I CANNOT understand the dislike of most people for creeping and crawling things, and shall never consider a love of nature anything but a sham that does not embrace the lowliest worm. From childhood I have cherished a fondness — perverted, if you choose — for the little people underground.
One day, when I was a very little boy, I turned over a flat stone in the garden and uncovered three black beetles and a slug. I was in an earthgazing and earth-smelling mood, when the grass and the ground allured. The smell of the warm soil thrilled me, I have no doubt, even then; a perfume of sweetness springing out of decay, touchingly familiar as the air of a room we have long lived in; a persuasive odor, enticing one to exploration. I feel yet my interest as the flat stone turned over and the nervous beetles and the phlegmatic slug were disclosed. They were creatures that I had never seen before. In my innocence I caught one of the beetles and, by some secret process of his own, he ejected upon my hand an overpowering perfume, — I speak euphemistically; for, truly, as the poet says of the saint who had a battle with the devil, ‘Oh, my! how he did smell! ’ My first acquaintance with the under-world, you see, was unfortunate; yet, so strong was the fascination of the new and strange, I bore the black beetle no grudge, but merely decided not to keep him or take him home to mother. I turned my attention to the slug, and found him soft and cold and slimy, and probably of a low order of intellect; for, when I poked him with a straw, he merely shrank and exuded soapsuds.
I do not hope to carry very many of my readers with me when I say that the discovery of these humble friends was an event in my life. Yet somewhere beneath the sun, if I may credit my fluttering heart-strings, there is some one who will understand. As for the rest, it is useless for me to enter into the psychology of the occasion. During the following week, I passed my time between meals turning over the other stones in the garden, and the sticks and the logs and the dead leaves. Everywhere I made new friends, an imposing catalogue, — wood-lice, centipedes, earthworms and wire-worms, ants, a toad, a garter-snake, beetles, snails, slugs, and grubs. Among these, the Coleoptera were my first loves. I felt no fear, but handled them all, when I could catch them; and the pockets of my rompers, or whatever primitive apparel I wore, from that day were usually full of beetles of assorted sizes and makes, which I loved to produce in the presence of visiting ladies, scornful of their consternation. My family were aghast, for they did not share my passion; but they soon saw that I knew how to handle my treasures without getting bitten, and forebore to rebel. You remember that Lavengro won his other Romany name, Sapengro, from his skill while yet a child in handling vipers. He was for vipers, and I for beetles. There was something about a beetle that clutched at my heart.
This strange predilection has been lasting. Even yet a June-bug gives me a thrill, and the grip of his horny legs on my finger will set my associative memory working as will few things else. For me he is a living question, a puzzle, a hard little lump of primeval nature, that stands for the flower in the crannied wall. Above all, he is a scarab. Around his foolish head lingers a glory visible only to the mind’s eye, but made up of vestiges of Karnak and Thebes, of Isis and Orus and the dog Anubis, of the old moon-mountains African. Just as now this evening he booms athwart the thicket lone, and bumps his dunderhead against mine, so his cousin scarabœus sacer, wheeling his droning flight some millenniums ago over papyrus and lotus and sand, collided as impolitely with the cranium of a Shepherd King, or a Ptolemseus Soter, or a Hermes Trismegistus. The Egyptians embalmed sacer and cut effigies of him in costly stone, fabling him to be an emblem of fertility and eternity; and all because he was a tumble-bug, depositing his eggs in dung, and burying them in the ground for warmth and safekeeping. I cannot follow all the ramifications of their symbolism: I only wonder whether at the age of three I already felt in the presence of a scarab some vague fore-feeling of that love for the old and the strange that later I experienced so keenly in the presence of the relics of the Egyptians themselves.
There is, however, quite enough of engaging simplicity and pertinacity about the scarab family to make them attractive. Their peculiarities are more ancient and more permanent than pyramid or sphinx. The experience of millenniums has not taught them to ‘stryve noght, as doth the crokke with the wal.’ They continue to strive, but, unlike ‘ the crokke,’ seem never to get hurt. Too insignificant even to fear extermination, while the mountains wear away and the forests are cleared, and the river is dammed and diked, and the lion and the bison go the way of the dodo, the little scarabee has crawled yearly out of the sod, tried his wings, and soared away in a bee-line for the nearest or brightest light, be it Pharos or Eddystone or only the modest beam of my desk-lamp. Year in, year out, while all else goes merrily sliding down the ringing grooves of change, he continues to bump his dusky carapace against window and wall, falling on his back, wildly waving his crooked legs, blundering into corners, under tables, down people’s necks, up their sleeves, into their ink, their waste-baskets, their soup. Eternally ridiculous, he has in him, nevertheless, a spark of divine aspiration, sharing the desire of the moth for the star or the flame. In my symbolism, he stands for a class of people, familiar though not numerous, stupid but lovable, who blunder their way through life, seeking the light with utmost seriousness, but leaving a wake of laughter behind them.
