Rock, Tree, and Man
IT is an interesting thought, that will occur to a contemplative mind, that the world contained, from the time when it was a nebulous mass, all the materials of the future individuals of the animate and inanimate creation,—that the elaborate creatures of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, as well as every mineral, were floating in amorphous masses through space. Human beings, like the genius that was condensed from vapor at the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp, were diffused in gases, waiting the touch of the Great Magician’s wand to bring them into form and infuse them with life. In all the distinct creations of God, from the time when the waters first subsided and the dry land appeared, in everything organized and inorganized, earth, air, sea, and their inhabitants, there is no element which was not in existence when the earth was without form and void.
Philosophers tell us that three hundred and fifty millions of years elapsed after the globe began to solidify, before it was fitted for the lowest plants. And more than one million years more were necessary, after the first plants began to grow upon its young surface, to bring it forward to the condition which the Divine Father deemed suitable for the reception of man. If the days of Cain and Abel were the infancy of the world,—as we have sometimes heard, — when will it come to maturity ? Its divisions of life cannot follow the plan of animated beings; for, with an embryonic condition of an indefinite period, and an infancy of three hundred and fifty millions of years, more or less, we can hardly expect that it will really have begun to enjoy the freedom of adult life, before the human race will have attained to its earthly limit of perfectibility, or have so overstocked the surface of the globe as to make it necessary to remove to some larger sphere.
It is curious, we say, to think that everything now on the earth or composing its substance was present, though in far different form, at the beginning, — that the Almighty gathered together in this part of the universe all the materials out of which to create all the forms of things which it was his pleasure to evolve here through all time,—that in that nebulous mass were revolving, not only the gases which were at last to combine in various manners and proportions to form the rocky crust and the watery investment of the earth, but that in that dense and noisome cloud floated also the elements of all the beautiful objects that furnish the daily enchantments of life. Flowers and trees, birds and fishes, locusts and mastodons, all things, from the tiniest animalcule to man, were there, unmodelled, not even in embryo,—their separate existences then only in the mind of God. There, Christian and Saracen, Jew and Gentile, Caucasian and Negro, Hindoo and Pariah, all the now heterogeneous natures which are as oil and water, were blended in one common vapor.
Finally the condensation of all the gaseous elements began, and the aeriform masses became liquid, and the waters,— what mineral waters they were, when they were saturated with granite and marble, diamonds, rubies, arsenic, and iron !—thus deposited by the vapor, left a gas above them light enough to bear some faint resemblance to our air. Still this atmosphere was surcharged with vapors which no lungs could tolerate, whether of man or reptile ; and other steps must be taken to clear it of its unwholesome properties. Then did the Almighty will introduce, one after another, the germs of plants,—first of all, the lower orders, the ferns, which seek the shade, and the lichens, which grow in damp and dark recesses, mosses, which cling to bare rocks, living almost on air and water alone,— everything which needed not bright sunlight to invigorate it nor soil to cling to. Year by year and age by age did these humble plants extract their nourishment from the murky vapors that shrouded the earth, and, after fashioning those gases into a living tissue of stems and leaves, year after year did they die and lay their remains upon the rocks, accumulating by slow steps a soil which would in time be capable of giving holding-ground to mightier plants. The trees came,—and gigantic they must have been ; and every species of tree, shrub, and herb now upon the earth, and of all animals that walk, fly, or swim, was introduced before the creation of man.
Tt was as if the elements were too gross for the constitution of man, when they were first collected from the nebulous mass,—as if they needed to go through the intermediate forms of plants and animals, passing in succession from one to another, before they could be permitted to enter into the bodies of those beings who were to be in God’s likeness. But, in very truth, the elements were unaltered by their many transmigrations. It was the divine act of God which caused every plant to spring forth and gave birth to every living thing. Every seed and every egg was at the first formed by Him. No sudden effort of man’s will, such as that by which Pygmalion was believed to have animated the work of his chisel, nor any industrious current of electricity, passed for uninterrupted weeks through the purest gum, and stimulated by the enthusiasm of a Cross, can transform the worm to a breathing being, or reach the human climax bv slow steps, even if the first one be in the humble form of a louse. When a new plant appeared, it was the hand of God that formed the seed. When a new species of animal came upon the earth, it was the same Power that created it. But the materials were not new ; "out of the dust of the earth ” was man created.
