|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 waters of the great deep"
WAVES SALT SEAWEEDS
HERE do the waves come from?" asked Jules. "The sea is very
terrible, they say, when it is angry."
"Yes, my dear Jules, very terrible. I shall never forget
those great moving ridges, capped with foam, that toss a
heavy ship like a nutshell, carry it one moment on their
monstrous backs, then let it plunge into the liquid valley
that intervenes. Oh! how small and weak one feels on those
four planks, mounting and plunging at the will of the waves!
If the nutshell springs a leak under the furious blows of
the billows, may the good God have pity on us! The shattered
boat would disappear in fathomless depths."
"In the chasm you told us about?" Claire asked.
"In those chasms from which no one returns. The shattered
boat would be swallowed up in the sea, and nothing of you
would be left but a remembrance, if there were people left
on the earth who loved you."
"So the sea ought always to be calm," said Jules.
"It would be a pity, my child, if the sea were always at
rest. This calm would be incompatible with the salubrity of
the seas, which must be violently stirred up to keep them
free from taint and to
dis-  solve the air necessary to their
animal and vegetable population. For the ocean of waters, as
for the atmosphere or ocean of air, there is need of a
salutary agitation—of tempests that churn up, renew, and
vivify the waters.
"The wind disturbs the surface of the ocean. If it comes in
gusts, it creates waves that leap with foaming crest and
break against one another. If it is strong and continuous,
it chases the waters in long swells, in waves or surges that
advance from the open in parallel lines, succeed one another
with a majestic uniformity, and one after another rush
booming on to the shore. These movements, however tumultuous
they may be, affect only the surface of the sea; thirty
meters down the water is calm, even in the most violent
"In our seas the height of the biggest waves is not more
than two or three meters; but in some parts of the South Sea
the waves, in exceptional weather, rise to ten or twelve
meters. They are veritable chains of moving hills with broad
and deep valleys between. Whipped by the wind, their summits
throw up clouds of foam and roll up in formidable volume
with a force sufficient to shatter the largest vessels under
"The power of the waves borders on the prodigious. There,
where the shore, rising vertically from the water, presents
itself fully to the assaults of the sea, the shock is so
violent that the earth trembles under one's feet. The most
solid dikes are demolished and swept away; enormous blocks
 off, dragged along the ground, sometimes thrown
over jetties where they roll like mere pebbles.
"It is to the continual action of waves that cliffs are due,
that is to say the vertical escarpments serving in some
places as shore for the sea. Such escarpments are seen on
the coasts of the English Channel, both in France and in
England. Unceasingly the ocean undermines them, causes
pieces to fall down which it triturates into pebbles, and
makes its way so much farther inland. History has preserved
the memory of towers, dwellings, even villages, that have
had to be abandoned little by little on account of similar
landslides, and that to-day have entirely disappeared beneath
"Stirred up like that, the waters of the sea are not likely
to become putrid," remarked Jules.
"The movement of the waves alone would not suffice to insure
the incorruptibility of sea-water. Another cause of
salubrity comes in here. The waters of the sea hold in
solution numerous substances that give it an extremely
disagreeable taste, but prevent its corruption."
"Then you cannot drink sea-water?" Emile asked.
"No, not even if you were pressed with the greatest thirst."
"And what taste has sea-water?"
"A taste at once bitter and salt, offensive to the palate
and causing nausea. That taste comes from the dissolved
substances. The most abundant is ordinary salt, the salt we
use for seasoning our food."
"Salt, however," objected Jules, "has no
dis-  agreeable taste,
although one cannot drink a glass of salt water."
"Doubtless; but in the waters of the sea it is accompanied
by many other dissolved substances whose taste is very
disagreeable. The degree of salt varies in different seas. A
liter of water in the Mediterranean contains 44 grams of
saline substances; a liter of water in the Atlantic Ocean
contains only 32.
"An attempt has been made to estimate, approximately, the
total quantity of salt contained in the ocean. Were the
ocean dried up and all its saline ingredients left at the
bottom, they would suffice to cover the whole surface of the
earth with a uniform layer ten meters thick."
"Oh, what a lot of salt!" cried Emile. "We should never see
the end of it, however much we salted our food. Then salt is
obtained from the sea?"
"Certainly. A low, level stretch of seashore is selected,
basins are dug, shallow but of considerable extent; these
are called salt marshes. Then the sea water is admitted to
these basins. When they are full, the communication with the
sea is closed. The work on salt marshes is done in the
summer. The heat of the sun causes the water to evaporate
little by little, and the salt remains in a crystalline
crust that is removed with rakes. The accumulated salt is
piled up in a big heap to let it drain."
"If we should put a plate of salt water in the sun, would
that be doing in a small way what is done in the salt
marshes?" asked Jules.
 "Exactly: the water would disappear, evaporated by the sun,
and the salt would remain in the plate."
"There are lots of fish in the sea, I know," said Claire,
"small, large, and monstrous. The sardine, cod, anchovy,
tunny-fish, and ever so many more come to us from the sea.
There are also mollusks, as you call them, also animals that
cover themselves with a shell; then enormous crabs with
claws bigger than a man's fist; and a lot of other creatures
that I don't know. What do they all live on?"
"First, they eat one another a good deal. The weakest
becomes the prey of a stronger one, which in its turn finds
its master and becomes food for it. But it is plain that if
the inhabitants of the sea had no other resource than
devouring one another, sooner or later nourishment would
fail them and they would perish.
"Therefore, in this matter of nutrition, things are ordered
in the sea much as they are on land. Plants furnish
alimentary matter. Certain species feed on the plant, others
devour those that eat the plant; so that, directly or
indirectly, vegetation really nourishes them all."
"I understand," said Jules. "A sheep browses the grass, a
wolf eats the sheep, and so it is the grass that nourishes
the wolf. There are, then, plants in the sea?"
"In great abundance.
Our prairies are not more grassy than
the bottom of the sea. Only, marine plants differ much from
land ones. They never
 have blossoms, never anything that
can be likened to leaves, never any roots. They attach
themselves to rocks by a stickiness at their base, without
being able to draw nourishment from them. They feed on water
and not on the soil. Some resemble sticky thongs, folded
ribbons, long manes; others take the form of little tufted
buds, soft top-knots, wavy plumes; still others are slashed
in strips, rolled in spirals, or shaped like coarse, slimy
threads. Some are olive-green, or pale rose-color;
others are honey-yellow, or bright red. These odd plants are
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