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The Story Book of Science by  Jean Henri Fabre


 

 

CHAPTER LI

A JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE WORLD

[232]

"A
SMALL boy, of Jules's age and, like him, desirous to learn, one morning was making his preparations for a journey. Never had a navigator getting ready for a voyage over distant seas shown more zeal. Provisions, the first necessity in long expeditions, were not forgotten. Breakfast was doubled. There were in the basket six nuts, a bread-and-butter sandwich, and two apples! Where can one not go with all that? The family was not informed: they might have dissuaded the audacious traveler from his project by acquainting him with the perils of the expedition. For fear of softening before his mother's tears, he kept silent. Basket in hand, without saying good-by to any one, he takes his departure. Soon he is in the country. To left or right makes no difference to him; all roads lead whither he wishes to go."

"Where does he want to go?" asked Emile.

"To the end of the world. He takes the right-hand road, which is bordered by a hawthorn hedge where golden green beetles rustle and shine. But the beautiful insects do not stop him for a moment, nor yet the little red-bellied fish that play in the streamlet. The day is so short and the journey so long! He keeps on walking straight ahead, some- [233] times shortening the distance by cutting across fields. At the end of an hour the sandwich, chief item in the provisions, had been eaten, although the eating of it was regulated by the wise economy of a prudent traveler. Quarter of an hour later an apple and three nuts were gone. Appetite comes quickly to those who tire themselves. It comes so quickly that at a turn of the road, in the shade of a large willow, the second apple and the three remaining nuts are taken out of the basket. The provisions were exhausted, and (no less grave a matter) legs refused to go. Just imagine the situation. The journey had lasted two hours, and the end proposed was no nearer, not a bit. The little boy retraced his steps, persuaded that with better legs and more provisions he would succeed another time in his project."

"What was this project?" Jules asked.

"I told you: the audacious child wished to reach the end of the world. According to his ideas, the sky was a blue vault, which kept getting lower until it rested on the edge of the earth, so that, if ever he arrived there, he would have to walk bent over so as not to bump his head against the firmament. He started with the idea that he should soon be able to touch the sky with his hand; but the blue vault, retiring as he advanced, was always at the same distance. Fatigue and want of provisions made him renounce further continuance of his journey."

"If I had known that little boy," said Emile, "I would have dissuaded him from his expedition. It is impossible, however far one goes, to touch the sky [234] with the hand, even with the help of the tallest ladder."

"If I remember aright, Emile has not always been of that opinion," said his uncle.

"That is true, Uncle. Like the little boy you have been telling about, I believed that the sky was a large blue cover resting on the earth. By good walking one ought to reach the edge of the cover and the end of the world. I thought, too, that the sun rose behind these mountains, and set behind those on the opposite side, where there was a deep well that the sun plunged into and remained hidden during the night. One day you took me to the mountains where the edges of the blue cover seem to rest. It was a long way off, I remember; you lent me your cane, which helped me in walking. I did not see any well for the sun to plunge into; everything looked just as it does here. The edge of the sky still seemed to rest on the earth, only much farther away. And you told me that by going to the end of what we saw, then farther and farther still, we should find the same appearance everywhere, without ever seeing the end of a vault that does not really exist."

"Nowhere, as all three of you know, does the sky rest on the earth; nowhere is there any danger of striking one's head against the firmament; everywhere the blue vault has the same appearance as here. You know, too, that in always going ahead you meet with plains, mountains, valleys, watercourses, seas; but nowhere are there any barriers marking the limits of the world.

[235] "Imagine a large ball suspended in the air by a thread, and on this ball a gnat. If this gnat should take a notion to go all over the surface, is it not true that it could come and go over the ball, above, below, on the side, without ever encountering an obstacle, without ever seeing a barrier rise up to block its passage? Is it not equally true that if it always kept on in the same direction, the gnat would end by making the tour of the ball and would come back to its starting-point? So it is with us on the surface of the earth, though we are far more insignificant when compared with the globe that bears us than is the tiniest gnat in comparison with the biggest ball you can imagine. Without ever encountering a barrier, without ever touching the cupola of the sky, we come and go in a thousand different directions, we accomplish the most distant journeys, even make the tour of the earth and return to our starting-point. The earth, then, is round; it is an immense ball that swims without support in celestial space. As to the blue vault that arches above us, it is mere appearance caused by the blue color of the air enveloping the earth on all sides."

"The ball on which your imaginary gnat travels is suspended by a thread. By what chain is the enormous ball of the earth hung?" asked Jules.

"The earth is not suspended from the firmament by any celestial chain, nor does it rest upon any support, like a geographical globe on its pedestal. According to an Indian legend the terrestrial globe is borne upon four bronze columns."

[236] "And what do the four columns rest on, in their turn?"

"They rest on four white elephants."

"And the white elephants?"

"They rest on four monstrous turtles."

"And the turtles?"

"Well, they swim in an ocean of milk."

"And the ocean of milk?"

"The legend says nothing about that, and it is right to be silent. It would have been better not to imagine all these various supports, resting one on another, to hold the earth up. Suppose a pedestal for the earth, then a second to uphold the first, then a third, then a fourth, thousandth, if you like; it is only postponing the question without answering it, since finally, after having erected all the supports imaginable, one must ask what will the last one rest on. Perhaps you are thinking of the vault of the heavens, which might well sustain the earth; but know that this vault has no reality, that it is nothing but an appearance caused by the air. Besides, thousands of travelers have gone over the earth in every direction, and nowhere have they seen either a suspending chain or a pedestal of any kind. Everywhere they see only what is to be seen here. The earth is isolated in space; it swims in a void without any support, just as do the moon and the sun."

"But, then, why doesn't it fall?" persisted Jules.

"To fall, my little friend, is to rush earthward as a stone does when raised in the hand and then left to itself. How can the large ball rush to the earth, [237] when it is the whole earth? Is it possible for a thing to rush toward itself?"

"No."

"Well, then! Besides, imagine this. All is the same around the terrestrial globe; properly speaking, there is no up or down, no right or left. We call up  the direction toward adjacent space, or toward the sky; but remember that there is sky also on the other side of the earth, that there it is just the same as we see it here, and that this is true for all parts of the earth's surface. If it seemed to you quite simple that the earth does not rush toward the sky which is above us, why should you expect it to rush toward the opposite sky? To fall toward the opposite sky would be to rise, as the lark rises here, when with one stroke of the wing it takes flight and soars above us."


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