Oxygen, Hydrogen, Carbon, and Nitrogen,—do not turn away from us, gentle reader, we will not be grimly scientific, but a few of the terms of science must be employed, even here,—these four elements are the chief ingredients of all vegetable and animal structures. When separated from their connections, three of them are gases; and the fourth, in union with one of the others, is also a gas. In various combinations they form literally the dust of the earth, they make rock and water, vapor and air. In the hand of the Almighty, they are so many plastic elements, that form now a plant of the lowliest condition, now a magnificent oak, now a fish, and now a man. And the germ of each organized being bequeathes to its offspring the power to reproduce its likeness,—so that each succeeding generation is a repetition of its predecessor. There is no change in plants and animals from the first; the same materials in the same proportions that were selected by the earliest trees for their composition are chosen now ; and in form and function the last animal is a precise copy of the first of his race.
If we attempt to trace a particle of matter, we shall find its wanderings endless. Annihilation is a term which is not applicable to material things. Matter is never destroyed ; it rarely rests. Oxygen, for instance, the most important constituent of our atmosphere, is the combining element of all things, the medium of communication between the kingdoms of Nature, the agent of the interchanges that are continually taking place among all created things. Oxygen keeps life in man, by combining with his blood at every inhalation ; it is absorbed by flowers, to be employed in the perfection of the fruit; many minerals are incapable of the various uses of society, until oxygen has attacked and united with them. It gives ns lime and soda, the oil of vitriol, and common salt; the mineral pigments in common use are impossible without it; and the beautiful colors of our autumn leaves are due to the combination of oxygen with their juices. It enters into all plans and operations with a helping hand ; animals and plants owe their lives to it; but when the shadow of death begins to fall upon them, it is as ready to aid in their destruction. Like calumny, which blackens whatsoever is suspected, oxygen pounces upon the failing and completes their ruin. The processes of fermentation and putrefaction cannot commence in any substance, until it has first taken oxygen into combination. Thus, cans of meat, hermetically sealed, with all the air first carefully expelled, undergo no change so long as the air does not get access to them. If the minutest opening remain, the oxygen of the atmosphere combines with the contents of the can, and fermentation or putrefaction follows. Rust, which takes the keen edge from the knife, is only another name for oxydation: keep the knife bright, and no oxygen dares touch it ; but the slightest blemish is made a loophole for the entrance of the even-watchful enemy, who never again leaves it until its destruction is complete.
All the elements have a great love of society ; they cannot live alone ; they have their likes and their dislikes; they contract alliances which endure for a time, but are dissolved in favor of stronger attractions.
We have mentioned the names of several natural elements. Let us see what they are, and what they have to do with man and the kingdoms of Nature. Beginning with man, let us see what becomes of him in course of time, what physical metamorphoses he undergoes, to what vile but excellent uses he is put.
That which forms the bone and muscle of a man this year may be upon his own table in the shape of potatoes or peaches one summer later. When Hamlet talked of turning the clay of Alexander into the bung of a beer-barrel, he spoke the simple truth. In that great play, Shakspeare appears to have had the transformations of material things much in his mind; for we find him alluding, in several passages, to the reciprocity which subsists between the elements of animate and inanimate things, and between the different members of the same kingdom;—as when, in conversation with the king about the dead Polonius, he makes Hamlet say, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat the fish that hath fed of the worm ”; or where, over the grave of Ophelia, he traces the two ancient heroes back to their mother earth, in words some of which we have quoted.
The ancient mythology, which shadowed forth some truth in all its fables, turned these facts of Nature to its purpose. The gods of Greece, when they saw fit to remove a human being from life, sometimes reproduced him in another form of beauty, without any intermediate stages of decay. Apollo seemed to have a particular fancy for planting the boys and girls whom he had loved where he might enjoy their fragrant society. Thus, a boy named Cyparissus, who had the misfortune to kill a favorite deer, was so unwilling to be consoled, that he besought Apollo to make his mourning perpetual ; and the kind god changed him into a cypress, which is still a funereal tree. The modest virgin Daphne, who succeeded in escaping the violence of his passion, was transformed into a laurel, which is ever green and pure. And the sweet youth Hyacinthus, beloved of Apollo, being accidentally killed by a quoit which tbe god of day was throwing, that divinity, in his grief, caused those sweet flowers which bear his name to spring from his blood, where it fell upon the ground. It is only in the annihilation of the intervals of time between different forms of existence that these old metamorphoses, which Ovid relates, are fabulous. If our readers will bear us company a few steps, through ways which shall have diversions enough to forbid weariness, we will endeavor to satisfy them that these apparent fables are very near to every-day truths. We must begin with some plain statements.
