifled in some dark corner of the thicket; some remain in their full freshness. Now of those which have escaped the clutches of time the liveliest are the first-born. For them the soft wax of childish memory has been converted into enduring bronze.
On that day, wealthy and leisured, with an apple for my lunch and all my time to myself, I decided to visit the brow of the neighboring hill, hitherto looked upon as the boundary of the world. Right at the top is a row of trees which, turning their backs to the wind, bend and toss about as though to uproot themselves and take to flight. How often, from the little window in my home, have I not seen them bowing their heads in stormy weather; how often have I not watched them writhing like madmen amid the snow dust which the north wind's broom raises and smoothes along the hillside! 'What are they doing up there, those desolate trees? I am interested in their supple backs, today still and upright against the blue of the sky, tomorrow shaken when the clouds pass overhead. I am gladdened by their calmness; I am distressed by their terrified gestures. They are my friends. I have them before my eyes at every hour of the day. In the morning, the sun rises behind their transparent screen and ascends in its glory. Where does it come from? I am going to climb up there and perhaps I shall find out.
I mount the slope. It is a lean grass sward close-cropped by the sheep. It has no bushes, fertile in rents and tears, for which I should have to answer on returning home, nor any rocks, the scaling of which involves like dangers; nothing but large, flat stones, scattered here and there. I. have only to go straight on, over smooth ground. But the sward is as steep as a sloping roof. It is long, ever so long; and my legs are very short. From time to time, I look up. My friends, the trees on the hilltop, seem to be no nearer. Cheerily, sonny! Scramble away!
What is this at my feet? A lovely bird has flown from its hiding place under the eaves of a big stone. Bless us, here's a nest made of hair and fine straw! It's the first I have ever found, the first of the joys which the birds are to bring me. And in this nest are six eggs, laid prettily side by side; and those eggs are a magnificent blue, as though steeped in a dye of celestial azure. Overpowered with happiness, I lie down on the grass and stare.
Meanwhile, the mother, with a little clap of her gullet — ‚Tack! Tack !‘ — flies anxiously from stone to stone, not far from the intruder. My age knows no pity, is still too barbarous to understand maternal anguish. A plan is running in my head, a plan worthy of a little beast of prey. I will come back in a fortnight and collect the nestlings before they can fly away. In the meantime, I will just take one of those pretty blue eggs, only one, as a trophy. Lest it should be crushed, I place the fragile thing on a little moss in the scoop of my hand. Let him cast a stone at me that has not, in his childhood, known the rapture of finding his first nest.
My delicate burden, which would be ruined by a false step, makes me give up the remainder of the climb. Some other day I shall see the trees on the hilltop over which the sun rises. I go down the slope again. At the bottom, I meet the parish priest's curate reading his breviary as he takes his walk. He sees me coming solemnly along, like a relic bearer; he catches sight of my hand hiding something behind my back: 'What have you there, my boy? ' he asks.
All abashed, I open my hand and show my blue egg on its bed of moss.
‚Ah!‘ says his reverence. ‚A Saxicola‘s egg! Where did you get it? '
‚Up there, father, under a stone.‘
Question follows question; and my peccadillo stands confessed. By chance I found a nest which I was not looking for. There were six eggs in it. I took one of them — here it is — and I am waiting for the rest to hatch. I shall go back for the others when the young birds have their quill feathers.
‚You mustn‘t do that, my little friend,' replies the priest. ‚You mustn‘t rob the mother of her brood; you must respect the innocent little ones; you must let God's birds grow up and fly from the nest. They are the joy of the fields and they clear the earth of its vermin. Be a good boy, now, and don't touch the nest.'
I promise and the curate continues his walk. I come home with two good seeds cast on the fallows of my childish brain. An authoritative word has taught me that spoiling birds' nests is a bad action. I did not quite understand how the bird comes to our aid by destroying vermin, the scourge of the crops; but I felt, at the bottom of my heart, that it is wrong to afflict the mothers.
‚Saxicola,‘ the priest had said, on seeing my find.
