|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
NOW has the same origin as rain: it comes from vapor
in the atmosphere, especially from vapor rising from
the surface of the sea. When a sudden cooling-off takes
place in clouds at a high elevation, the condensation
of vapor is immediately followed by freezing, which
turns water into ice.
"I have already told you
that cirrus clouds, which are
the highest of all clouds and hence more exposed to
cold than the others, are composed of extremely fine
needles of ice. Lower clouds, too, if subjected to a
sufficient degree of cold, undergo the
 same transformation. Then there follows a symmetrical
grouping of adjacent needles in delicate six-pointed
stars which, in greater or less numbers and heaped
together at random, make a snowflake. Soon afterward,
when it has grown too heavy to float in the air, the
flake falls to the ground.
"Examine attentively one that has just fallen on the
dark background of your sleeve or cap. You will see a
mass of beautiful little starry crystals so graceful in
form, so delicate in structure, that the most skilful
fingers could never hope to make anything like them.
These exquisite formations, which put to shame our poor
human artistry, have nevertheless sprung from the
haphazard mingling of cloud-masses.
"Such then is the nature of snow, the schoolboy's
favorite plaything. From a somber and silent sky it
falls softly, almost perpendicularly. The eye follows
it in its fall. Above, in the gray depths, it looks
like the confused whirling of a swarm of white insects;
below it resembles a shower of down, each flake turning
round and round and reaching the ground only after
considerable hesitation. If the snowfall continues thus
for a little while, everything will be hidden under a
sheet of dazzling whiteness.
"Now is the time for dusting the back of a schoolmate
with a well-directed snowball, which will bring a
prompt reply. Now is the time for rolling up an immense
snowball which, turning over and over and creaking as
it grows, at last becomes too large to move even under
our united efforts. On top of this ball a similar one
will be hoisted, then another still
 smaller on that, and the whole will be shaped into a
grotesque giant having for mustache two large turkey
feathers and for arms an old broomstick. But look out
for the hands in modeling this masterpiece! More than
one young sculptor will hasten to thrust them, aching
with cold, into his pockets. But, though inactive
himself, he will none the less give the others plenty
of advice on how to finish off the colossus.
"Oh, how glorious is a holiday when there is snow on
the ground! If I were to let myself go, how eloquent I
could be on the subject! But, after all, what could I
say that would be new to you? You know better than I
all about the games appropriate to the occasion. You
belong to the present, I to the past; you make the snow
man now and here; I only tell about it from memory. We
shall do better to go on with our modest studies, in
which I can be of some help to you.
"From snow to hail is a short step, both being nothing
but atmospheric vapor turned to ice by cold. But while
snow is in delicate flakes, hail takes the form of hard
pellets of ice called hailstones. These vary greatly in
size, from that of a tiny pin-head to that of a pea, a
plum, a pigeon's egg, and larger.
"Hail often does much harm. The icy pellets, hard as
stone, in falling from the clouds gain speed enough to
make them break window-panes, bruise the unfortunate
person not under cover, and cut to pieces in a few
minutes harvests, vineyards, and fruit-crops. It is
nearly always in warm weather that hail falls, and as
necessary conditions there must be a
 violent storm with flashes of lightning and peals of
"If on the one hand a hail-storm is to be regarded as a
disaster, on the other a fall of snow if often to be
welcomed as a blessing. Snow slowly saturates the earth
with moisture that is of more lasting benefit than a
rainfall. It also covers the fields with a mantle that
affords protection from severe frost, so that the young
shoots from seeds recently sown remain green and
vigorous instead of being exposed to the deadly sting
of the north wind.
"Snow plays still another part, and a very important
one, a part having to do with the very existence of our
streams. On account of the cold in high regions it
snows more often on the mountains than in the plains.
In our latitude peaks three thousand meters high, or
more, are unvisited by rain. Every cloud borne to them
by the wind deposits, instead of a shower of rain, a
mantle of snow, and that in all seasons of the year,
summer as well as winter.
"Driven by the wind or sliding down the steep slopes,
this snow from the mountain-tops, renewed almost daily,
collects in the neighboring valleys and piles up there
in drifts hundreds of meters deep, which finally turn
to ice as hard and clear as that of the pond where we
go skating. In this way there are formed and maintained
those masses of moving ice known as glaciers, immense
reservoirs of frozen water which abound in all the
larger mountain systems.
"In its upper reaches, where the mountain peaks pierce
the sky, the glacier is continually receiving
 fresh snow that comes sliding down the neighboring
slopes, while in its lower course, farther down the
valley, where the warmth is sufficient, the ice melts
and gives rise to a stream which is soon added to by
others from neighboring glaciers. In this way the
largest rivers are started on their courses.
"From the soil saturated with rain-water and snow-water
come springs and brooks and larger streams, each but a
slender thread at first, a few drops trickling slowly,
a tiny streamlet that one could stop with the hand.
But, collecting drop by drop from all around, trickling
down the mountainside, a little here and a little
there, one thimbleful added to another, one tiny
streamlet uniting with its neighbor, at last we have,
first, the little brook babbling over its smooth
pebbles, then the larger brook that drives the
mill-wheel, then the stream on which rides the rowboat,
and finally the majestic river carrying to the sea all
the drainage of an immense watershed.
"Every drop of water that irrigates the soil comes from
the sea, and every drop returns to the sea. The heat of
the sun draws the water up in the form of vapor; this
vapor goes to make clouds, which the wind scatters in
all directions; from these clouds fall rain and snow;
and from this rain and snow are formed rivers and other
streams which all combine to return to the sea the
water thus distributed.
"The water of every spring, well, fountain, lake, pond,
marsh, and ditch—all, absolutely all, even to the
tiniest mud-puddle and the moisture that bedews
 a sprig of moss—comes from the sea and returns to
"If water cannot run because it is held back in the
hollow of some rock, or in a depression in the ground,
or in a leaf that has drunk its fill of sap, no matter:
the great journey will be accomplished all the same.
The sun will turn it to vapor, which will be dissipated
in the atmosphere; and, having once started on this
broad highway that leads everywhere, sooner or later it
must return to the sea.
"I hope now you are beginning to understand all this,
except one puzzling detail that must certainly have
occurred to you. You wonder how it can be that,
sea-water being so salt and so disagreeable to drink,
rain-water, snow-water, spring-water, river-water, and
so on, should be so tasteless. The answer is easy.
Recall to mind the experiment of the plate of salt
water placed in the sun. The part that disappears,
evaporated by the heat, is pure water and nothing more.
What remains in the plate is the salt that water
contained, a substance on which evaporation has no
"The same process of evaporation is constantly going on
over all the broad expanse of the sea: the water alone
is reduced to vapor, the salt remains. From this vapor,
purged of all that made the sea-water so disagreeable
to the taste, only tasteless water can result."
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