The air which we expel from the lungs at every breath has a'large proportion of carbonic acid. Let a man be shut up in an air-tight room for a day, and he will have changed nearly all the oxygen in it into this carbonic acid, and rendered it unfit for animal life. Dogs, cats, and birds would die in it. But, poisonous as it is to man and other animals, it is a feast to plants. They want it all day and every day; not in the night,— at that time they have a taste for oxygen. This effete air, which men and animals exhale, so charged with carbonic acid, the plants drink in through every pore. They take it from the mouth of man, appropriate it to their daily uses, and in time render it back to him mingled with other ingredients in wholesome fruit. Carbonic acid is death when it combines with the blood,—as it does when we inhale it; but not so when it enters the stomach in small quantities. One inspiration of it is enough to make us dizzy,— as when we enter an old well or stoop over a charcoal fire ; but a draught of water fully charged with it is exhilarating and refreshing, as we know by repeated experiences at marble fountains that meet us on so many city-corners.
If plants had souls, they would be pure ones, since they can bear such contamination and not be harmed,— nay, since even from such foul food as we give them they can evolve results so beautiful. We give them our cast-off and worn-out materials, and they return us the most beautiful flowers and the most luscious fruits.
Beside carbonic acid, there are two other principal materials, which are every day passing off in an effete state, though capable of being transferred to the uses oi plants. But when an animal dies, the whole substance is then at Nature's disposal. We must set aside a great deal of it, for the ants and flies, who will help themselves in spite of us. If any one has never seen a carcass rapidly disappearing under the steady operations of the larvae of the flesh-fly, he has yet to learn why some flies were made. The ants, too, carry it off in loads larger, if not heavier, than themselves. But carcasses of animals may go to decay, undisturbed bv the ravages of these useful insects. That is, the limited partnership of Oxygen, Hydrogen, & Co., under which they agreed to carry on the operations of sheep, fox, or fish, having terminated by the death of the animal, the partners make immediate use of their liberty and go off in inorganic form in search of new engagements, leaving sulphur, phosphorus, and the other subordinate elements of the animal, to shitt for themselves. They were in the employ of a sheep ; they will now carry on a man or an oak-tree, a colony of insects, or something else. Under the form of carbonate of ammonia, the four elements diffuse themselves through the air, or are absorbed by the earth, and offer themselves at once to the roots and leaves of the trees, as ready to go on with their vivifying operations as they were in behalf of the animals. There are some plants which seem not to be left to the chances of securing their nourishment from the carbonate of ammonia that the air and the soil contain, but are contrived so as to entrap living animals and hold them fast while they undergo decomposition, so that all their gases may be absorbed by them alone. Thus, “the little Sundew exudes a gluey secretion from the surface of its leaves, which serves to attract and retain insects, the decay of whose bodies seems to contribute to its existence." And the Dionæ, or Venus’s Fly-trap of the Southern States, has some leaves which fold together upon any insect that alights upon their upper surface; and by means of a row of long spines that fringes the leaves, they prevent his escape. The more active the struggles of the captive, the closer grows the hold of the leaf, and speedily destroys him. The plant appears to derive nutriment from the decomposition of its victims. “ Plants of this kind, which have been kept in hot-houses in England, from which insects were carefully excluded, have been observed to languish, but were restored by placing little bits of meat upon their traps,— the decay of these seeming to answer the same purpose.”
The four elements already referred to are by no means all the material ingredients of animal bodies. There are, also, phosphorus, lime, magnesia, soda, sulphur, chlorine, and iron; and if you believe some chemists, there is hardly a mineral in common use that may not be found in the human body. We doubt, however, whether lead, arsenic, and silver are there, without the intervention of the doctor.
