For submission to The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1982 Edition, volume T.
Trouvelot, Etienne Leopold.
French artist, astronomer, and naturalist
b. 1827, d. 1895
Some scholars argue that Trouvelot’s family name comes from the French trouver, to find, while others maintain the name derives from trou, or hole. There is also evidence that the name is related to the twelfth- and thirteenth-century precursors to France’s troubadours, the trouvére—the gypsies of their day. Any variation of seeker, holes, or troubadour would befit this innately curious and artistic man. From humble beginnings in Aisne, France, his life evolved in unpredictable ways to drastically alter the course of human events. Today, his name is immortalized in the moon’s Trouvelot Crater, though he has associations darker than any unseen part of the moon.
Before he conquered space, Trouvelot was a poor political refugee who immigrated to the United States in 1855. The backdrop for this story is the unmitigated terror that followed the so-called Age of Reason: nineteenth century France’s swings between freedom and tyranny. Revolution every twenty years. War to end all war. Peasants’, priests’, and noblemen’s heads on stakes. The end of history. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. And all the justifications we’ve used to take life and property from other men. The young artist’s liberal ideals put him in danger of reprisals following Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat of the Second Republic. So Trouvelot packed up his politics with his brushes and headed across the Atlantic.
He moved into 27 Myrtle Street in Medford, Massachusetts, just outside Boston and blocks from I was born in 1958. In Medford, Trouvelot pursued his interests in naturalism while supporting his family with his art, a profitable profession in the days before the ubiquity of film. One imagines a frail ascetic disappearing into his collar, beard, and accent, as infatuated with the minutia of exoskeletons as he was with the grandeur of heavenly bodies or dialectical cycles of political revolt. This was an era when the West still believed in man’s ability to comprehend objective Truth, which was beautiful and good. We saw the illusion of eternal cosmic order and embraced explosive human change in its pursuit. But this is merely the delusion of progress: all is necessary, all is improving, all is for the good. All is best in this best of all possible worlds. (Or, as Andy says, let the market work things out.)
During the 1860s, as American silk worms began to die off from disease, Trouvelot, a novice astronomer and an amateur entomologist, attempted to cross-breed the native species with the resilient European gypsy moth. Whether Trouvelot saw this as an attempt at ecological conservation or simply an opportunity to destroy France’s silk industry with a flood of cheap American products will never be known. Gypsy moths were renowned for their hardiness and their occasional population bursts, which would periodically wreak havoc on local environments throughout the Europe, North Africa, and Asia, earning the beast its pesky little name. (Have you ever been to Europe and seen the way these people rove the gutters?) Despite the moth’s infamy, Trouvelot imported some eggs and planted them in a tree in his yard. The larvae escaped. There is always a period of dormancy, of gestation, before the explosion, in which fathers feign ignorance just long enough to lose interest in their children. Trouvelot eventually warned the scientific community in Boston, but these men of knowledge failed to heed his caveats. Could we really expect them to think that such a small meddling with nature could have such devastating effects? A handful of foreign creatures, soft brown stems dappled with red dots and extraordinarily long whiskers. Would we expect them to expect the worst? A man’s foresight is about as long as his reproductive member, and about as accurate, as we well know.
In typical post-coital fashion, Trouvelot lost interest in the escaped caterpillars. He dedicated himself to studying the heavens. His sketches of aurora and eclipses won him work at Harvard University and the U.S. Naval Service. He was now respectable. A man of science and society. At parties, he entertained women and children with images of lunar landscapes, Jupiter’s storms, and Gallilean sunspots. He liked to cut profiles of little girls using black paper and a knife. No one asked him about his tiny progeny who were laying their egg sacs in the trees around Boston, hatching each spring in greater numbers, taking over ever greater numbers of branches and shrubs. Science’s telescopes were trained on God. Its microscopes looked to foreign flora and fauna. Trouvelot returned to France to work at the Meudon Observatory and died soon after, at home and abroad, the way a wanderer always dies. As if in mourning for their father, gypsy moths exploded over Myrtle Street, Boston, and beyond.