Thursday, November 26, 2009

Earth, Sea, and Sky!

Our book today is Earth, Sea, and Sky by Henry Davenport Northrup, and it's a compendium of "the Marvels of the Universe" published by L. P. Miller & Co. in 1887 - or, as its own advertisement puts it:



of all that is wonderful in every continent of the globe, in the world of waters and the starry heavens



Renowned discoveries of the world's greatest explorers in all ages, and remarkable phenomena in every realm of nature



The peculiar characteristics of the human race, of animals, birds, insects, etc., including a vivid description of the


And of the polar seas, the monsters of the deep, beautiful sea-shells and plants, singular fishes and dwellers in the world of waters, remarkable ocean currents, etc.

together with the:


the whole comprising a:


in earth, sea, air, and skies.

(and lest any of you think that's laying things on a bit thick, keep in mind this book was printed long before the idea of dust jackets on which could be printed catchy advertising copy designed to give prospective buys a quick, enticing idea of what the volume contains - those first fifteen browsing seconds are absolutely crucial to snaring a potential buyer, a fact publishers understood better 150 years ago than they do today, I assure you)

Not that Earth, Sea, and Sky didn't have ample charms to recommend it quite apart from whatever breathless copy some publisher's clerk could dream up - if only my pitiful scanning technology allowed you to see even the glories of the thing's cover, before age and mold and dirt got to it. Even now, you can vaguely see in the upper right hand corner a perched peacock whose tail drapes down the right-hand side of the cover. Now, in 2009, it's all faded into a muddy sea-green, but back then, the bird, the branch, and especially the tail were emblazoned with color, and the "eyes" of the peacock's tail were inset deep into the cover itself, glazed with glitter that once looked like it would never fade (the designers reckoned without the dedicated licking of roughly fourteen generations of beagles, I'm guessing).

Information was a lure, too, and by the standards of the time, this book was positively loaded with it. Every family and phylum of animal is represented not only with factual summaries but with plenty of anecdotes and thrilling stories. Primitive and aboriginal peoples, alas, are also featured - the book's generally excellent engravings aren't particularly flattering here, and the sub-headings are discouraging: "Savage Treachery," "Frightful Savage Ferocity," "Hideous War Dances," "Curious Belief in Witchcraft," "A Barbarous Dagger," and, at the appropriate latitudes, "Remarkable Female Beauty" ... the idea here is definitely that the white nations of Northern Europe and America represent something distinctly separate from "every realm of nature" - and that nobody else does.

Of course half the allure of re-visiting such a book as this nowadays is the fun of encountering the limits of scientific knowledge at the time. Northrup is fascinated by the world of microscopic and almost-microscopic life, for instance, and he keeps returning to the wonders of "animacules" found in profusion in a single drop of water:

Some of the animacules are visible to the naked eye as moving points, though the smallest are not more than the 24,000th of an inch in diameter, a single drop of water having been estimated to contain many thousands of them. They were formerly supposed to be little more than mere particles of matter endowed with vitality; but Ehrenberg has discovered in them an apparatus of muscles, intestines, teeth, different kinds of glands, eyes, nerves, and organs of reproduction. They not only propagate by eggs, but by self-division; and are the most reproductive of all organized bodies. They possess a comparatively long life, and in general maintain themselves pretty uniformly against all external influence, as do larger animals. As far as is yet known, they appear to be sleepless.

We who regularly hear new wonder-tales about the sub-atomic world can think ourselves well-stocked on animacules,and we no doubt crack a similar kind of smile when Northrup concludes an account of a man bitten by a poisonous snake by saying, "Galvanism was tried, but it had no effect."

But the sheer sense of wonder here isn't contemptible - this is a long book that never ceases to be amazed by the "marvels" it's describing, starting with those that are no longer among us ... for a book published in 1887, there's quite a bit of excellent stuff here on dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals, and all of it wonderfully animated:

In those ages so long passed away, when such monstrous creatures lurked among the reed-like plants of the rivers, and the forests of strange trees were haunted by reptiles of still more vast dimensions, how different must the aspect of the country been from what it is now!

And the world of purebred dogs isn't neglected, as this description makes clear:

Its body, like an enormous barrel supported on four thick pillars, almost touches the ground; the head is ponderous; the muzzle swollen; and the great, thick lips studded with wire-like bristles ...

(ooops ... that's actually a description of a hippo, not a ... well, anyway, my apologies ...)

Naturally, the book is at its most speculative when dealing with other worlds. As little as Northrup's sources knew about the ocean's depths or the beasts of the Pliocene, they knew quite a bit less about extraterrestrial matters - although again, the accounts given here are shot though with exactly the same kind of burning curiosity that would quickly advance the sciences necessary to reveal more answers. Northrup writes that Jupiter and Saturn have "four to eight" satellites where Earth has only one, and he sees the story of the moon in far more dramatic terms than we currently allow (mainly because he sees the craters on that body as extinct volcanoes rather than the remnants of meteor impacts):

Whilst gravitation was regulating its form and path, the moon, in the course of thousands of years, exhausted its fires and began to show us at last its pale and silvery face, the sad luminary of our nights, the splendid nocturnal mirror which reflects to us, pale and cold, the divergent rays of the sun.

And the relative proximity of the moon puts the same kinds of thoughts in Northrup's head as it would put in the heads of much later generations of engineers and physicists, although those thoughts are inevitably couched in late 19th century terms:

The distance from the earth to the moon is about 237,000 miles. If it were possible to get there by means of steam, it would require one year and about three hundred and twenty-two days for a locomotive starting from our globe and traveling at a high rate of speed to reach the moon and land its passengers ...

(I'm not mathematically inclined, but what I wouldn't give to do the math on that paragraph and figure out what Northrup considered a "high rate of speed" - no more than 40 m.p.h., I'd guess)

This great big book ultimately acts as a thin, quick snapshot of its era - as all such books inevitably are. Re-reading it, I couldn't help but wonder what boneheaded miscomprehensions the gentle folk of 2145 will chuckle over in our very latest DK and Princeton guides to the world around us. I think we'll be lucky if we, too, are excused by a genuine and overpowering sense of wonder in all our questions, regardless of our answers.


Lisa said...

Ohh, my kinda thing. Nice.

Anonymous said...

I fell in love with this book as a child at my Great Grandmother's home The gilding and images always left me eagerly waiting for the day when I could read. When that day I came I was heart broken to find that Gran-ma had bequeathed to me a sales copy - full of partial chapters in multiple print type, languages and binding samples. It took me nearly 30 years to finally find the full text. I hope you enjoyed it as much I did (and still do!)

If you like the eclectic, give "Journey to the West" a try. A 1,500 year old Chinese epic that is considered one of the 3 greatest works of Chinese literature... though originally written for parents to read to their children.

Anonymous said...

How much is this book worth? Um trying to sell mine.