|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 |
N Uncle Paul's room was a drawer full of shells of all
sorts. One of his friends had collected them in his travels.
Pleasant hours could be passed in looking at them. Their
beautiful colors, their pleasing but sometimes odd shapes,
diverted the eye. Some were twisted like a spiral stair-case,
others widened out in large horns, still others opened and
closed like a snuff-box. Some were ornamented with radiating
ribs, knotty creases, or plates laid one on another like the
slates of a roof; some bristled with points, spines, or
jagged scales. Here were some smooth as eggs, sometimes
white, sometimes spotted with red; others, near the
rose-tinted opening, had long points resembling
wide-stretched fingers. They came from all parts of the
world. This came from the land of the negroes, that from the
Red Sea, others from China, India, Japan. Truly, many
pleasant hours could be passed in examining them one by one,
especially if Uncle Paul were to tell you about them.
One day Uncle Paul gave his nephews this pleasure: he spread
before them the riches of his drawer. Jules and Claire
looked at them with amazement; Emile was never tired of
putting the large shells to his ear and listening to the
 that escapes from their depths and
seems to repeat the murmur of the sea.
"This one with the red and lace-like opening comes from
India. It is called a helmet. Some are so large that two of
them would be as much as Emile could carry. In some islands
they are so abundant that they are used instead of stones
and are burnt in kilns to make lime."
"I would not burn them for lime," said Jules, "if I found
such beautiful shells. See how red the opening is, how
beautifully the edges are pleated."
"And then what a loud murmur it makes," added Emile. "Is it
true, Uncle, that it is the noise of the sea echoed by the
"I do not deny that it resembles a little the murmur or
waves heard at a distance; but you must not think that the
shell keeps in its folds an echo of the noise of the waves.
It is simply the effect of the air going and coming through
the tortuous cavity.
"This other belongs to France.
It is common on the shores of
the Mediterranean and belongs to the genus cassis."
"It goes hoo-hoo, like the helmet," Emile remarked.
"All those that are rather large and have a spiral cavity do
 "Here is another which, like the preceding, is found in the
Mediterranean. It is the spiny mollusk. The creature that
inhabits it produces a violet glair, from which the ancients
derived, for their costly stuffs, a magnificent color called
"How are shells made?" asked Claire.
"Shells are the dwellings of creatures called mollusks, the
same as the spiral snail's shell is the house of the horny
little animal that eats your young flowering plants."
"Then the snail's house is a shell, the same as the
beautiful ones you have shown us," Jules observed.
"Yes, my child. It is in the sea that we find, in greatest
number, the largest and most beautiful shells. They are
called sea-shells. To these belong the helmet-shell,
cassidula, and spiny mollusk. But fresh waters, that is to
say streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, have them too. The
smallest ditch in our country has shells of good shape but
somber, earthy in color. They are called fresh-water
"I have seen some in the water resembling large,
spiral snails," said Jules. "They have a sort of cap to
close the opening."
"They are paludinidæ."
"I remember another ditch shell," said Claire. "It is round,
flat, and as large as a ten or even twenty-sou piece."
"That is one of the planorbinæ.
Finally, there are
shells that are always found on land and for
 that reason are
called land-shells. Such is the spiral snail."
"I have seen very pretty snails," Jules remarked, "almost as
pretty as the shells in this drawer. In the woods you see
yellow ones with several black bands wound round them in
"The creature we call the spiral snail—isn't it a slug
that finds an empty shell and lives in it?" asked Emile.
"No, my friend; a slug remains always a slug without
becoming a snail; that is to say, it never has a shell. The
snail, on the contrary, is born with a tiny shell that grows
little by little as the snail grows. The empty shells you
find in the country have had their inhabitants, which are
now dead and turned to dust, only their houses remaining."
"A slug and a snail without its shell are very much alike."
"Both are mollusks. There are mollusks that do not make
shells, the slug for example; others that do make them, such
as the snails, the paludinidæ, and the
"And of what does the snail make its house?"
"Of its own substance, my little friend; it sweats the
materials for its house."
"I don't understand."
"Don't you make your teeth, so white, shiny, and all in a
row?" From time to time a new one pushes through, without
your giving it any thought. It does it by itself. These
beautiful teeth are of very hard stone. Where does that
stone come from? From your own substance, it is clear. Our
 stone which fashions itself into teeth. So the
snail's house is built. The little creature sweats the stone
that shapes itself into a graceful shell."
"But to arrange stones one on another and make houses of
them you need masons. The snail's house is made without
"When I say it is done by itself, I do not mean that the
stone has the faculty of making itself into a shell. You
never see rubble piling itself unaided into a wall. God, the
Father of all things, willed that the stone should arrange
itself in a mother-of-pearl palace to serve as a dwelling
for the poor animal, brother to the slug, and it is
accomplished according to His will. In like manner He told
the stone to grow up into beautiful teeth from the depths of
the rosy gums of little boys and girls, and it is done as He
"I begin to feel rather friendly toward the snail, the
voracious animal that eats our flowers," said Jules.
"I do not care to make you friendly with it. Let us make war
on it since it ravages our gardens; it is our right; but do
not let us disdain to learn from it, for it has many
beautiful things to teach us. To-day I will tell you of its
eyes and nose."
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