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Harmas de Fabre : le cabinet de travail © MNHN - Agnès Iatzoura

A scientist-of-all-trades

First and foremost a naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre was an incredibly keen observer of animal behaviour. Also a teacher, he published a number of textbooks for young students. He has left us a number of written works, from the exhaustive Souvenirs entomologiques to his collections of poems in Provençal.

L'Harmas, a refuge and an open-air laboratory

In 1879, at age 56, Jean-Henri Fabre acquired, in the small village of Sérignan-du-Comtat, 30 km northwest of Avignon, an estate covering approximately one hectare consisting of a mas (house) and uncultivated land – harmas, from the Provençal. On this land that had been abandoned and left to return to nature – an excellent open-air laboratory –, Jean-Henri Fabre unceasingly observed the life and habits of innumerable insects: cicadas, beetles including dung beetles, bees, and many more. For Jean-Henri Fabre, the Harmas – where he spent the last 36 years of his life – was both a family retreat and an unparalleled ground for observation.

“This is what I wished for, hoc erat in votis: a bit of land, oh, not so very large, but fenced in, to avoid the drawbacks of a public way; an abandoned, barren, sun-scorched bit of land, favoured by thistles and by Wasps and Bees. (…)”

Souvenirs entomologiques, 2nd series, chap. 1, Delagrave, 1925

“I must tell you of the plot of land I dreamed of and planned as a living laboratory of entomology, a plot that I finally found in the solitude of a small village. It is a harmas. That is the name given here in our district to an untilled, pebbly expanse where hardly any plant but thyme may grow. (…)”

Souvenirs entomologiques, 2nd series, chap. 1, Delagrave, 1925

“Here, without fear of being troubled by the passers-by, I could consult the Ammophila and the Sphex (...) ; here, without distant expeditions that take up my time, without tiring rambles that strain my nerves, I could contrive my plans of attack, lay my ambushes and watch their effects at every hour of the day. ”

Souvenirs entomologiques, 2nd series, chap. 1, Delagrave, 1925

Jean-Henri Fabre en famille à l'Harmas © DR - MNHN

Jean-Henri Fabre and his family at the Harmas © DR - MNHN, by DR - MNHN

Le mas de l'Harmas © DR
Le mas, Harmas de Fabre © DR - MNHN
Cabinet de travail du vivant de Jean-Henri Fabre © DR
Ruche installée par Fabre dans le jardin de l'Harmas © DR

Observation above all else

Jean-Henri Fabre saw himself more as a naturalist than an entomologist.

“I am not at all an expert hunter, and even less a zealous one, for I am much more interested in the insect going about its work than one impaled on a pin inside a box. All my hunter’s secrets are summed up by my seed-bed with its tufted thistles and knapweed.”

Souvenirs entomologiques, 2nd series, p. 8, Delagrave, 1925

“An insect is caught, transfixed with a long pin, fastened in a box with a cork bottom; a ticket with a Latin name is put under its feet, and all is said. This way of looking at entomological history does not satisfy me. (...) I do not really know the creature until I have learned its manner of life, its instincts and habits.”

Souvenirs entomologiques, 1905, 1st series, chap 9, Delagrave, 1925.

“In this world, apparently, the evolution of the cell is not everything. [...] I dismiss the modern theory of instinct. I see it as a mere intellectual game, in which the indoor naturalist can take pleasure – he who fashions the world to suit his fancy, but in which an observer, face to face with the reality of things, finds no serious explanation to anything he sees.”

Souvenirs entomologiques, 2nd series, p. 25-26, Paris, Delagrave, 1925.

Fabre en pleine observation © DR - MNHN

Fabre in observation © DR - MNHN, by DR - MNHN

Séance de prise de vue avec Jean-Henri Fabre © DR

Correspondence with peers

Among Fabre’s manuscripts and correspondence are a letter from the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral and two letters from Darwin.
The latter in fact called Fabre “an inimitable observer” in recognition of his meticulous studies of insects’ life and habits. In one of the letters, Darwin thanks Fabre for having sent his Souvenirs entomologiques and adds: “I do not think that there is a more sincere admirer of your research than myself anywhere in Europe.” Fabre discussed his experiments with mason-bees, among other topics, with the illustrious theoretician. And his misgivings about the Theory of Evolution did not prevent him from expressing his high esteem for Darwin.

Fabre dans son cabinet de travail © DR - MNHN
Fabre, Legros et le sculpteur Sicard à l'Harmas © DR - MNHN
Visite du président Raymond Poincarré à l'Harmas en 1914 © DR - MNHN

Passing on knowledge

Fabre spent his life communicating his passion and sharing his knowledge. His collaboration with the publisher Charles Delagrave led to the publication of some one hundred scholastic textbooks and science books for the layman. His topics? They range from the biological sciences, physics, agricultural chemistry, algebra, astronomy, geology, mechanics and even home economics – the subject of a manual written for future brides.

Translated into fourteen languages and cited in a number of scholastic textbooks – including in Japan –, his Souvenirs entomologiques is a major work which awakens pupils’ curiosity to this day.

“If I write for men of learning, for philosophers... I write above all things for the young. I want to make them love the natural story. [...] ”

Souvenirs entomologiques, Jean-Henri Fabre, 1882, 2nd series, Chap. 1.

A Provençal poet

Fabre’s scientific writings have a strong literary bent, and he has also left us a few poems; an example follows:

La tino

Lou mounde es la tino dóu sort,
Es la tino fatalo
Ounte, liogo d'age, la mort
De si bato brutalo
Escracho, chaucho laid e bèu,
Bon e marrit, frucho e cruvèu,
Pèr fin qu'emé 'no trounadisso
Giscle un rai de bon vin de l'orro mescladisso

La cuve

Le monde est la cuve du sort ;
c'est la cuve fatale
où en guise de raisins, la mort
de ses savates brutales
écrase, foule laid et beau,
bon et mauvais, pulpe et noyaux,
afin que avec un bruit de tonnerre
jaillisse un jet de bon vin de l'horrible mélange.

The Vat

The world is the vat of Fate ;
the fatal vat
where, in place of grapes, Death
with its brutal clogs
tramples and crushes the foul and the beautiful,
good and evil, pulp and seed,
so that with a sound like thunder
a jet of good wine may spring from the horrible mixture.

You can find Fabre’s poems, along with translations of Souvenirs entomologiques, on the le site e-fabre.