What becomes of the phosphorus and the rest, when an animal dies? Oh, they take up new business, too. They are as indispensable to the animal frame as the four most prominent ingredients. We eat a great deal of bread and meat, and a little salt,— but the little salt is as important to continued life as the large bread. There is hardly a tissue in the body from which phosphorus, in combination with lime, is absent; so that the composition of lucifer-matehes is by no means the most important use of this element. The luminous appearance which some putrefying substances, particularly fish, present at night, is due to the slow combustion oi phosphorus which takes place as this element escapes into tlie air from the decomposing tissues.
The necessity for the steady supply of phosphorus and lime to the body is the cause of the popularity of Mapes’s superphosphate of lime as a manure. The farmers who buy it, perhaps, do not know that their bones and other parts are made of it, and that this is the reason they must furnish it to their land; for between the land and the farmer’s bones are two or three other factories that require tlie Same material. All the farmer knows is, that his grass and his corn grow better for the superphosphate. But what he has not thought of we will tell you, — that man finds his phosphate of lime in the milk and meat of the cow, and she finds her supply in the grass and corn, which look to the farmer to see that their stock of this useful mineral compound does not fall short. Thus in milk and meat and corn, which constitute so large a part ot our diet, we have always our phosphate of lime. There are many other sources whence we can derive it, but these will do for the present. And thus, when an animal dies and has no further use for his phosphate of lime, it is washed into the soil around, after decomposition of the body has set it, free, and goes to make new grass and corn. Bone-earth (pounded bones) is a common top-dressing for grass-lands.
A small proportion of sulphur is found in flesh and blood. We prove its presence in the egg by common experience. An egg—from which it. escapes more easily than from flesh—discovers its presence by blackening silver, as every housekeeper knows, whose social position is too high for bone egg-spoons or too low for gold ones. This passion which sulphur entertains for silver is very strong, as every one knows who has ever been under that wholesome discipline which had its weekly recnrrence at the delightful institution of Dotheboy's. Hall; and what Anglo-Saxon ever grew up, innocent of that delectable vernal medicine to which we refer ? Has he not found all the silver change in his pocket grow black, suggesting very unpleasant suspicions of bogus coin ? The sulphur, being more than is wanted in the economy of the system, has made its escape through every pore in his skin, and, of course, fraternizes with the silver on its way. But it was of the sulphur which is natural to the body and always found there that we were speaking. When the animal dies, and the vital forces give way to chemical affinities, when the phosphorus and the rest take their departure, the sulphur, too, finds itself occupation in new fields ot duty.
Chlorine and sodium, two more of the elements of animal structures, produce, in combination, common salt, without which our food would be so insipid, that we have the best evidence of its being a necessary article of diet. The body has many uses for salt. It is found in the tears, as we are informed by poets, who talk of “briny drops” and “saut, saut tears”; though why there, unless to keep the lachrymal fluid from spoiling, in those persons who bottle up their tears for a long time, we cannot divine.
Perhaps we bad better take the rest into consideration together,—the magnesia and iron, and whatever other elements are found in the body. Though some of them are there in minute quantities, the structure cannot exist without them, - and for their constant and sufficient supply our food must provide.
To see what becomes of all these materials after we have done with them, we must extend our inquiries among the articles of ordinary diet and ascertain from what sources we derive the several elements.
It has been sometimes believed that none but animal food contains all the elements required for the support of life. Thanks to Liebig, we have discovered that vegetable substances also, fruits, grains, and roots, contain them all, and, in most cases, in very nearly the same proportions as they are found in animals. We are not lecturing on dietetics; therefore we will not pause to explain why, although either bread or meat alone contains the various materials for flesh and bone, it is better to combine them than to endeavor to subsist on one only.
Whither, then, go these elements when man has done with them ? The answer is,—All Nature wants them. Every plant is ready to drink them up, as soon as they have taken forms which bring them within its reach. As gases, they are inhaled by the leaves, or, dissolved in water, they are drunk up by the roots. All plants have not the same appetites, and therefore they can make an amicable division of the supply. Grasses and grains want a large proportion of phosphate of lime, which they convert into husks. Peas and beans have little use for nitrogen, and resign it to others. Cabbages, cauliflowers, turnips, and celery appropriate a large share of the sulphur.
