In spring, a young man's fancy turns to ... bugs?
The best place to get a genial view of the world is six inches above the ground.
The other afternoon, as I sat in a business meeting and struggled valiantly to stay awake, a young executive rose from the table and urged us to "consider the view from 30,000 feet."
You've probably heard this trendy saying of management, which assumes that we'd all be wiser and more philosophical if only we could survey the scene from the altitude of an airline passenger hovering above the fray.
While the speaker droned on about mission statements, collective vision, and relevant stakeholders, I smiled wanly, peered out the window at the emerging spring, and began to daydream of Jean Henri Fabre.
Fabre, who lived between 1823 and 1915, gained fame as a French bug expert, explaining nature to a popular audience with such flair and familiarity that he became the period version of Sir David Attenborough or the Croc Hunter.
Spend any time with Fabre's painterly descriptions of grubs, glowworms, and beetles, and you realize that true vision can come not just at 30,000 feet, but six inches from the ground.
All this came to mind as I glanced out the picture window and saw within the courtyard of the office park that a landscape contractor was on his knees over a flower bed, turning the topsoil with a garden fork and preparing to plant a few annuals for the new season.
The landscaper looked deep in thought as he knelt like a wise man in a Christmas crèche, and he seemed a perfect stand-in for Fabre himself, who was fond of crouching close to the soil and reading the terra firma like the very text of the universe. What Fabre was looking for, as he poked and prodded his way through a plot of dirt in the south of France, were bugs.
Even if I hadn't spotted a professional gardener on a spring afternoon and enviously wondered why he was out in the brilliant sunlight while I was confined in a conference, I probably would have started to think about Fabre, anyway. Each spring, in the same way that some grown men finger copies of "Huckleberry Finn" or "Robinson Crusoe" to get them through the cabin fever of servitude in office cubicles, I find myself pulling my slender paperback copy of "Fabre's Book of Insects" from the shelf and revisiting his experiences in period Provence.
What I'm seeking, I suppose, is some form of eternal boyhood, since Fabre, though he lived past 90, never lost a kindergartner's enthusiasm for looking under leaves and rocks to see what critters lurked beneath.
His experiments in entomology were equally fanciful and endlessly entertaining, as I'm reminded by a severely dog-eared page of his chapter on cicadas, in which he wonders why they sing for hours, apparently never tiring of hearing their own tunes. Fabre speculated that perhaps cicadas are deaf, and to test his theory, he borrowed the ceremonial artillery from a nearby village and let off a couple of blasts near his colony of songsters. The high-pitched serenade continued unabated. "I think, after this experiment, we must conclude that the Cicada is hard of hearing," he announced with satisfaction.
While I'll leave questions over Fabre's scientific methods to others, his schemes of inquiry into insects seem like the perfect antidote to midlife malaise.
Each spring, when my in box gets too full and a dozen deadlines loom, I have only to think of Fabre flushing out a wasps' nest to collect specimens to reconnect with the real daring of the season. "The conquest of a nest of Common Wasps would be a rather serious undertaking, if one did not act with a certain amount of prudence," he notes with typically Gallic irony.
Fabre is also a fantastic gossip about bugs, disclosing their foibles as wryly as a Hollywood scribe revealing the latest celebrity scandal. He discourages any notion, for example, that the praying mantis is actually reverent, sniffishly observing that "for all her sanctimonious airs she is a cannibal," and he gleefully notes that the locust mother "is not, in all cases, a model of affection."
I'm looking out a different window as I write these words. From the household study where I now sit, I can see my 7-year-old son combing for caterpillars in the leaf litter near the patio. He instinctively knows what Fabre reminds me each spring: While the bird's-eye view has its merit, there's something to be said for the bug's-eye view, too.