Victor Hugo's food chain

I'm almost finished with Les Misérables. It's taken a while, because this is a book that not only tells a long tale of misery in France, but also contains hundreds of pages of descriptive and philosophical asides that often verge on being totally irrelevant to the plot. It's all very interesting, as long as you're not in too much of a hurry to find out what happens to Monsieur Fauchelevent.

Here's an ecological excerpt from p. 1025-6:

All nature was breakfasting; creation was at table; it was the hour; the great blue cloth was spread in the sky, and the great green cloth over the earth; the sun shone à giorno. God was serving up the universal repast. Every creature had its food or its fodder. The ringdove found hempseed, the chaffinch found millet, the goldfinch found chickweed, the redbreast found worms, the bee found flowers, the fly found infusoria, the grossbeak found flies. They ate one another a little, to be sure, which is the mystery of evil mingled with good; but not an animal had an empty stomach.

As you ponder these musings on the deeper meaning of the food chain, possibly one of your first thoughts is: "what the **** is infusoria?" I was wondering the same thing. Apparently it's a sort of sludge made up of tiny pond creatures like paramecia and amoebas, maybe with some aquatic insect larvae thrown in. The term seems to have fallen out of use by now, except within the so-called aquarium community (where infusoria is what you feed to newly hatched fish).

With that question settled, your next thought might be: "okay, so what the **** is a grossbeak." I think Victor H. means a hawfinch, whose beak is definitely quite large, if not gross per se. I guess eating flies is kind of disgusting, at least when the flies have just eaten infusoria (see below).

In case you needed assistance in picturing this

Allow me to preempt what I'd like to think will be your next four questions.

The chaffinch that Hugo mentions would probably be, more specifically, a common chaffinch. I was going to say that the ringdove sounded like a Eurasian collared-dove, but then I found out that those guys didn't make it to western Europe until the 20th century. I can't find any other species that seem like obvious candidates, so I give up on the dove.

Goldfinch must be European goldfinch, not to be confused with the American goldfinch, and redbreast has to be European robin, not to be confused with the practically unrelated American robin.

You realize, of course, that the names of these birds were translated out of their original language (by one Charles E. Wilbour), and that their geographic ranges have probably all shifted in past couple hundred years, and that I have no personal experience with the wildlife of la France, so who knows how far off track we're getting.

No matter - on to the plants. Hempseed, as I'm sure you well know, comes from Cannabis plants. Millet seeds come from any number of different grasses, and I can't say with certainty which chickweed we're dealing with. As for flowers, flies, bees, and worms, I'm just going to leave them at that. The important thing is that there was a lot of foraging going on.

Someday I hope to figure out exactly what à giorno means.


Next time we'll dissect a passage from p. 1027, in which a bourgeois father tells his son to dispose of an unwanted cake by chucking it at the swans in Luxembourg Gardens ("Throw it to those palmipeds.")