These are the speculations of later years. I cannot pretend that it was the scarabeid suggestiveness of the Junebug and his cousins, the stag-horn beetle and the tumble-bug, that made me love them in my romper period. Who shall give a name to such subtle affinities? My passion was strengthened before long by a wonderful book that some wise person gave me. Blessings on the man who wrote that book, and triple blessings on him who fashioned the pictures,—great full-page pictures in gorgeous colors, smelling of oil like chromos! As nearly as I can remember, the author had planned his book with a pedagogic intention, hoping to make entomology attractive to babes. He succeeded. His idea was, I think, to make a fairy story in which the hero was, say, an inch high, place him in an entomological world, and let him live if he could. Stop and consider the situation. How would you like to be an inch tall and have to fight with a dragon-fly or a stag-horn beetle? The idea was full of meat. I gloated over those pictures for hours, days, glorying in the bulbous eyes of the dragon-fly, the scythe-like jaws of the spider; pictured, you understand, as they looked to the diminutive hero, — that is, much as an Irish elk or a sabre-toothed tiger may have looked to one of our ancestors. The drawings were accurate, I think, — merely magnified five diameters or so; yet no pictured shag-haired cyclops or Dragon of Wantley or Laidly Worm of Spindleston ever gave me the same delicious tremors.
As a jog to a childish imagination, then, the book was a success. For a long time man-made toys became stale beside the playthings of nature. Somehow I hit upon the device of lying on my stomach, looking sidewise through thegreen colonnades of the grass-stems, and imagining that I had mysteriously shrunken to the stature of a fingerling. If you have never tried this play, you had better try it now. You may never otherwise discover that to an ant or a grub the grass is a forest of tropical density, a spear of timothy a palm, a sunflower a giant redwood, a lump of turf a hill, a rockery a mountain.
I made the discovery early, yet can remember very well the day I made it. From that day I spent so much time thus reclining with my nose close to the ground that I imagine I impressed the Olympians as queer. Unconsciously, however, I was laying up stores of pleasant memories, of earth-smells and earth-sounds, of warm brown and fluid green and orient gold, of prickles and spines and harsh edges of grass leaves and soft down of dandelion, and the sour of sorrel and the spice of mint and pennyroyal, — a multitude of tiny sense-perceptions, seemingly as fugitive as thought, but each a lasting thread in the woof of life.
One day as I was lying thus on the lawn in the shade of the grape-vine, watching a dozen ants grappling with a green worm, suddenly the similarity of their employment to that of a dozen savages attacking an elephant occurred to me, and with it, as in a flash, an entire new conception of life. I saw for the first time that man’s world is only one in a long series of worlds, one within another, like a nest of Chinese boxes. Here, in my beloved garden, was a world bounded by board fences, and within that a smaller world coinciding with the grass-plot. The most venturesome ant would hardly ever wander to the terræ incognitse beyond the fences; the most strenuous grub would know nothing of the Cimmeria beyond the flagged walk. In each world there was birth and death, marriage and giving in marriage, carnage, heroism, hope, and despair. The ant might enter the world of the grub just as I had entered the world of the ant; yet, as a rule, we both were of our own world and of no other. I wondered, however, whether the ant ever played at being a grub. I am retailing ideas that it took me years to master, of course. For the present, it was enough that I arrived at the conception of the myriad of worlds.
One day, a long while afterwards, rummaging in an old desk, I found a magnifying-glass. Armed with this, I went like Alexander to spread my conquests further. It was September, and in a sunny weed-ridden corner of the garden I had discovered a big blackand-gold spider who had strung her web between two tall burdocks and was doing a thriving business in grasshoppers. Seated on the ground, I now surveyed her through the glass for an hour, as she hung in the middle of her engine of destruction. When I touched the net with my finger, she swung frantically to and fro, prompted doubtless by some instinct of self-preservation, but otherwise was as motionless as if carved in jet. Big grasshoppers were not very plentiful as yet, but at last a fat green fellow flew into the toils, the spines on his legs, that had so often discoursed sweet music, becoming entangled. Instantly the crafty spinner was all alive. Darting upon her victim, she took her station above him, and, hanging by two legs, seized him in her other six, and rolled him round and round, enswathing him in a band of silver silk until he was as helpless as a mummy; and then she bit him in a dozen places with fangs oozing poison. At the spectacle of her evil eyes glittering with the lust of killing, magnified as they were by the glass, I turned sick and rolled over on my face among the weeds, and lay for a long time miserably inert.