The food of plants and that of animals have this great difference : plants take their nourishment in inorganic form only ; animals require to have their food in organic form. That is, all the various minerals, singly or combined, which compose the tissues of plants and animals,—carbon, hydrogen, phosphorus, and the rest, which we have already named,— are taken up by plants in mineral form alone. The food of animals, on the other hand, consists always of organized forms. There is no artificial process by which oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen can be brought into a form suitable for the nourishment of animals. As oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen, they are not food, will not sustain our life, and human art cannot imitate their nutritious combinations. Artificial fibrine and gluten (organic principles) transcend our power of contrivance as far as the philosopher’s stone eluded the grasp of the alchemists. We know exactly how many equivalents of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen enter into the composition of each of the animal elements; but we can no more imitate an organic element than we can form a leaf. What we cannot do the vegetable world does for us. Thus we see why it was necessary that the earth should be clothed with vegetation before animals could be introduced. A fieldmouse dies and decays, and its elements are appropriated by the roots around its grave; and we can easily imagine the next generations of mice, the children and grandchildren of the deceased rodent, feasting off the tender bark which was made out of the remains of their parent. The soil of our gardens and the atmosphere above it are full of potential tomatoes, beans, corn, potatoes, and cabbages,—even of peaches of the finest flavor, and grapes whose aroma is transporting.
Plants, as well as animals, have their peculiar tastes. Cut off the supply of phosphate of lime from a field of corn, and it will not grow. You can easily do this by planting the same land with corn for three or four successive years, and your crop will dwindle away to nothing, unless yon supply the ground every year with as much of the mineral as the corn takes away from it. All plants have the power of selecting from the soil the materials necessary to their growth ; and if they do not find them in the soil, they will not grow. It is now a familiar fact, that, when an old forest of deciduous trees has been felled, evergreens will spring up in their places. The old oaks, hickories, and beeches, as any observer would discover, pass their last years in repose, simply putting out their leaves and bearing a little fruit every year, but making hardly any new wood. An oak may attain to nearly its full size, in spread of branches, in its first two hundred years, and live for five or six hundred years longer in a state of comparative rest. It seems to grow no more, simply because it has exhausted top much of the material for its nourishment from the ground around its roots. At least, we know, that, when we have cut it down, not oaks, but pines, will germinate in the same soil,—pines, which, having other necessities and taking somewhat different food, find a supply in the ground, untouched by their predecessor. Hence the rotation of crops, so much talked of by agriculturists. Before the subject was so well understood, the ground was allowed to lie fallow for a year or two, when the crops began to grow small, that it might recover from the air the elements it had lost. We now adopt the principle of rotation, and plant beans this year where last year we put corn.
It is not merely that plants deprive themselves of their future support by exhausting the neighboring earth of the elements they require. Some of them put into the ground substances which are poisonous to themselves or other plants. Thus, beans and peas pour out from tlieir roots a very notable amount of a certain gum which is not at all suited to their own nourishment,— so that, if we plant beans in the same spot several successive seasons, they thrive very poorly. But this gum appears to be exactly the food for corn ; if, therefore, we raise crops of beans and corn alternately, they assist each other. Liebig gives the results of a series of experiments illustrating the reciprocal actions of different species of plants. Various seeds were sprouted in water, in order to observe the nature of the excretions from tlieir roots. It was found “ that the water in which plants of the family of the Leguminosœ (beans and peas) grew acquired a brown color, from the substance which exuded from their roots. Plants of the same species, placed in water impregnated with these excrements, were impeded in their growth, and faded prematurely ; whilst, on the contrary, corn-plants grew vigorously in it, and the color of the water diminished sensibly, so that it appeared as if a certain quantity of the excrements of the Leguminosœ had really been absorbed by the corn-plants.” The oak, which is the great laboratory of tannin, not only lays up stores of it in its bark and leaves, but its roots discharge into the ground enough of it to tan the rootlets of all plants that venture to put down their suction-hose into the same region, and their spongioles are so effectually closed by this process, that they can no longer perform their office, and the plant that bears them dies. Plants whose roots ramify among the roots of poppies become unwilling opium-eaters, from the exudation of this narcotic principle into the ground, and are stunted, like the children of Gin Lane.
