|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 |
FTER dinner, while their uncle read under the chestnut
tree, the children scattered in the garden. Claire attended
to her cuttings, Jules watered his vases, and Emile—Ah,
giddy-pate, what should happen to him but another
misfortune! A large butterfly was flying over the weeds that
grow at the foot of the wall. Oh, what a magnificent
butterfly! On the upper side its wings are red, fringed with
black, with big blue eyes; underneath they are brown with
wavy lines. It alights. Good. Emile makes himself small,
approaches softly on tip-toe, puts out his hand, and, all at
once, the butterfly is gone. But mark what follows. Emile
draws his hand back quickly; it smarts, is red. The pain
increases and becomes so bad that the poor boy runs to his
uncle, his eyes swollen with tears.
"A venomous creature has stung me!" he cries. "See my hand,
Uncle! It smarts—oh, how it smarts! Some viper has bitten
At this word viper, Uncle Paul started. He rose and looked
at the injured hand. A smile came to his lips.
"Impossible, my little friend; there is no viper in the
garden. What foolishness have you been committing? Where
have you been?"
 "I ran after a butterfly, and when I put out my hand to
catch it on the weeds at the foot of the wall, something
stung me. See!"
"It is nothing, my poor Emile; go and dip your hand into the
cool water of the fountain, and the pain will go away."
Quarter of an hour later they were talking of Emile's
accident, he being quite recovered from his misadventure.
"Now that the pain is gone, does not Emile want to know what
stung him?" asked his uncle.
"I certainly ought to know, so as not to be caught another
"Well, it is a plant called nettle. Its leaves, stems,
slightest branches are covered with a multitude of bristles,
stiff, hollow, and filled with a venomous liquid. When one
of these bristles penetrates the skin, the point breaks, the
little vial of venom opens and spills its contents into the
wound. From that comes a smarting but not dangerous pain.
You see, the nettle's bristles act like the weapons of
venomous creatures. It is always a hollow point that makes a
fine wound in the skin, and passes a drop of liquid into it,
the cause of all the ill. The nettle is thus a venomous
"I will also tell Emile that the beautiful
butter-  fly for
which he thoughtlessly thrust his hand into the tuft of
nettles is called the Vanessa Io. Its caterpillar is velvety
black with white spots. It also bristles with thorns. It
does not make a cocoon. Its chrysalis, ornamented with bands
that shine like gold, is suspended in the air by the end of
its tail. The caterpillar lives on the nettle, of which it
eats the leaves, notwithstanding their venomous bristles."
"In browsing on the venomous plant, how does the caterpillar
manage so as not to poison itself?" Claire inquired.
"My dear child, you confound venomous with
Venomous is said of a substance that, introduced into the
blood by any kind of a wound, causes injury in the manner of
the viper's venom. Poisonous is said of a substance that,
swallowed or introduced into the stomach, may cause death.
Fatal drugs are poisonous: they kill if eaten or drunk. The
liquid that flows from the viper's fangs and the scorpion's
sting is venomous: it kills when it mixes with the blood;
but it is not poisonous, for it can be swallowed with
impunity. It is the same with the nettle's venom. So Mother
Ambroisine gives the poultry chopped nettles, and the
caterpillar of the Vanessa feeds without danger on the plant
which, a little while ago, made Emile cry with pain. Of
venomous plants we have in our country only nettles; but we
have many poisonous plants that, when eaten, cause illness
and even death, I must certainly tell you about them some
day, so as to teach you to avoid them.
 "The nettle's bristles remind me of the caterpillar's hairs.
Many caterpillars have the skin quite bare. They are then
perfectly inoffensive. They can be handled without any
danger, however large they may be, even those that have horn
at the end of the back. They are no more to be feared than
the silkworm. Others have bodies all bristly with hairs,
sometimes very sharp and barbed, which can lodge in the
skin, leave their points there, and thus produce lively
itchings or even painful swellings. It is well then to
mistrust velvety caterpillars, particularly those living in
companies on oaks and pines, in large silk nests, and called
processionary caterpillars. But here we have a word that
calls for another story."
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