THE fortunate reader occasionally comes upon a book that ``flings wide the gates of a new world.'' The words are those of the great French entomologist, J. Henri Fabre, his reaction to an essay he read on the habits of a wasp. Recently when reading a collection of Fabre's insect studies, I experienced the same sensation. The son of peasants, Fabre was born in 1823 in Saint-L'eons, a market town in the south of France. From earliest childhood he delighted in the company of beetles, bees, and butterflies. He could find nothing in his background to explain this interest. Neither his careworn father nor illiterate mother was the source, and his maternal grandfather, a process server, ``certainly paid no attention to the insect; at most, if he met it, he would crush it under foot.''
Fabre became a teacher and taught physics at the Lyc'ee of Avignon for many years, using the summer holidays to pursue the study of insects. Like his father, he was harassed ``by a terrible anxiety about one's daily bread.'' For many years he could not even afford a microscope, using a pocket lens in his work instead. The Lyc'ee dismissed him for admitting girls into his science class. He averted financial disaster only through the generous assistance of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, then living in Avignon, who provided him with a $600 loan. In 1879, at age 55, from income earned by his writings, Fabre was able to purchase a small plot of land near the town of Orange in Provence. Here he pursued his entomological studies until his passing in 1915.
Fabre regarded all forms of life with deep reverence. He addressed the subjects of his studies as intimates: ``O my busy insects, enable me to add yet a few seemly pages to your history.'' ``Dear insects.'' ``O my pretty insects.'' ``My dear beasts.'' ``My old friends.''
Each insect is lovingly portrayed. The scarab beetle, for example: ``He is smaller than a cherry-stone, but of an unutterable blue. The angels in paradise must wear dresses of that colour.''
Fabre has unbounded enthusiasm for his work, an appealing trait in any human being. He writes: ``It seems to me so natural, so much within everybody's scope, so absorbing to interest one's self in everything that swarms around us!'' By sunlight and by lantern light he observes his friends in the fields. He describes himself as a self-appointed inspector of spider webs. He enjoys the company of a wasp at dinner.
When reading the works of the great entomologists, he resolves to himself, ``You also shall be of their company!'' He possesses what Edwin Way Teale describes as ``that divine gift of all great teachers, the ability of transmitting his enthusiasm to others.'' Fabre writes for men of learning, but, in his own words, ``above all things for the young. I want to make them love natural history. . . .'' He involves his sons in his work, noting proudly that one of them, 'Emile, has created in his upstairs room ``a fence of dictionaries [which] encloses a park for the rearing of some caterpillars of the Spurge Hawkmoth.''
Fabre realizes that many people consider him hopelessly eccentric. Far from taking offense, this amuses him. He relates that while engaged in field studies, he has been taken for a water-diviner, a searcher for buried treasure, a gypsy, a tramp, and a poacher. One day, while observing the details of a fly household, suddenly he hears an official cry out, ``In the name of the law, I arrest you!'' Fabre tries to explain the situation. ``Pooh!'' the officer says. ``Pooh! You will never make me believe that you came here and roast in the sun just to watch flies. I shall keep an eye on you, mark you!''
Three vine-pickers pass him in the field. One taps her forehead and whispers to the others, ``Un paour'e inouc`ent, p'eca"ire!'' [``Look at this pitiful innocent!'']
For the last 37 years of Fabre's life, the 2.47 acres of barren, sun-scorched earth in Provence he owns become his private Eden. Here he revels in the joys of ``an earthly paradise for the Bees and Wasps.'' In an unlovely patch of pebbles enclosed by four walls, he finds fulfillment.
His laboratory is that of the open fields. ``I go the circuit of my enclosure over and over again, a hundred times, by short stages; I stop here and I stop there; patiently, I put questions and, at long intervals, I receive some scrap of a reply. The smallest insect village has become familiar to me: I know each fruit-branch where the Praying Mantis perches; each bush where the pale Italian Cricket strums amid the calmness of the summer nights . . . each cluster of lilac worked by the Megachile, the leafcutter.''
He calls upon the insects to testify as to his industry. ``Come here, one and all of you -- you, the stingbearers, and you, the wing-cased armour-clads -- take up my defense and bear witness in my favour. Tell of the intimate terms on which I live with you, of the patience with which I observe you, of the care with which I record your actions.''
The study of insects sustains him in his heaviest trials. In homage to his son Jules, who passed on at the age of 15, Fabre concludes the first volume of his monumental work, ``Souvenirs Entomologiques,'' with these words: ``I was to write this book for you, to whom its stories gave such delight; and you were to continue it one day. Alas, you went to a happier home, knowing nothing of the book but its first lines! May your name at least figure in it, borne by some of those industrious and beautiful Wasps whom you loved so well!''
Reading Fabre, one comes to revere the beauty and mystery of every living thing.