The Aquarium furnishes a very interesting example of the mutual dependence of the three natural kingdoms. Here, in a box holding a few gallons of water and a little atmospheric air, is a miniature world, secluded, and supplying its own wants. Its success depends on the number and character of the animals and plants being so adapted as to secure just the requisite amount of active growth to each to sustain the life of the other: that the plants should be sufficient to support, by the superfluities of their growth, the vegetarians among the animated tribes that surround them; and that all the animal tribes of the aquarium, whether subsisting upon the vegetables or on their smaller and weaker fellow-creatures, should restore to the water in excrements the mineral substances which will enable the plants to make good the daily loss occasioned by the depredations of the searovers that live upon them. Thus an aquarium, its constituents once correctly adjusted, has all the requisites for perpetuity ; or rather, the only obstacle to its unlimited continuance is, that it is a mortal, and not a Divine hand, that controls its light and heat.
In the examination of the materials appropriated by plants from the soil, we find that mineral substances are sometimes taken up in solution in larger amount than the growth of the plant and the maturation of its fruit require, and the excess is deposited again in crystalline form in the substance of the plant. If we cut across a stalk of the garden rhubarb, we can see, with the aid of a microscope, the fine needle-shaped crystals of oxalate of potash lying among the fibres of the plant,— a provision for an extra supply of the oxalic acid which is the source of the intense sourness of this vegetable. When the sap of the sugarmaple is boiled down to the consistence of syrup and allowed to stand, it sometimes deposits a considerable amount of sand; indeed, this is probably always present in some degree, and justifies, perhaps, the occasional complaint of the grittiness of maple-sugar. But it is a native grit, and not chargeable upon the sugar-makers. It is nothing less than flint, which the roots of the maple absorbed, while it was dissolved in water in the soil. The sap, still holding the flint in solution, flows out, clear as water, when the tree is tapped; but when it is concentrated by boiling, the silicious mineral is deposited in little crystals, so that the bottom of the pan appears to be covered with; sand. We could not select a more interesting example of the very wide diffusion of some compound substances than this one of silicic acid. It is found in the mineral and vegetable kingdoms. Being a mineral, it cannot be appropriated to animal uses, without being decomposed and transformed into an organic condition ; but in the numerous species of plants whose stalks require stiffening against the winds,—in the grasses and canes, including all our grains, the sugar-cane, and the bamboo,—a silicate (an actual flint) is taken up by the roots and stored away in the stalks as a stiffener. The rough, sharp edge of a blade of grass sometimes makes an ugly cut on one’s finger by means of the flint it contains, Silex is the chief ingredient in quartz rock, which is so widely diffused over the earth, and enters into the composition of most of the precious stones. The ruby, the emerald, the topaz, the amethyst, chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, agate, and garnet, and all the beautiful varieties of rock crystal, are mostly or entirely silex. Glass is a compound of silex and pearlash. One who is curious in such things may make glass out of a straw, by burning it and heating the ashes with a blowpipe. A little globule of pure glass will form as the ashes are consumed. The following curious instance, quoted by that interesting physiologist, Dr. Carpenter, shows the same effect upon a large scale. A melted mass ol glassy substance was found on a meadow between Mannheim and Heidelberg, in Germany, after a thunder-storm. It was, at first, supposed to be a meteor; but, when chemically examined, it proved to consist of silex, combined with potash, —in the form in which it exists in grasses; and, upon further inquiry, it was ascertained that a stack of hay had stood upon the spot, of which nothing remained but the ashes, the whole having been ignited by the lightning.
There is nothing in Nature more striking to the novice than the first suggestions of the various, and apparently contradictory, at least unexpected, positions in which the same mineral is found. Now carbon is one of the minerals whose exchanges are peculiarly interesting. Chemists say that, the diamond is the only instance in Nature of pure carbon : it burns in oxygen under the influence of intense heat, and leaves no ashes. Next to this —strange gradation !—is charcoal, which comes within a very little of being a diamond. But just that little interval is apparently so great, that none but a chemist would suspect there was any relationship between them. Then come all those immense beds of coal which compose one of the geological strata of the earth’s crust, a stratum that was formed before the appearance of the animated creation, when the earth was clothed with a gigantic forest, whose mighty trunks buried themselves with their fallen leaves, and became, in time, a continuous bed of carbonaceous stone.
