Wednesday, February 23, 2005

How odd

Kansas Scarab beetle
Thanks to Pharyngula commenter David Winter for finally reminding me who wrote this as his last request:
I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.“
It was W. D. Hamilton. He died while fighting off malaria that he caught in Africa while hunting for evidence of the HIV-OPV connection!


I remember reading the original essay (republished posthumously) and being struck by it. Now I can't locate it. I think it was originally published in a Japanese journal, but I'm sure I read it in an Italian journal.

Here it is. It begins with a line that is oddly haunting:
There seem to be people incurably fascinated by insects. I am one of them.
This is a love letter. It's a mash note to a life of entomology.
Stone turning – that, as it now occurs to me, is a trait that might almost define us compulsive juvenile entomologists. We are turners over of junk in waste places, pullers of loose bark from rotting logs.
And of course, his desired end. He explains that he can no longer see the tiny insects, and has turned his attention to bigger things.
Well, the find at the moment seems to be just a very dead white chicken. What am I doing? You will see in a moment: a heaving has started somewhere beneath the breast feathers of the chicken as if suddenly tired of being dead it had started to breathe. This movement, however, works its way under the feathers towards the crop. A mound grows bulbous, the feathers spread out. Suddenly bursting from a ragged hole at the base of the chicken's neck comes something shiny and green, grotesque, curvaceous and messy – a huge rotund insect, big as a golf ball, sparkling its vivid cuticle from under the blood and flesh and worse muck that be-slobber its surface, sparkling in fact in the most glorious gold, yellow and green, as shown in the light of my torch. It has a long black horn sweeping back from its head across a thorax scooped as concave as most beetles have them convex, a full bull-dozer blade of its hard body, a glossy-metallic chitin warped as if into a phantasy sculpture by Henry Moore. As he pushes swiftly downward through the feathers to the ground, his messy covering seems to slop lightly from his shoulders, like a disguise slipping from a king who has pretended to be a workman.
This is what he was doing in his final years, and it's how he imagined his own end. A nuptial gift from one Coprophanaeus to another.

I'm Only Sleeping“ by The Beatles from the album Revolver (1966, 3:01).