A CALL UPON SOPHY
WE will again make a short unceremonious visit to Sophy, and be instructively amused by M. Aimé-Martin.
Let a man roll a little air in his mouth, and what is that? Let Napoleon twist between his lips and all the world is at war – give it to Fénélon and he shall so manage it with his tongue that there shall be everywhere peace. It is but a little agitated air that sets mankind in motion. If we could live without air we could not talk, sing, or hear any sounds without it. There would be a blazing sun in a black sky, - sunshine mingled with thick darkness, and there would be everywhere an awful silence. There is less air in the upper than in the lower regions of the atmosphere; the bottom crust of air is, of course, densest. Saussure fired a pistol on the summit of Mont Blanc, and the report was like the snapping of a stick. There is a well at Fulda three hundred palms deep; throw a stone down it and the noise it makes in its descent will be like the firing of a park cannon. It goes down among dense air, and also it reverberates. When a man speaks he strikes air with his throat and mouth as a stone strikes water, and from his tongue as from the stone spread undulating circles with immense rapidity. Those circles may be checked and beaten back in their course, as it is with the waves of sound made by the stone tumbling down a well, beaten back and curiously multiplied. At the Castle of Simonetti, near Milan, one low note of music will beget a concert, for the note is echoed to and fro by the great wings of the building that reflect and multiply a sound just as two mirrors reflect and multiply a lighted candle. Sound is, in fact, reflected just as light is, and may be brought quite in the same way to a focus. A word spoken in the focus of one ellipse will be heard in the focus of an opposite ellipse hundreds of yards away. Such a principle was illuminated oddly in the great church of Agrigentum in Sicily. The architect – perhaps intentionally – built several confessionals of an elliptic form, with corresponding opposite ellipses, in which whoever stood heard all the secrets whispered to the priest. A horrible amount of scandal sprang up in the town; nobody’s sins were safe from getting into unaccountable publicity. Intriguing ladies changed their lovers and their priests. It was in vain; their misdeeds still remained town property. The church soon became such a temple of truth that nothing was left to be hidden from it, but at last by chance a discovery was made of the character of the tale-telling stones, and the walls had their ears stopped.
From the sounds that travel through the air, we will turn once more to the substances, the birds, and say a word or two of them: regarding them especially as travelers, by whom oceans are crossed and countries traversed. The migration of birds used to be denied, or sometimes it was asserted that they did not migrate but wintered with the fishes at the bottom of lakes and rivers. Dr. Mather taught that they flew to an undiscovered satellite, a little moon that had escaped from the earth. The fact of their migration is now not only established but also very notorious in almost all its details that little need be here said about it. Only we must remark upon the marvelousness of the fact that every bird knows when to go abroad, and times its departure not to an exact date but to the exact fit time every season. Birds arrive in their foreign haunts just when the fruits are ripe on which they go to feed, or which they are sent to protect by the suppression of any to great ravages of insects. How does one loriot resident near Paris know every year precisely on what day there will be the first ripe figs in islands of the Southern Archipelago. He is never – no migratory bird ever is – cheated of his dues by a late season. If the season be late he arrives late. How can a bird know, hundreds of miles away, what sort of weather there will be in Greece, in Egypt, or in England. Eastern nations that observed this close that agreement between the movements of birds and the appearance of insects or fruits, observed or invented sometimes a like concord between birds and flowers. When the nightingales appear, it is said, in certain parts of India, the roses burst spontaneously into blossom.
Then there are other things that travel through the air, of man’s invention, simple applications to use – or to no use – of the powers of natures, balloons. There were balloons before Mongolfer. The Father Ménestrier, a historian of Lyons, relates that at the end of the reign of Charlemagne there fell in that town a balloon with several people. The skymen were surrounded by the town’s-people who took them for magicians sent to devastate the land by Grimwald, Duke of Benevento, and they were only saved from destruction by the interference of the learned and enlightened bishop Agoberd. Father Kircher also tells how long ago some Jesuits imprisoned among Indians tried in vain by various ways to recover liberty, and at last, one of them, who was free, constructed a big dragon of paper. He then went to the barbarians and told them that they were menaced by the wrath of Heaven with great evils which they could avert only by liberation of his countrymen. The priest then went to his dragon, and having suspended in the midst of it a composition of pitch, wax, and sulphur, fastened behind it a portentous tail and sent the beast up into the clouds, where it appeared to vomit fire. There was written on it, in the language of the country, “The wrath of God is about to fall on you!” The barbarians in great terror ran to free the Jesuits. Soon afterwards, the paper having caught fire, the dragon fluttered, struggled, and disappeared in flame, and the barbarians took its withdrawal for a sign of the divine approval of their conduct.
