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QUERCUS ALBA'S NEW SIGHT OF THE UPPER-WORLD

from The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children





It was a soft, helpless, little baby hand. Its folded fingers lay
listlessly in the fairy's gentle grasp. "Now we will go up," she said.
He had thought he was going down, and he had heard the chipping-birds
say he would never come back again. But he had no will to resist the
gentle motion, which seemed, after all, to be exactly what he wanted: so
he presently found himself lifted out of the dark earth, feeling the
sunshine again, and stirred by the breeze that rustled the dry leaves
that lay all about him. Here again were all his old companions,--the
chipping-birds, his cousins, old grandfather Rubra, and, best of all,
his dear mother. But the odd thing about it all was, that nobody seemed
to know him: even his mother, though she stretched her arms towards him,
turned her head away, looking here and there for her lost baby, and
never seeing how he stood gazing up into her face. Now he began to
understand why the chipping-birds said, "They never came back! they
never came back!" for they truly came in so new a form that none of
their old friends recognized them.

Every thing that has hands wants to work; that is, hands are such
excellent tools, that no one who is the happy possessor of a pair is
quite happy until he uses them: so Alba began to have a longing desire
to build a stem, and lift himself up among his neighbors. But what
should he build with? Here the little feet answered promptly, "You want
to build, do you? Well, here is carbon, the very best material; there is
nothing like it for walls; it makes the most beautiful, firm wood. Wait
a minute, and we will send up some that we have been storing for your
use."

And the busy hands go to work, and the child grows day by day. His body
and limbs are brown now, but his hands of a fine shining green. And,
having learned the use of carbon, these busy hands undertake to gather
it for themselves out of the air about them, which is a great storehouse
full of many materials that our eyes cannot see. And he has also learned
that to grow and to build are indeed the same thing: for his body is
taking the form of a strong young tree; his branches are spreading for a
roof over the heads of a hundred delicate flowers, making a home for
many a bushy-tailed squirrel and pleasant-voiced wood-bird. For, you
see, whoever builds cannot build for himself alone: all his neighbors
have the benefit of his work, and all enjoy it together.

What at the first was so hard to attempt, became grand and beautiful in
the doing; and little Alba, instead of serving merely for a squirrel's
breakfast, as he might have done had he not bravely ventured on his
journey, stands before us a noble tree, which is to live a hundred years
or more.

Do you want to know what kind of a tree?

Well, Lillie, who studies Latin, will tell you that Quercus means oak.
And now can you tell me what Alba's rustic cradle was, and who were his
cousins Rubra and Coccinea?

We all have our treasure-boxes. Misers have strong iron-bound chests
full of gold; stately ladies, pearl inlaid caskets for their jewels; and
even you and I, dear child, have our own. Your little box with lock and
key, that aunt Lucy gave you, where you have kept for a long time your
choicest paper doll, the peacock with spun-glass tail, and the robin's
egg that we picked up on the path under the great trees that windy day
last spring,--that is your treasure-box. I no less have mine; and, if
you will look with me, I will show you how the trees and flowers have
theirs, and what is packed away in them.

Come out in the orchard this September day, under the low-bowed peach-
trees, where great downy-cheeked peaches almost drop into our hands. Sit
on the grassy bank with me, and I will show you the peach-tree's
treasure-box.

What does the peach-tree regard as most precious? If it could speak in
words, it would tell you its seed is the one thing for which it cares
most; for which it has worked ever since spring, storing food, and
drinking in sunshine. And it is so dear and valued, because, when the
peach-tree itself dies, this seed, its child, may still live on, growing
into a beautiful and fruitful tree; therefore, the mother tree cherishes
her seed as her greatest treasure, and has made for it a casket more
beautiful than Mrs. Williams's sandal-wood jewel-box.

See the great crack where this peach broke from the bough. We will pull
it open; this is opening the cover of the outside casket. See how rich
was its outside color, but how wonderfully beautiful the deep crimson
fibres which cling about the hard shell inside. For this seed cannot be
trusted in a single covering; moreover, the inner box is locked
securely, and, I am sorry to say, we haven't the key: so, if I would
show you the inside, we must break the pretty box, with its strong,
ribbed walls, and then at last we shall see what the peach-tree's
treasure-box holds.

