From: Fabre, Jean-Henri. The Life of the Spider. Dodd, Mead, 1919.
It’s late October, and our Vaults of Mann focus turns to … spiders. Again, you say?! Yes, it’s true, our blog of last October was also creepy spider-focused, and we realize we may be looking a wee bit obsessed with arachnids in seeking out our seasonal Halloween thrills. But we’ve got some good reason. First, of course, we’re a life sciences library at a university with a world class entomology department. Second, we’ve just opened the new exhibit Arachnophilia in the Mann Gallery that showcases the work of Cornell arachnologist Linda Rayor and aims to demonstrate just how fascinating and helpful this much maligned class of animals can be in the web of life on earth. And finally, there’s a happy coincidence: While preparing to celebrate said new installation, we’ve stumbled across a wonderful old book by French science educator and naturalist Henri-Jean Fabre that gives us a look at some great 19th century science writing. No better way, we say, to cast light into the deepening gloom of late fall by sharing some of the lovely sparkle of this fun gem.
In his life time, Henri-Jean Fabre (1823-1915) gained wide renown in France as an educator, a scientist, and a writer of popular science publications who fervently sought to inspire and engage–rather than intimidate and exclude–a lay audience in the fascinating complexities of insect biology. Between his keen eye for nature study and his lyrical writing, Faber gained the admiration of some great contemporaries, from the likes of Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur to literary giants such as Victor Hugo and Nobel-prize winning Maurice Maeterlinck. Smitten with Fabre’s style and philosophy, journalist and literary critic Alexander Teixera de Mattosand (who also moonlighted as a Fellow in the Zoological Society of London) brought Fabre’s science writings to an English and American readership by translating excerpts from Fabre’s 11+ volume French-language Souvenirs Entomologiques series and publishing them–the excerpts–as stand-alone English version editions.
Pick up a copy of The Life of the Spider and you won’t need more than a few pages to understand Fabre’s popular appeal. What, for example, is not to love about a book that starts with this droll tidbit on “medical choreography” and the complicated relationship we humans have to the ominous biting wolf spider (more commonly known as tarantula in 19th century Europe)?: “The Italians have bestowed a bad reputation on the Tarantula, who produces convulsions and frenzied dances in the person stung by her. To cope with ‘tarantism,’ the name given to the disease that follows on the bite of the Italian Spider, you must have recourse to music, the only efficiacious remedy, so they tell us. Special tunes have been noted, those quickest to afford relief. “
For those more interested in robust scientific investigation of actual spider behavior than local spider folklore, continue reading and you’ll quickly also get what you came for. The rest of Fabre’s book presents a close look at Lycosa narbonensis (known today as the wolf spider), and other eight-legged creatures–the common garden spider, crab spider, & labyrinth spider among them–found in the sun-scorched hills around Fabre’s home in Avignon, France. Presenting observations gathered first hand from the field over years, his account educates with carefully documented detail about the hunting, reproductive and early life survival strategies of his spider subjects (yes, wolf spiders have a venomous bite that can paralyze and eventually kill small rodents and birds; no, garden spiders do not repair broken webs, but save their energy and silk for creating new ones when existing ones are damaged beyond usefulness). And as he spins out meticulously gathered spider minutiae to his readers, Fabre transfixes with prose that evokes–in its own 19th century style–some of the best in Attenborough-type accounting of nature’s astonishing dramas and quirks.
Fabre likely came to his dedication for bringing science to the people by virtue of his experience as a largely self-taught scientist—born to a poor rural family in the Languedoc region of southern France, his formal schooling was choppy, and much of what he learned in math and science derived from self-study with books borrowed surreptitiously from the classrooms of kindly school masters. Despite these unlikely circumstances, Fabre’s intellect, enthusiasm and hard work earned him enough respect to eventually be offered a teaching position as professor of physics and chemistry at the lycée (regional government secondary school) of Avignon, where he complemented his teaching with an indefatigable dedication to scientific research and field biology. In 1866, one of his pioneering investigations—this one related to botany—successfully extracted a coloring agent from the madder plant which was later identified as alizarin and widely adopted as a stain for biological research. Ongoing publication of his explorations of the insect world, via his Souvenirs series steadily earned him a widening reputation extending far beyond southern France.
While a keen observer of nature whose influence Darwin recognized on his own work, Fabre remained a skeptic of Darwin’s theory of evolution—a position that some attribute to his devout Christian beliefs, others to his passion for doing field level study of animal behavior, rather than writing science theory. But while grand theory may not have been Fabre’s thing, his renown as an outstanding entomologist and an science educator remains well deserved. If you’re about to embark on field level study of arachnids of your own, you’ll want to read The Life of the Spider for the tips it gives on things like successfully luring wolf spiders out of their burrows for closer observation. If you’re science communicator, you’ll want to read Fabre’s writing for the lovely tone and sense of humor that spices his work so effectively. If you’re a parent, you might consider sharing this gem with your kids, for the lovely enthusiasm for nature discovery it inspires. And it goes without saying, if you want to learn a bit more about spiders and their infamously spook if also alluring ways—especially if you can’t quite bring yourself to get up close and personal with a live specimen yourself—this book is for you. It’s a charming and eye-opening read all around—and a pretty good piece of field biology too.
Fabre, Jean-Henri. The Life of the Spider. Dodd, Mead, 1919.
Jean Henri Fabre, French Entomologist, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
Jean-Henri Fabre, Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Henri_Fabre
Life of Jean Henri Fabre, the Entomologist, 1823-1910. [s.n.], 1921,