‚Hullo!‘ said I to myself. ‚Animals have names, just like ourselves. Who named them? What are all my different acquaintances in the woods and meadows called? What does Saxicola mean? ‘
Years passed and Latin taught me that Saxicola means an inhabitant of the rocks. My bird, in fact, was flying from one rocky point to the other while I lay in ecstasy before its eggs; its house, its nest, had the rim of a large stone for a roof. Further knowledge gleaned from books taught me that the lover of stony hillsides is also called the Motteux, or clodhopper, because, in the plowing season, she flies from clod to clod, inspecting the furrows rich in unearthed grubworms. Lastly, I came upon the Provencal expression Cul-blanc, which is also a picturesque term, suggesting the patch on the bird's rump which spreads out like a white butterfly flitting over the fields.
Thus did the vocabulary come into being that would one day allow me to greet by their real names the thousand actors on the stage of the fields, the thousand little flowers that smile at us from the wayside. The word which the curate had spoken without attaching the least importance to it revealed a world to me, the world of plants and animals designated by their real names. To the future must belong the task of deciphering some pages of the immense lexicon; for today I will content myself with remembering the Saxicola, or stonechat.
On the west, my village crumbles into an avalanche of garden patches, in which plums and apples ripen. Low bulging walls, blackened with the stains of lichens and mosses, support the terraces. The brook runs at the foot of the slope. It can be cleared almost everywhere at a bound. In the wider parts, flat stones standing out of the water serve as a foot bridge. There is no such thing as a whirlpool, the terror of mothers when the children are away; it is nowhere more than knee deep. Dear little brook, so tranquil, cool and clear, I have seen majestic rivers since, I have seen the boundless sea; but nothing in my memories equals your modest falls. About you clings all the hallowed pleasure of my first impressions.
A miller has bethought him of putting the brook, which used to flow so gaily through the fields, to work. Halfway up the slope, a watercourse, economizing the gradient, diverts part of the water and conducts it into a large reservoir, which supplies the mill wheels with motor power. This basin stands beside a frequented path and is walled off at the end.
One day, hoisting myself on a playfellow's shoulders, I looked over the melancholy wall, all bearded with ferns. I saw bottomless stagnant waters, covered with slimy green. In the gaps in the sticky carpet, a sort of dumpy, black-and-yellow reptile was lazily swimming. Today, I should call it a salamander; at that time, it appeared to me the offspring of the serpent and the dragon, of whom we were told such bloodcurdling tales when we sat up at night. Hoo! I've seen enough: let's get down again, quick!
The brook runs below. Alders and ash, bending forward on either bank, mingle their branches and form a verdant arch. At their feet, behind a porch of great twisted roots, are watery caverns prolonged by gloomy corridors. On the threshold of these fastnesses shimmers a glint of sunshine, cut into ovals by the leafy sieve above.
This is the haunt of the red-necktied minnows. Come along very gently, lie flat on the ground and look. What pretty little fish they are, with their scarlet throats! Clustering side by side, with their heads turned against the stream, they puff their cheeks out and in, rinsing their mouths incessantly. To keep their stationary position in the running water, they need naught but a slight quiver of their tail and of the fin on their back. A leaf falls from the tree. Whoosh! The whole troop has disappeared.
On the other side of the brook is a spinney of beeches, with smooth, straight trunks, like pillars. In their majestic, shady branches sit chattering crows, drawing from their wings old feathers replaced by new. The ground is padded with moss. At one's first step on the downy carpet, the eye is caught by a mushroom, not yet full-spread and looking like an egg dropped there by some vagrant hen. It is the first that I have picked, the first that have I turned round and round in my fingers, inquiring into its structure with that vague curiosity which is the first awakening of observation.
Soon, I find others, differing in size, shape and color. It is a real treat for my prentice eyes. Some are fashioned like bells, like extinguishers, like cups; some are drawn out into spindles, hollowed into funnels, rounded into hemispheres. I come upon some that are broken and are weeping milky tears; I step on some that, instantly, become tinged with blue; I see some big ones that are crumbling into rot and swarming with worms. Others, shaped like pears, are dry and open at the top with a round hole, a sort of chimney whence a whiff of smoke escapes when I prod their under side with my finger. These are the most curious. I fill my pockets with them to make them smoke at my leisure, until I exhaust the contents, which are at last reduced to a kind of tinder.
