by Elizabeth Bernays
Like the painted lady butterflies that fascinated her as a child in Queensland, Australia, entomologist Elizabeth Bernays has lived a migratory adventure, following her scientific curiosity around the world before landing at the University of Arizona. In Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life, Bernays takes us along on her evolution from backward child to accomplished biologist as she explores scholarship, culture, and love, all while immersed in the wonders of some of the smallest creatures on earth.
Young Liz becomes enamored with insects in her home garden while working beside her mother, who worries over her daughter being deemed intellectually impaired. An introduction to a working scientist and the encouragement of a beloved teacher inspire Elizabeth to go on to the University of Queensland to study biology.
While in graduate school in London, Elizabeth meets established entomologist Reg Chapman, who will become her partner in work and in life. As a British government scientist, she researches the habits of bugs in the hopes of finding biological solutions to controlling pests that damage crops in Nigeria, India, and Mali, working alongside local scientists and discovering the diversity of human cultural customs.
As a professor at the University of California Berkeley, she learns about American individualism and advocating on her own behalf. At last, Bernays settles in the Sonoran Desert, where she is visited by a hawk moth that launches her on yet another entomological expedition.
In this collection of autobiographical essays, Elizabeth Bernays educates readers on the progression and significance of biological research while sharing her sheer joy in the discoveries she makes. Six Legs Walking is the inspiring story of one woman’s lifelong love affair with science.
Elizabeth Bernays transforms the structure and function of grasshopper jaws into poetry, metamorphoses hours of insect observations into applecart-upsetting scientific directions, and shares her life with passion and humility. It is an honor to view the marvel of insects through her creative magnifying lens.
—Marla Spivak, entomologist, 2010 MacArthur Fellow
Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life is a sparkling series of linked essays by a famous entomologist with a lifetime of close observation and experience behind her.
She speaks of “the image of insects, those primordial creatures that had been my passion for so long” and the effect the insects have had upon her life. Passion is the right word.
Her mother says, “I only want you to be normal, darling,” meaning “like everybody else,” but it is clear that this precocious child and brilliant woman will never be average and that her work with insects will elevate her life to a very special place and her writing to a very special level. A terrific book.
—Richard Shelton, author of Going Back to Bisbee and Nobody Rich or Famous
I very much enjoyed reading these engagingly written memoirs of a great naturalist and superb entomologist. Her deep love for nature, the acute commitment to her pioneering research, and her warm sense for the people around her shine through on every page.
—Bert Hölldobler, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of The Ants
Elizabeth Bernays’s memoir illustrates what drives a life in science—persistent curiosity and a healthy dose of fearlessness. These serve her well in the face of obstacles encountered as she makes her way to success as a rare female researcher. Most enjoyable are her clear-sighted observations and original thoughts about living things and about the connections between insects and people she meets along the way.
—Nancy A. Moran, evolutionary biologist, 1997 MacArthur Fellow
What an entomological life, with so much humanity! This book is literature and science, personal and professional, and filled with adventure and discovery. I recommend it heartily to all interested in biography, scientific journeys, and those beautiful bugs.
—Anurag Agrawal, James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies, Cornell University, and author of Monarchs and Milkweed
Six Legs Walking should be in the library of all young ecologists; it is a wonderful example of one person’s passion for science and the power of careful observation.
The writing is lush and sensual. You feel the heat of the desert, you see the colors of the flowers, you hear the tick-tick of her grasshoppers and smell the resinous creosote bushes after a desert rain. You feel her triumphs and her losses. Her final transformation is into a writer’s writer. I invite you to enjoy her life’s adventures as I have.
—William E. Connor, professor of biology, Wake Forest University
Elizabeth Bernays and Reg Chapman imposed their mark on natural science and renewed the field of insect-plant evolution by introducing new partners in this duet—herbivore enemies, which we realize now are major contributors to evolution. In this touching book, Elizabeth comes back to the genesis of their ideas and tells us more about the backstage of this adventure, letting us peep into how these ideas emerged and permeated their life together. She also tells us more about her fascination with insects and passes to us her love of flowers and nature. A must read.
— Frédéric Marion-Poll, entomologist and neurobiologist
This book is an amazing way to fall into lives different from one’s own—the lives of insects, of course, but also those of growing up in mid-twentieth century Australia, of becoming a professional scientist when women just didn’t do that kind of thing, of working in Mali, Nigeria, and India. The essays range from personal to scientific, often within the same page, with equally fascinating details about the lives of people and insects. Anyone with an interest in life, love, and death will enjoy Six Legs Walking.
—Marlene Zuk, professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior, University of Minnesota