If we look at the vegetable and animal kingdoms, we find carbon entering into the composition of every tissue. But there are certain tissues and anatomical elements (as physicians say) which are formed largely of carbon and have no nitrogen whatever. These are oils and fats and everything related to them. What will be chiefly interesting, however, to our readers, is the power of transformation of one of these substances into another. Starch, gum, and sugar can all be changed into fat. The explanation of it is in the fact, that these substances are all chemically alike,—that is, they all have nearly the same proportions of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, and no nitrogen ; but by slight differences in the combination of these elements, they exist in Nature as so many distinct substances. Their approach to identity is further confirmed by the fact, that starch can be made into gum, and cither of them into sugar, in the laboratory. The transformation of starch and gum into sugar is also constantly going on in the ripening of fruits. When country-dames make currant-jellies and currant-wine, they know very well, that, if they allow the berries to get dead-ripe, their jelly will not be so firm as when they seize an early opportunity and gather them when first fully red. They may also have observed that jelly made late, besides being less firm, is much more likely to candy. At first, the currants contain hardly any sugar, but more gum and vegetable jelly (glue) ; when deadripe, they have twelve times as much sugar as at first, and the gum and glue are much diminished. The gummy and gluey materials have been transformed into sugar. Every ripe fruit gives us. evidence of the same manufacture of sugar that has gone on under the stimulus of the sun’s rays; and in the greatest source of sugar, the cane, the process is the same. A French physician, M. Bernard, has, within the last twelve years, discovered that the liver of animals is constantly making sugar out of all kinds of food, while the lungs are all the time undoing the work of the liver and turning it back into its chemical elements. And although, in the laboratory of the liver, it is discovered that no alimentary substance is quite deficient in sweetness, yet there, as elsewhere, starch and gum yield a far greater amount of if than animal substances.
We have stated that starch and gum can he turned into sugar by art,— but as no chemist has yet succeeded in imitating an animal substance, the change of these three into fat takes place only in the body. There are proofs enough within general observation, that one object of this portion of our diet is the supply of fat. The Esquimaux fattens on his diet of blubber and train-oil; the slaves on the sugarplantations grow fat in the boiling-season, when they live heartily on sugar; the Chinese grow fat on an exclusively rice diet,—and rice is chiefly starch. But one of the most interesting observations of the transformation of sugar into a fat is that made by Huber upon bees. It was the discovery, that bees make their wax out of honey, and not of pollen, as was formerly believed. When Huber shut up some bees in a close hive, and kept them supplied with pure honey or with sugar alone, they subsisted upon it, and soon began to build the comb. Wax is a fat, and the honey which is eaten by the bee is partly transformed into wax in his body. In about twenty-four hours after his stomach has been filled with honey, thin plates of wax appear on the scales of his abdomen, having oozed through eight little openings in the scales and there hardened. Of this they build their cells.
We have wandered far from the consideration of the propensity of certain species of plants to take up special compound substances from the earth; but the wide-spread silex, with which we set out, displayed so interesting a field of observation, that it could not be resisted, and encouraged a disposition to rove, which has been to us instructive and entertaining. To return to plants,—we find they make use of compounds for certain special ends; but, as we have seen, the whole vegetable kingdom uses the eight or ten primitive elements which it has in common with the animals, and out of these alone forms the infinite variety of products which we derive from it for food and various economical and æsthetical purposes. Among the many processes of Nature whose contemplation fills us with ever new delight, this power of the adaptation of a few means to an infinite number of ends is one of the most enchanting. We endeavor to explain by chemical laws the reduction of the materials which earth and air furnish, to a form in which they can be appropriated by the tree ; by endosmoso and exosmose we think we have overcome the obstacles to a clear comprehension of the circulation of the sap ; and by a cell-theory we believe we have explained the whole growth of wood and leaves and fruit. But what microscope or what alembic shall ever telll us why a collection of tubes and cells in one tree creates the most wholesome and delicious fruit, while in another an organization precisely similar, so far as we can discern, produces only harsh and poisonous berries? why the acacia tribe elaborate their gum, the pipe family turpentine, the almond prussic acid, the sorrels oxalic acid ? why the tall calisaya-tree of the Andes deposits in its bark the valuable medicine cinchona, and the oak, the hemlock, the tea-plant* and many others, make use of similar repositories to lay up stores of tannic acid ? The numberless combinations of the same materials, and the wonderful power which rests in a single seed to bring about with unvarying uniformity its own distinct result, attest to us every day the admirable wisdom and goodness of the Creator.
