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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre

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SALT

[203]

"S
ALT, so necessary for the seasoning of our food, is also very useful as a preservative. The pork stored away for the winter's use is commonly salted or smoked, or both, to keep it from spoiling. Beef, too, is salted down, especially as an article of food for sailors on long voyages; and vast quantities of fish—cod, herring, haddock, and mackerel—are preserved with salt and sent to all parts of the world, even to the smallest villages remote from the seacoast. From these various uses to which it is put you will readily perceive that common salt is one of the most valuable of substances.

"But if we judged of the usefulness of a substance from the price it commands in the market, we should fall into the gravest of errors. For example, the diamond takes highest rank in respect to price, a price that is nothing short of exorbitant, but for real use to man, except as an instrument for cutting glass—and as such it is commonly employed by glaziers—it stands very low in the scale. On the other hand, iron, coal, and salt are among the cheapest of substances, the price per pound being considered, while at the same time they are infinitely more useful than the precious stones, which most often serve only to gratify a foolish vanity. Providence takes no heed [204] of this false valuation, but has assigned the highest importance to iron, coal, and salt by scattering them in profusion all over the earth, and a very inferior importance to the diamond by relegating it to some few remote districts in little-known lands, and that too in very small quantities.

"Accordingly, salt, like all supplies required by mankind in general, is very abundant. The sea, covering as it does three quarters of the earth's surface, the sea, of such tremendous depth and volume, holds in its measureless immensity an enormous mass of salt, since each cubic meter contains nearly thirty kilograms. If all the oceans should dry up and leave behind their saline contents, there would be enough salt to cover the whole earth with a uniform layer ten meters thick."

"What is the use of all that salt?" asked Marie.

"Its use is to preserve the ocean waters from corruption despite all the foul matter therein deposited by the countless denizens of the deep and in spite of the impurities of every kind unceasingly poured in as into a common sewer by the rivers, those great scavangers of the continents."

"They say sea-water is undrinkable," remarked Claire.

"I can well believe it," assented her uncle. "In the first place, it is very salt, and then it has an acrid, bitter taste that is unbearable. A single mouthful of this liquid, clear and limpid though it is, would produce nausea. Hence it cannot be used in preparing our food, since it would impart its own repulsive flavor; nor can it be used for washing clothes, be- [205] cause soap will not dissolve in it and, more than that, the clothes in drying would retain an infiltration of salt just as does the codfish you buy at the grocer's.

"I have already described to you how salt is gathered from salt-marshes with the help of the sun's heat to dry up the water and leave the crystallized salt ready to be scraped and carried away. Indeed, the sea is an inexhaustible reservoir of salt: we could never get to the end of it, however lavishly we salted our food. To supplement this abundance, the soil itself, the earth, contains in its depths thick beds of salt which are worked with pick and drill just as stone for building is worked in the quarry. This salt that is dug out of the earth is called rock-salt. It differs from sea-salt only in its color, which is due to various foreign substances, being most often yellow or reddish, sometimes violet, blue, or green. When intended for table use or cooking, it is purified with water, and then is undistinguishable from sea-salt.

"There are salt-mines in the departments of Meurthe and Haute-Saône, but the greatest salt-mine is that in the neighborhood of Cracow in Poland. Excavations have there been made to the depth of more than four hundred meters. The length of the mine exceeds two hundred leagues, and its greatest width is forty leagues.

"In that bed of salt are hewn out great galleries with loftier vaults, in some instances, than that of a church, and extending farther than the eye can reach, crossing one another in every direction, and forming [206] an immense city with streets and public squares. Nothing is lacking to the completeness of this subterranean town: divine service is held in vast chapels cut out of the solid salt, and dwellings for the workmen, as well as stables for the horses employed in the mine, are likewise hewn out of the same material. There is a large population, and hundreds of workmen are born and die there, some of them never leaving their underground birthplace and never seeing the light of the sun. Numerous lights, constantly maintained, illumine the city of salt, and their beams, reflected from crystalline surfaces on every hand, give to the walls of the galleries in some places the limpid and brilliant appearance of glass, and in others cause them to shine with the beautiful tints of the rainbow. What magic illumination in those crystal churches when a thousand candles are reflected by the vaulted roof in gleams of light of all colors!"

"Yes, it must be a magnificent sigh," Jules assented; "but, all the same, I should want to come up now and then into the light of day."

"Undoubtedly; for with all its splendors that subterranean abode is far inferior to ours. We have the open air, that pure air with which we delight to fill our lungs; and we have the sunlight, a vivifying light that no artificial illumination can equal."

"Nevertheless I should like to see that mine," said Emile. "What a tremendous grain of salt, to hold whole towns!"


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