What fun I had in that delightful spinney! I returned to it many a time after my first find; and here, in the company of the crows, I received my first lessons in mushroom lore. My harvests, I need hardly say, were not admitted to the house. The mushroom, or the bouturel, as we called it, had a bad reputation for poisoning people. That was enough to make mother banish it from the family table. I could scarcely understand how the bouturel, so attractive in appearance, came to be so wicked; however, I accepted the experience of my elders; and no disaster ever ensued from my rash friendship with the poisoner.
As my visits to the beech clump were repeated, I managed to divide my finds into three categories. In the first, which was the most numerous, the mushroom was furnished underneath with little radiating leaves. In the second, the lower surface was lined with a thick pad pricked with hardly visible holes. In the third, it bristled with tiny spots similar to the papillae on a cat's tongue. The need of some order to assist the memory made me invent a classification for myself.
Very much later there fell into my hands certain small books from which I learnt that my three categories were well known; they even had Latin names, which fact was far from displeasing to me. Ennobled by Latin which provided me with my first exercises and translations, glorified by the ancient language which the rector used in saying his mass, the mushroom rose in my esteem. To deserve so learned an appellation, it must possess a genuine importance.
The same books told me the name of the one that had amused me so much with its smoking chimney. It is called the puffball in English, but its French name is the vesse-de-loup. I disliked the expression, which to my mind smacked of bad company. Next to it was a more decent denomination: Lycoperdon; but this was only so in appearance, for Greek roots sooner or later taught me that Lycoperdon means vesse-de-loup and nothing else. The history of plants abounds in terms which it is not always desirable to translate. Bequeathed to us by earlier ages less reticent than ours, botany has often retained the brutal frankness of words that set propriety at defiance.
How far off are those blessed times when my childish curiosity sought solitary exercise in making itself acquainted with the mushroom! ‚Eheu! Fugaces labuntur anni!‘ said Horace. Ah, yes, the years glide fleeting by, especially when they are nearing their end! They were the merry brook that dallies among the willows on imperceptible slopes; today, they are the torrent swirling a thousand straws along, as it rushes towards the abyss. Fleeting though they be, let us make the most of them. At nightfall, the woodcutter hastens to bind his last fagots. Even so, in my declining days, I, a humble woodcutter in the forest of science, make haste to put my bundle of sticks in order. 'What will remain of my researches on the subject of instinct? Not much, apparently; at most, one or two windows opened on a world that has not yet been explored with all the attention which it deserves.
A worse destiny awaits the mushrooms, which were my botanical joys from my earliest youth. I have never ceased to keep up my acquaintance with them. To this day, for the mere pleasure of renewing it, I go, with a halting step, to visit them on fine autumn afternoons. I still love to see the fat heads of the boletes, the tops of the agarics and the coral-red tufts of the clavaria emerge above the carpet pink with heather.
At S?rignan, my last stage, they have lavished their seductions upon me, so plentiful are they on the neighboring hills, wooded with holm oak, arbutus and rosemary. During these latter years, their wealth inspired me with an insane plan: that of collecting in effigy what I was unable to keep in its natural state in an herbarium. I began to paint life size pictures of all the species in my neighborhood, from the largest to the smallest. I know nothing of the art of painting in watercolors. No matter: what I have never seen practiced I will invent, managing badly at first, then a little better, at last well. The paintbrush will make a change from the strain of my daily output of prose.
I end by possessing some hundreds of sheets representing the mushrooms of the neighborhood in their natural size and colors. My collection has a certain value. If it lacks artistic finish, at least it boasts the merit of accuracy. It brings me visitors on Sundays, country people, who stare at it in all simplicity, astounded that such fine pictures should be done by hand, without a copy and without compasses. They at once recognize the mushroom represented; they tell me its popular name, thus proving the fidelity of my brush.
Well, what will become of this great pile of drawings, the object of so much work? No doubt, my family will keep the relic for a time; but, sooner or later, taking up too much space, shifted from cupboard to cupboard, from attic to attic, gnawed by the rats, foxed, dirtied and stained, it will fall into the hands of some little grandnephews who will cut it into squares to make paper caps. It is the universal rule. What our illusions have most fondly cherished comes to a pitiful end under the claws of ruthless reality.