These regular, every-day transformations of material elements from rock to tree, from tree to man, and back through a continual circuit, would repay us for spending our leisure hours in studying it, with our own eyes as well as with the eyes of others. The glance we have given is sufficiently suggestive to turn the attention of our readers that way. Before parting with them, however, we wish to make a few excursions into the natural world, to follow out some, of the more peculiar and unexpected migrations of material atoms. Suppose we take a little marble,—which, in chemical constitution, is carbonate of lime,— that very marble, for instance, which forms the palaces of Venice, against which the waters of the Mediterranean have dashed for so many centuries, and have not dashed in vain. In their perpetual washing, they have worn away the stone and carried off its particles,— an insignificant amount, it is true, but, little as it is, it has not remained unused. For that very carbonate of lime, which once shared the proud state of the “ glorious city in the sea," now helps to form the coarse shells of oysters, or is embodied in the vast coral reefs that shoot out from the islands of the West Indies, or is deposited year after year by dying shell-fish, which are slowly carpeting the ocean-bed with their remains. Much of this same Venice marble has doubtless been appropriated by fishes from the sea-water which dissolved it, been transformed into their bones, cast upon the soil of Italy, disintegrated, and imbibed by the thirsty roots of forests in sight of the very walls from which it parted. And who can say that parts of it do not now adorn the necks of some Venetian dames, in coral, or more costly pearls? What says Ariel to the orphaned Ferdinand ?
“ Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange."
This is but a hint of the mutability of created things. Marble, sea-shells, the chalk-cliffs of Dover, the limestone fossils which preserve for us animal forms of species long since extinct, the coral formations that are stretching out in dangerous reefs in so many seas of the tropics, are all identical in their chief ingredient, and, as we see, are by natural processes and various accidents constantly interchanging their positions.
It ought to be consoling to those who think a great, deal of their bodies, to reflect, that, if we may tend “ to base uses,” we may also tend to very noble ones. In the course of their transmigrations, the elements of a worthless individual may get into far better company than they have before enjoyed,— may enter into brains that immortalize their owner and redeem the errors of the old possessor. Whoever bases his merit on a long line of ancestors who have nothing but a perpetuated name to boast of, may be likened to the last of many successive tenants of a house who have hired it for their temporary uses. The inheritance of a brave spirit and a noble mind is a sufficient justification for a reasonable pride; but not so with the heritage of materials which are continually interchanging with the clod.
There need be nothing humiliating in such thoughts; the operations of Nature are always admirable. But when the relics of humanity are deliberately appropriated to such mechanical or scientific purposes as we shall relate, before they have entirely lost their original (we should say latest) form, then most men would look upon the act as in some sort a desecration. With what holy horror would the ancient Egyptians regard the economical uses to which their embalmed bodies were appropriated a few centuries ago ! In the works of Ambrose Paré, the great surgeon of five French kings in the sixteenth century, is a full account of the preparation and administration of “mummie,”—that is, Egyptian mummies, powdered and made into pills and potions,—“ to such as have falne from high places or have boene otherwise bruised.” The learned physician enters his protest against the use of it, (which he says is almost universal with the faculty,) as quite inefficacious and disgusting. His disgust, however, arises principally from the fact, that the “mummie” prepared by the apothecaries must have been derived “ from the carcases of the basest people of Egypt; for the noblemen and cheefe of the province, so religiously addicted to the monuments of their ancestors, would never suffer the bodves of their friends and kindred to be transported hither for filthy game and detested use.”
If such traffic be base, what shall we say of some priests of Nicaragua, who renovate their burial-grounds by exhuming the bones of the dead, with the earth that surrounds them, and selling the mass to the manufacturers of nitre ? No sentiment of reverence for the sepulchres of their fathers incites them to resist the inroads of foreign pirates,— for they manufacture their fathers’ bones into gunpowder.
Let us turn away from the revolting picture. The glimpses at Nature’s revolutions which we have enjoyed are more agreeable. We are no advocates for any attempts at preserving the human body from decomposition; that which will restore tin: beloved forms of friends most readily to their primitive elements, and avert the possibility of anything so dear remaining to excite our aversion or disgust, or becoming a pestilential agent, we would cordially encourage. There can be no doubt that use would soon render cremation as little disagreeable to the feelings as consigning the precious remains to slow decay and food for worms ; and few will long be pained at the thought of mingling at once with the common earth and air, and returning to usefulness in other forms, after the soul has passed to heavenly spheres to enjoy the blessings of immortal life.