Here, too, are the apples, lying on the grass at our feet; we will cut
one, for it too holds the apple-tree's treasure. First comes the skin,
rosy and yellow, a pretty firm wrapping for the outside; but it
sometimes breaks, when a strong wind tosses the apples to the ground,
and sometimes the insects eat holes in it: so, if this were the only
covering, the treasure would hardly be very safe. Therefore, next we
come to the firm, juicy flesh of the apple,--seldom to be broken through
by a fall, not often eaten through by insects; but lest even this should
fail, we come at last, far in the middle, to horny sheaths, or cells,
built up together like a little fortress, surrounding and protecting the
brown, shining seeds, which we reach in the very centre of all.

One thing more let us look at before we leave the apple. Cut it
horizontally through the middle with a sharp knife, and try how thin and
smooth a slice you can make; hold it up to the light, and we shall see
something very beautiful. There in the centre of the round slice is the
delicate figure of a perfect apple-blossom, with all its petals spread;
for it was that lovely pink-and-white blossom from which the apple was
formed,--a tiny green ball at first, which you may see in the spring, if
you look where the blossoms have just fallen. As this little green apple
grew, it kept in its very heart always the image of the fair blossom;
and now that the fruit has reached this ripe perfection, we may still
see the same form.

The pears, too, the apricots and plums, you may see for yourselves; you
do not need me to tell their stories.

But come down to the garden, for there I have some of the oddest and
prettiest boxes to show. The pease and beans have long canoes, satin-
lined and waterproof. On what voyage they are bound, I cannot say.

The tall milk-weed that grew so fast all summer, and threatened to over-
run the garden, now pays well for its lodging by the exquisite treasure
which its rough-covered, pale-green bag holds. Press your thumb on its
closed edges; for this casket opens with a spring, and, if it is ripe
and ready, it will unclose with a touch, and show you a little fish,
with silver scales laid over a covering of long, silken threads, finer
and more delicate than any of the sewing-silk in your mother's work-box.
This silk is really a wing-like float for each scale; and the scales are
seeds, which will not stay upon the little fish, but long to float away
with their silken trails, and, alighting here and there, cling and seek
for a good place to plant themselves.

See, too, how the poppy has provided herself with a deep, round box of a
delicate brown color; the carved lid might have been made by the
Chinese, it looks so much like their fine work. Full to the brim, this
box is. The poppy is rich in the autumn; brown seeds by the hundred,
packed away for another year's use.

Here are the balsams,--touch-me-nots, we used to call them when I was a
child; for, Poor things, so slightly have they locked up their treasure,
that even the baby's little finger will open the rough-feeling oblong
casket with a snap and a spring, and send the jewels flying all over the
garden-bed, where you will scarcely be able to find them again.

Roses have beautiful round, red globes to hold their precious seeds; and
so firm and strong are they, that the winter winds and snows even do not
break or open them. I have found them dashed with sea-spray, or on dusty
roadsides; everywhere strong and safe, making the dullest day bright
with their cheery color.

If we go to the wet meadows and stream-sides, we shall find how the
scarlet cardinal has packed away its minute seeds in a pretty little box
with two or three partings inside; and the cowslip has a cluster of oval
bags as full as they can hold.

Among the rocks, hairballs have their tiny five-parted chests; and the
columbine, its standing group of narrow brown sacks, which show, if we
open them, hundreds of tiny seeds.

But in the woods, the oak has stored her treasures in the acorn; the
chestnut, in its bur which holds the nut so safely. The walnut and beech
trees have also their hard, safe caskets, and the boys who go nutting
know very well what is inside.

Autumn is the time to open these treasures. It takes all the spring and
summer to prepare them, and some even need all of September too, before
they are ready to open the little covers. But go into the garden and
orchard, into the meadows and woods, and you have not far to look before
finding enough to prove that the plants, no less than the children, have
treasures to keep, and often most charming boxes to keep them in.





Next: A PEEP INTO ONE OF GOD'S STOREHOUSES

Previous: THE UNDER-WORLD



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