Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ways of the Six-footed

As many of you know, I love books, especially old books (although a lot of new books are very good, too). What I love about old books is the language. In our fast-paced world today, we are quick to get to the point and we waste little time in flowery prose. Not so the nature writers of yore.

A recent acquisition of mine is a small tome published in 1903 by a wonderful naturalist named Anna Botsford Comstock. I've mentioned Anna before, namely for her Handbook of Nature Study. Even back in her day Anna noticed that children do much better in school when nature study is part of the curriculum. Even just time spent outdoors increases students' attention spans and their interest in learning. While Anna's books are often forgotten today, her message is reiterated in the latest outdoor education movement spurred by Robert Louv's Last Child in the Woods.

But I'm not here to pontificate on the merits of outdoor least not today. Today I'm focusing on my new little book: Ways of the Six-footed. As you might imagine, this slim volume (it's less than a half inch thick and only stands about six inches high) is about insects.

I haven't gotten very far in it (page seven), but I had to put it down to share with you Anna's words about the mosquito in her chapter regarding singing insects.

Of all the members of the families of flies, the mosquito has received most personal attention from the poets; perhaps because she has been lavish in personal attentions to them. Bryant has deemed her worthy of a separate poem, in which he recognizes her as a fellow-singer:--

"Thou'rt welcome to the town; but why come here
To bleed a brother poet, gaunt like thee?
Alas, the little blood I have is dear,
And thin will be the banquet drawn from me."

How much we might enjoy the song of the mosquito if it were not associated with the unwilling yielding of blood to the singer is problematical. Perhaps if Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony were always to be played in our hearing when we were occupying the dentist's chair, we would soon become averse to its exquisite harmonies. Therefore it is no wonder that we do not think of music at all when we hear the distant horn of the mosquito; instead, we listen with patient exasperation as the sound grows louder, and we wait nervously for the final sharp "zzzzz" which announces that the audacious singer has selected a place upon us which she judges will be a good site for a pumping station. We do not like her noise a whit better even though it be a love song.

Anna then goes on to describe the male mosquito, with his feathery antennae designed to pick up his lover's song. How beautiful, even poetic, is her near-praise for this small insect that we mostly consider a pest.

1 comment:

  1. That Anna Botsford Comstock! She has the biggest heart, full of loving amazement about the natural world. Thanks for the quote.