I had the fantasy recently that perhaps I was meant to be an entomologist. I find insects endlessly fascinating. So, it was good timing that I received a copy of Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life, by Elizabeth Bernays (Raised Voice Press, 2019).
It didn’t take me long to realize that I might not be cut out for such a life. The science is quite complex and also requires tons of patience—sitting, watching, waiting for eggs to hatch and the like.
On the other hand, Bernays’ essays are a tempting glimpse into the privilege of witnessing the amazing traits and functions within such tiny lives, as well as the satisfaction of persistence and discovery, and opportunities for travel and camaraderie with fellow bug lovers.
The person behind the science shines through, as Bernays manages to weave scientific commentary in with a picture of her entomological escapades across the decades, starting in Queensland, Australia and most recently in Arizona’s Sonora Desert. There is a universality in so many developments she shares—like how, despite childhood enchantment with insects, she hadn’t initially realized that she could pursue that enchantment as a living. Or how her love for her entomologist life partner, Reg, dawned on her slowly. Or the satisfaction she’s derived from proving ideas that started as mere inklings about her minute subjects.
I developed an affection for how sometimes Bernays “geeks out” about something like the variations in locust taste buds. Sometimes I was impatient to get past the laboratory perspective to more colorful details of her life, like travels to India, Hungary, Africa, Costa Rica, and more. But it was her keen attention to things just like locust taste buds that have made her life so fulfilling. A palpable sense of satisfaction comes through in the book, as Bernays recalls happy moments of immersion in her work. In one piece about stalwart observations in the Arizona heat, she comments, “For ten hours each day, I almost become a grasshopper,” and explains how her curiosity drives her to persist despite all sorts of uncomfortable conditions. In another essay she recalls a scientific revelation that came to her as she lay in the red soil watching caterpillars that were threatening crops.
Bernays takes us along; we get to ride for a while inside a curious and observant mind, peering down at her beloved insects and the plants so central in their worlds. We feel the warmth of the crew’s shared sunset beers during a stint of desert work. We appreciate a partner with whom very little talk is needed. It becomes clear how a life surrounding creatures many deem insignificant has been so very large. Appropriately, Bernays finds a fitting metaphor for life in six-legged beings: “We are tiny points of light, like a mass of glowworms in a cave, each living briefly and passing on, but wonderful at the time.” It is good to be reminded of this wonder.