|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
THE AGE OF TREES
HEY used to tell of a chestnut of Sancerre whose trunk was
more than four meters round. According to the most moderate
estimate its age must have been three or four hundred years.
Don't cry out at the age of this chestnut. My story is just
beginning, and you may be sure that, as a narrator who
stimulates the curiosity of his audience, I reserve the
oldest for the end.
"Much larger chestnuts are known; for example, that of
Neuve-Celle, on the borders of the Lake of Geneva, and that
of Esaü, in the neighborhood of Montélimar. The
first is thirteen meters round at the base of the trunk.
From the year 1408 it sheltered a hermitage; the story has
been testified to. Since then four centuries and half have
passed, adding to its age, and lightning has struck it at
different times. No matter, it is still vigorous and full of
leaves. The second is a majestic ruin. Its high branches are
despoiled; its trunk, eleven meters round, is plowed with
deep crevices, the wrinkles of old age. To tell the age of
these two giants is hardly possible. Perhaps it might be
reckoned at a thousand years, and still the two old trees
bear fruit; they will not die."
 "A thousand years! If Uncle had not said it, I should not
believe it." This from Jules.
"Sh! You must listen to the end without saying anything,"
cautioned his uncle.
"The largest tree in the world is a chestnut on the slopes
of Etna, in Sicily. Look at the map: you will see down
there, at the extreme end of Italy, opposite the toe of that
beautiful country which has the shape of a boot, a large
island with three corners. That is Sicily. On that island is
a celebrated mountain which throws up burning matter—a
volcano, in short. It is called Etna. To come back to our
chestnut, I must tell you that they call it 'the chestnut of
a hundred horses,' because Jane, Queen of Aragon, visiting
the volcano one day and, overtaken by a storm, took refuge
under it with her escort of a hundred horsemen. Under its
forest of leaves both riders and horses found shelter. To
surround the giant, thirty people extending their arms and
joining hands would not be enough. The trunk is more than
fifty meters round. Judged by its size, it is less a
tree-trunk than a fortress, a tower. An opening large enough
to permit two carriages to pass abreast goes through the
base of the chestnut and gives access into the cavity of the
trunk, which is fitted up for the use of those who go to
gather chestnuts; for the old colossus still has young sap
and seldom fails to bear fruit. It is impossible to estimate
the age of this giant by its size, for one suspects that a
trunk as large as that comes from several chestnuts,
originally distinct, but so near together that they have
become welded into one.
 "Neustadt, in Württemberg, has a linden whose branches,
overburdened by years, are held up by a hundred pillars of
masonry. The branches cover all together a space 130 meters
in circumference. In 1229 this tree was already old, for
writers of that time call it 'the big linden.' Its probable
age today is seven or eight hundred years.
"There was in France, at the beginning of this century, an
older tree than the veteran of Neustadt. In 1804 could be
seen at the castle of Chaillé, in the
Deux-Sèvres, a linden 15 meters round. It had six
main branches propped with numerous pillars. If it still
exists it cannot be less than eleven centuries old.
"The cemetery of Allouville, in Normandy, is shaded by one
of the oldest oaks in France. The dust of the dead, into
which it has thrust its roots, seems to have given it an
exceptional vigor. Its trunk measures ten meters in
circumference at the base. A hermit's chamber surmounted by
a little steeple rises in the midst of its enormous
branches. The base of the trunk, partly hollow, is fitted up
as a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Peace. The
personages have esteemed it an honor to go and pray in this
rustic sanctuary and meditate a moment under the shade of
the old tree which has seen so many graves open and shut.
According to its size, they consider this oak to be about
nine hundred years old. The acorn that produced it must,
then, have germinated about the year 1000. To-day the old
oak carries its monstrous branches without effort. Glorified
by men and ravaged by lightning, it peacefully follows the
course of ages, perhaps having before it a future equal to
"Much older oaks are known. In 1824 a wood-cutter of
Ardennes felled a gigantic oak in whose trunk were found
sacrificial vases and antique coins. The old oak had had
fifteen or sixteen centuries of existence.
"After the Allouville oak I will tell you of some more
companions of the dead; for it is above all in these fields
of repose, where the sanctity of the place protects them
against the injuries of man, that the trees attain such an
advanced age. Two yews in the cemetery of Haie-de-Routot,
department of Eure, merit attention above all. In 1832 they
shaded with their foliage the whole of the field of the dead
and a part of the church, without having experienced serious
damage, when an extremely violent windstorm threw a part of
their branches to the ground. In spite of this mutilation
these two yews are still majestic old trees. Their trunks,
entirely hollow, measure each of them nine meters in
circumference. Their age is estimated at fourteen hundred
 "That, however, is not more than half the age that some
other trees of the same kind have attained. A yew in a
Scotch cemetery measured twenty-nine meters around. Its
probable age was two thousand five hundred years. Another
yew, also in a cemetery in the same country, was, in 1660,
so prodigious that the whole country was talking about it.
They reckoned its age then at two thousand eight hundred and
twenty-four years. If it is still standing, this patriarch
of European trees bears the weight of more than thirty
"Enough for the present. Now it is your turn to talk."
"I like better to be silent, Uncle Paul," said Jules. "You
have upset my mind with your trees that will not die."
"I am thinking of the old yew in the Scotch cemetery. Did
you say three thousand years?" asked Claire.
"Three thousand years, my dear child; and we might go still
further back, if I were to tell you of certain trees in
foreign countries. Some are known to be almost as old as the
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