|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 |
O finish his talk on lightning, the next morning Uncle Paul
told them about clouds. The occasion, moreover, was very
favorable. In one part of the sky great white clouds like
mountains of cotton were piled up. The eye was delighted
with the soft outlines of that celestial wadding.
"You remember," he began, "all those fogs that on damp
autumn and winter mornings cover the earth with a veil of
gray smoke, hide the sun, and prevent our seeing a few steps
in front of us?"
"Looking into the air, you could see something like fine
dust of water floating," said Claire; and Jules added:
"We played hide and seek with Emile in that kind of damp
smoke. We could not see each other a few steps away."
"Well," resumed Uncle Paul, "clouds and fog are the same
thing; only fog spreads about us and shows for what it is,
gray, damp, cold; while clouds keep more or less above us
and take on, with distance, a rich appearance. There are
some of dazzling whiteness, like those you see over there;
others of a red color, or golden-hued, or like fire; still
others of the color of ashes, and others that are black. The
color changes, too, from moment to moment. At sunset
 you will see a cloud begin with being white, then turn scarlet,
then shine like a pile of embers, or like a lake of melted
gold, and finally become dull and turn gray or black,
according as the sun's rays strike it less and less. All
that is a matter of illumination by the sun. In reality,
clouds, however splendid in appearance, are formed of a damp
vapor like that of fog. We can assure ourselves of this by a
"People can then mount as high as the clouds, Uncle?" Emile
"Certainly. All one needs is a pair of legs stout enough to
climb to the top of a mountain. Often then clouds are under
"And you have seen clouds underneath you?"
"That must be a very beautiful sight."
"So beautiful that words cannot express it. But it is not
exactly a pleasure if the clouds mount and envelop you. You
can be very much embarrassed by the obscurity of the fog
alone. You lose your way; you become confused, without
suspecting any danger in the most dangerous places, at the
risk of falling into some abyss; you lose sight of the
guides, who alone know the way and could save you from a
false step. No, all is not roses up among the clouds. You
will perhaps learn that some day to your cost. Meanwhile let
us transport ourselves in imagination to the top of a
cloud-capped mountain. If circumstances are favorable, here
is what we shall see:
"Above our heads the sky, perfectly clear, presents no
unusual appearance; the sun shines there
 in all its
brilliancy. Down there at our feet, almost in the plains,
white clouds spread themselves out. The wind sweeps them
before it and drives them toward the summit. There they
are, rolling and mounting up the side of the mountain. One
would think they were immense flocks of cotton pushed up the
slope by some invisible hand. Now and then a ray of sunlight
penetrates their depths and gives them the brilliancy of
gold and fire. The beautiful clouds behind which the sun
disappears at its setting are not richer. What brilliant
tints, what soft suppleness! They mount higher and higher.
Now they roll up like a shining white band around the top of
the mountain, and hide the view of the plain from us. Only
the point where we are projects above the cloud-curtain,
like an islet above the sea. At last this point is invaded,
we are in the bosom of the clouds. Warm tints, soft
outlines, striking views—all have disappeared. It is now
only a dark fog that saturates with moisture and makes us
feel depressed. Ah, if some breath of wind would make haste
and sweep away these disagreeable clouds!
"That, my little friends, is what one does not fail to wish
when one is in the clouds, which, so beautiful at a
distance, are nothing but gloomy fog when close at hand. The
spectacle of the clouds should be seen from afar. When in
our curiosity we wish to examine certain appearances too
closely, we sometimes find them deceptive; but we also find
that, under a secondary brilliancy, which serves to adorn
the earth, they hide realities of the first importance. The
marvels of the clouds are only an appearance,
 an illusion of
light; but under this illusion are concealed the reservoirs
of rain, source of the earth's fecundity.
God, by whom the
smallest details of creation have been ordered, willed that
the most common but also most necessary substances should
serve as an ornament to the earth in spite of their really
humble aspect; and he clothes them with a prestige dependent
on the distance from which we are to contemplate them. The
gray vapor of the clouds gives us rain. That is its chief
utility. The sun illuminates it, and that suffices to
transform it into a celestial tapestry in which the
astonished eye finds the splendor of purple, gold and fire.
That is its ornamental function.
"The height maintained by clouds is very variable and is
generally less than you might suppose. There are clouds that
lazily trail along the ground; they are the fogs. There are
others that cling to the sides of moderately high mountains,
and still others that crown the summits. The region where
they are commonly found is at a height varying from 500 to
1500 meters. In some rather rare instances they rise to
nearly four leagues. Beyond that eternal serenity reigns;
clouds never mount there, thunder never rumbles, and snow,
hail, and rain never form.
"Those clouds are called 'cirrus' that look sometimes like
light flocks of curly wool, sometimes like
drawn-out-filaments of dazzling whiteness, sharply
 contrasting with the deep blue of the sky. They are the
highest of all the clouds. They are often a league high.
When cirrus clouds are small and rounded and closely grouped
in large numbers, so as to look like the backs of a flock of
sheep, the sky thus covered is said to be dappled. It is
usually a sign that the weather is going to change.
"The name 'cumulus' is given to those large white clouds
with round outlines which pile up, during the heat of
summer, like immense mountains of cotton-wool. Their
appearance presages a storm."
"Then the clouds we see over there next to the mountains,"
queried Jules, "are cumulus? They look like piles of cotton.
Will they bring us a storm?"
"I think not. The wind is driving them in another direction.
The storm always takes place in their neighborhood. There!
A sudden light had just flashed through the flocks of the
cumulus. After rather a long wait the noise of the thunder
reached them, but greatly weakened by distance. Questions
came quickly from Jules's and Emile's lips: "Why does it
rain over there, and not here? Why does the noise of the
thunder come after the lightning? Why—"
"We are going to talk about all that," said Uncle Paul; "but
first let us learn the other forms of clouds. 'Stratus' is
applied to clouds disposed in
 irregular bands placed in
tiers on the horizon at sunrise or sunset. They are clouds
that, in the fading daylight, especially in autumn, take the
glowing tints of melted metals and of flame. The red stratus
of the morning are followed by rain or wind.
give the name 'nimbus' to a mass of dark clouds of a uniform
gray, so crowded together that it is impossible to
distinguish one cloud from another. These clouds generally
dissolve into rain. Seen from a distance, they often look
like broad stripes extending in a straight line from heaven
to earth. They are trails of rain.
"Now, Emile may ask his questions."
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