The Soul of the White Ant by Eugène Marais is a passionate, insightful account into the world of termites. It is a meticulously researched expose of their complex, highly structured community life.
Originally translated into English in 1937, the quality of research remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published. This illuminating account will not only appeal to those with a scientific interest in termites, but will similarly enthrall readers who are new to their captivating world.
An exceptional feature of his detailed research is the extraordinary psychological life of the termite. While the studies are based in South Africa, the extensive research includes the termites of Magnetic Island, Australia.
The Soul of the White Ant is part science, part mysticism, a sort of manual of pantheism, and a very personal and careful observation of termites as a life form.
Audio reading: the introduction to The Soul of the White Ant
Marais’ work as a naturalist, although by no means trivial (he was one of the first scientists to practice ethology and was repeatedly acknowledged as such by Robert Ardrey and others), gained less public attention and appreciation than his contributions as a literalist.
He discovered the Waterberg Cycad, which was named after him (Encephalartos eugene-maraisii).
He was the first person to study the behaviour of wild primates and his observations continue to be cited in contemporary evolutionary biology. He is amongst the greatest of the Afrikaner poets and remains one of the most popular, although his output was not large. Opperman described him as the first professional Afrikaner poet; Marais believed that craft was as important as inspiration for poetry. Along with J.H.H. de Waal and G.S. Preller, he was a leading light in the Second Afrikaans (language) Movement in the period immediately after the Second Boer War, which ended in 1902.
Some of his finest poems deal with the wonders of life and nature but he also wrote about inexorable Death.
Marais was isolated in some of his beliefs. He was a self-confessed pantheist and claimed that the only time he entered a church was for weddings. Although an Afrikaner patriot, Marais was sympathetic to the cultural values of the black tribal peoples of the Transvaal; this is seen in poems such as Die Dans van die Reën (The dance of the rain). The following translation of Marais’ Winternag is by J. W. Marchant:
O the small wind is frigid and spare
and bright in the dim light and bare
as wide as God’s merciful boon
the veld lies in starlight and gloom
and on the high lands
spread through burnt bands
the grass-seed, astir, is like beckoning hands.
O East-wind gives mournful measure to song
Like the lilt of a lovelorn lass who’s been wronged
In every grass fold
bright dewdrop takes hold
and promptly pales to frost in the cold!
While the above translation is generally faithful, and is a fine poem in English, it does not quite capture the terse directness of the Afrikaans language, which makes Afrikaans poetry so bittersweet and evocative, striking straight to the heart and soul. Below follows a translation by Farrell Hope, which may closer reflect the original Afrikaans idiom.
O cold is the slight wind,
Bare and bright in dim light
as vast as the graces of God,
the veld’s starlit and fire-scarred sod.
To the high edge of the lands,
spread through the scorched sands,
new seed-grass is stirring
like beckoning hands.
O mournful the tune
of the East-wind refrain,
like the song of a girl
who loved but in vain.
One drop of dew glistens
on each grass-blade’s fold
and fast does it pale
to frost in the cold!