Let us turn our faces now to the great fire dragon of the sky, the sun. Every one knows that there are spots upon its face. Liebnitz, writing in a courtly way for the edification of an old-world Queen of Prussia, called them beauty spots, giving them out for a sublime justification of the use of patches. The sun is a long way off, its light is eight minutes on the road before it reaches us, although light travels with amazing speed. A cannon-ball, if it could be fired up at the sun, its speed never diminishing, would about hit its mark at the end of eighteen years. Yet, though the sun is so distant, and light travels so fast in eight minutes, there are other stars so distant that their light is sex years on the journey to our eyes. Let such a star be now annihilated, and for six years we shall still see it. The light of other stars that make a mist before our telescopes comes from so far away that it has been traveling even for two millions of years before it reached the point in space that this our world (as we call it) occupies.
We might see more or less with other senses. The eagle has a telescopic eye, sunk in its orbit as within a tube, and possibly the eagle sees the moons of Saturn glittering, has long since known that in our moon there are mountains and valleys, and had at the very remote period of our history discovered more stars than Herschel, or Adams, or Hind.
There are stars upon earth apart from the opera – fire-flies and luminous insects. An old traveler tells a pretty story about them. He says that on the coast of Guinea he used to see the blacks preparing to go out to fish soon after sunset. The young girls were the fishers who pushed out to sea in boats and made long tracks of light on the phosphorescent water. They seemed to be at work in fire where they were stirring about with fish baskets, seizing fishes and detaching shells from rocks. After a time they returned singing, wet from their task, and their whole persons covered with living fire. They brought with them gigantic crabs and frightful rays, and thousands of shells all glittering with light, which they poured out upon the grass, and then often they would dance, naked savages as they were, about their huts, and look like fairies, for fire-spirits.
Now that we are by the sea, we will abide upon it. What if there were no waves nor tides, nor currents in the ocean? What if it were not salt? To take only one consideration. What if it were possible for the sea to become frozen over like the Serpentine? Put upon a short allowance of vapour, when all the summer supply had been duly condensed and discharged in rain, we should have dry winters and springs, we should want clouds, want rain, want water springs and water. The sand islands and marshes, and the many diverging channels, naturally formed as a delta at the mouth of most great rivers, are very ugly; but they are formed naturally and like all things in nature have their use. We may say that they exist where it is geographically inevitable that they should exist, but He who made alike the laws and the things under the laws, so made them, that whatever accident may arise from their working, whatever secondary or other combinations they may run into, everything has more than one use for good. Where we see no use the fault is in our ignorance; for we have millions of years of work to do, before we can say that we have turned out all the knowledge that is locked up in this little cabinet we call our world. The marshes and low lands at a river’s mouth serve, we may say, as breakwaters for the protection of the inner country. If they were less open-minded there would be no “bore” in the Severn or the Hooghly.
When we feel inclined to pride ourselves on our great wisdom, let us think how very little they appeared to know of nature who lived in the world before us, and feel that the very rapidity with which new information is now pouring in will in the end tell of our ignorance more tales than of our wisdom, since it will cause us also hereafter to appear marvelously short-sighted in the eyes of those by whom our places will be taken. The tides to which we have been just referring, Kepler took for the respirations of earth, which he regarded as a living animal, and Blackmore attributed the eruptions of Mount Etna to fits of colic. We have pushed out into somewhat deeper soundings, but they still will deepen as we go, and of the sea of knowledge we may say too, as of the salt water sea, that there are parts of it which no man may ever expect to fathom.
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