|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 YEAR AND ITS SEASONS
OU told us," said Claire, "that at the same time the earth
turns on its axis it travels round the sun."
"Yes. It takes three hundred and sixty-five days for that
journey; it makes three hundred and sixty-five pirouettes on
its axis in accomplishing a journey round the sun. The time
spent in this journey makes just a year."
"The earth takes one day of twenty-four hours to turn on its
axis; one year to turn round the sun," said Jules.
"That is it. Imagine yourself turning around a circular
table the center of which is occupied by a lamp representing
the sun, while you represent the earth. Each of your walks
around the table is one year. To represent things exactly,
you must turn on your heels three hundred and sixty-five
times while you circle the table once."
"It is as if the earth waltzed around the sun," Emile
"The comparison is not so well chosen as it might be, but it
is exact. It shows that in spite of the giddiness of his age
Emile has understood perfectly. A year is divided into
twelve months which are: January, February, March, April,
May, June, July,
 August, September, October, November,
December. The unequal length of the months is sometimes
confusing. Some have 31 days, others 30; February has 28 or
29, according to the year."
"For my part," said Claire, "I should find it hard to tell
whether May, September, and other months have 30 or 31 days.
How can one remember which months have 31 days and which
"A natural calendar, engraved on our hands, teaches us in a
very simple way. Close the fist of the left hand. At the
knuckles the four fingers, other than the thumb, form each a
bump, separated by a hollow from the next bump. Place the
index finger of the right hand in turn on these bumps and
hollows, beginning with the little finger, and at the same
time name the months of the year in order: January,
February, March, etc. When the series of the four fingers is
exhausted, return to the starting-point and continue naming
the twelve months on the bumps and hollows. Well, all the
months corresponding to the bumps have 31 days; all those
corresponding to the hollows, 30. You must except February,
answering to the first hollow. That has 28 or 29 days,
according to the year."
"Let me try," proposed Claire. "We'll see how many days May
has: January, bump; February, hollow; March, bump; April,
hollow; May, bump. May has 31 days."
"It is as easy as that," said her uncle.
"My turn now," interposed Jules. "Let us try September:
January, bump; February, hollow; March, bump; April, hollow;
May, bump; June,
hol-  low; July, bump. And now? I am at the
end of my hand."
"Now begin again and go on naming the months," Uncle Paul
"You go on at the same point where you began?"
"All right. August, bump. There are two bumps in succession.
There are then two months together, July and August, that
have 31 days?"
"I will begin again. August, bump; September, hollow.
September has 30 days."
"Why has February sometimes 28 and sometimes 29 days?" asked
"I must tell you that the earth does not take exactly 365
days to turn around the sun. It takes nearly six hours more.
To make up these six hours that were disregarded at first in
order to have a round number of days in the year, they are
reckoned in every four years, and the additional day they
make all together is added to February, which then becomes
29 days long instead of 28."
"So, for three years running, February has 28 days, and the
fourth year it has 29."
"Exactly. Remember, too, that the years when February has 29
days are called leap years."
"And the seasons?" queried Jules.
"For reasons that would be a little too difficult for you to
understand yet, the annual journey of the earth around the
sun causes the seasons and the unequal length of days and
"There are four seasons, of three months each:
summer, autumn, and winter. Spring is from about March 20th
to June 21st; summer from June 21st to September 22d; autumn
from September 22d to December 21st; winter from December
21st to March 20th.
"On March 20th and September 22d the sun is visible 12 hours
and invisible 12 hours, from one end of the earth to the
other. The 21st of June is for us the time of the longest
days and shortest nights; the sun is visible sixteen hours
and invisible eight hours. Farther north the length of the
day increases and that of the night diminishes. There are
countries where the sun, an earlier riser than here, rises
at two o'clock in the morning and sets at ten o'clock at
night; still others where the time of its rising and that of
its setting are so close together that the sun has hardly
sunk below the apparent edge of the sky before it appears
again. Finally, at the very pole of the earth, that is to
say at the point that remains stationary, like the end of
the axle of a wheel, while all the rest turns, one could
witness the wonderful spectacle of a sun that does not set,
that turns around the spectator for six whole months,
equally visible at midnight and midday. In those countries
there is no longer any night.
"On the 21st of December we have a state of affairs just the
reverse of that observed in June. With us the sun rises at 8
o'clock in the morning; at four in the afternoon it has
already set. That is eight hours of day for sixteen of
night. Farther north there are now nights of 18, 20, 22
hours, and corresponding days of six, four, and two hours.
 the neighborhood of the pole, the sun does not even show
itself, and there is no longer any daylight; for six months
there is the same darkness in the middle of the day as at
"And do people live in that country of the pole, where the
year is composed of a day lasting six months and a night of
six months?" asked Jules.
"No, up to this time
man has not been able to reach the pole on account of the
horrible cold there; but there are countries more or less
near the pole which are inhabited. When winter comes, wine,
beer, and other beverages turn into blocks of ice in their
casks; a glass of water thrown into the air falls back in
flakes of snow; the moisture of the breath becomes needles
of rime at the opening of the nostrils; the sea itself
freezes to a great depth and thus increases the apparent
extent of the dry land, which it resembles, having, like it,
its fields of snow and mountains of ice. For whole months
the sun does not show itself, and there is no difference
between day and night, or rather it is one long night, the
same at midday as at midnight. However, when the weather is
fine darkness is not complete; the light of the moon and
stars, augmented by the whiteness of the snow, produces a
kind of semi-daylight sufficient for seeing. By this wan
light, in sledges drawn in disorderly fashion by teams of
dogs, the people of these dark regions hunt what scanty game
there is. Fishing furnishes them more abundant food.
dried, stored, half decayed, and rancid whale's blubber are
their habitual food. For fuel for their hearths their
dependence is, again, on their fishing which supplies them
with fish-bones and slices of blubber. Here, in short, wood
is unknown; no tree, however hardy, can resist the rigors of
winter. Willows, birches, dwarfed to insignificant
underbrush, venture far as the southern extremities of
Lapland, where the cultivation of barley, the hardiest of
cultivated plants ceases. Beyond this point all woody
vegetation ceases; and during the summer there are found
only occasional tufts of grass and moss, hastily ripening
their seeds in the sheltered hollows of the rocks. Further
on the summer is too short for the snow and ice to melt
completely; the ground is never bare, and all vegetation is
A part of the
"Oh, the doleful countries!" cried Emile. "One more
question, Uncle. In traveling around the sun does the earth
"It takes a year for the entire tour; but as it circles at
an enormous distance from the sun, a distance of 38 millions
of leagues, it must travel this wide circle with a speed
beyond your power to conceive. This speed is 27,000 leagues
an hour. In the same time the fastest locomotive goes about
15 leagues. Compare and judge."
"What!" exclaimed Jules, "the immense ball of which we have
never been able to comprehend the
 frightful weight travels
in the sky with such rapidity?"
"Yes, my friend; with a speed of twenty-seven thousand
leagues an hour the terrestrial ball goes rolling through
space, without axle, without support, always on the ideal
line that has been given it for its race-track. Who caused
it to move so rapidly that the very thought of it makes you
feel giddy? Let us bow the head, my children; it is the
power of God."
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