I had seen enacted a tragedy; and no human play that I have ever seen since on the stage has given me a keener taste of pity and fear. As I lay there, I made another generalization about life. Around me on every side, I knew, there were other spiders, large and small. I had seen the little ‘tiger spiders’ on the sunny sill of my bed-room window leap upon a fly, and the big, brown, bloated spiders in the hay-fields, who carry their eggs on their backs, do battle with wasps, but these had excited merely my interest. It was only now that I looked with the eye of imagination, — aided, it is true, by the eye of glass, — that I attained the new ground of sympathy, that I entered upon a second stage of mental and moral growth, which so many enter by other doors, and so very many never enter at all.
Our fear of creeping and crawling things is a natural heritage, coming to us chiefly from the mother’s side. Yet, as I have said, I had known no fear until I saw the spider pounce upon the
grasshopper. Up to that time the little creatures with more than four legs were all my brothers in a universal democracy; I had supposed that on the whole they lived together in amity, fighting occasionally, killing sometimes, but generally peaceable. My impressions of the little world into which I had intruded had been sunny and amusing; but now, like millions of children of a larger growth, I had had a peep at the darker picture. My mind began to dwell upon the thought of the sadness of nature: the waste, rapine, war, terror, that are constant in the lives of the wild folk, making their daily existence more perilous than that of any human nation plagued with barbarian invasion or civil war. The idea possessed me to such an extent that a few years later I expressed it in an interminable philosophic poem, which I labored on for some weeks and then offered to the Muse as a burnt sacrifice. Some of the lines linger in my head. ‘This sunlit field,’ I wrote, —
Incloses in its fence a world of pain;
The strong pursue the weak, the wise the dull.
The swift the slow; there is no truce or lull
In that stern conflict, that perpetual strife. . . .
and so on for pages in true butter-woman’s jog. Having thus at last eased my mind of such perilous stuff, I became somewhat reconciled to what I perceived was the order of nature.
We can never tell just what experiences the young idea will seize upon and suck for nourishment. I have never met any one else who as a child went to school to the beetles and spiders. Yet it does seem strong food for thought that the youngsters, whom we pride ourselves we are educating very properly by means of the usual pedagogical appliances, are perhaps picking up their correctest notions about life instinctively in the lanes and hedges, the streets and alleys.
Thackeray has somewhere spoken of the advantage of turning a boy, or girl, loose in a library and letting him read what he pleases, and has counseled us to trust that the immature mind will keep what is good for it and reject the bad. There is a great deal to be said for the theory. We, at least, might learn to leave our children alone more than we do. There is a perversity in the infant mind that makes it hostile to formal teaching, and it very early generates a function for ejecting what it learns but finds unpalatable. We sometimes forget, however, that this function coexists with a thirst for knowledge that will make any information palat able if it is properly presented.
I studied botany for a year in school under a teacher so naturally anhydrous herself that she rendered all her surroundings dry. The consequence was that I so thoroughly detested botany that at the end of the term I could not tell a petiole from a pistil. But one rainy day, ransacking an old trunk in the attic for mysteries, I came upon an antique botanical text-book that, I have no doubt, my mother had detested as a girl. The musty volume — I have always loved the smell of an old book — somehow aroused my interest, however, and I pored over its wood-cuts and descriptions for the rest of the afternoon. What attracted me most were the allusions to the part insects play in the economy of fertilization,
— a subject, as I now know, that, at the time that the book was written, was just beginning to arouse a great deal of interest. By the time that the rain stopped I had learned what a stamen is and what a pistil, and howto name a plant by counting these organs. That evening before dark, I had identified a dozen flowers in the garden, and had found the process of nomenclature so pleasing that for a time I even neglected the bugs. For a year I continued my researches before I discovered that I had all this while been learning a botanical system long since dead and buried — the artificial classification of Linnaeus: a good deal better system, by the way, for little boys and girls, than the natural classification that has superseded it. The interest in botany thus adventitiously originated lasted for years.
Oh, those long days in the attic after school, with the rain on the roof and its spray on the pane, while I pored over Hermann Muller’s plates of bees and butterflies pollinating primroses, or Darwin’s accounts of the agency of earthworms in burying Roman temples! A whiff of ether from the college laboratory will still call up in my mind my collection of moths. How I suffered as I killed them, as Isaac Walton killed his frog, gently, and as if I loved them! For I killed them only in ‘the interest of science.’ In the garden I had my vivarium with a pond in the middle, out of which the water persisted in perpetually escaping; and in the workshop at the end of the garden were my boxes full of live caterpillars and snails and mosquito larvæ and microscopic ‘torments of innumerable tails.’ They have all fallen prey to Tempus Edax Rerum, but their memory is green.
It is a good thing to accustom a child early to be alone. It is during the long glorious hours of solitary play that he does his hardest thinking. For him as for us the world may be too much with him. If we could but learn merely to supply him the incentive in the form of book or garden or personal suggestion, and then leave the leaven to work. If we elders could but have a little more faith in nature, a little more strength to efface ourselves and let our children alone. Here is an element of education that all the text-books seem to have overlooked. If we could but learn — well, some day we shall, perhaps.