Page images
PDF
EPUB

the mere surface-knowledge of Nature in the country? The scarceness of books, and the mistake that much previous knowledge is necessary in order to begin to study Nature, are among the reasons. But the chief reason lies far deeper; in the habits of mental sloth, formed at the unreflecting period ; and in the fact that the mind at school is often turned away from outward things to mere books, by teachers who are mere book-men. How else can we account in the man for the absence of that habit of observation of the world without, which is so strong in the child ; to which in youth, the age of sensation, every thing invites ? How else can we account for the absence of taste for those intellectual pursuits, for which men are more generally fitted than for any other; a taste which combines the sweet with the useful; so simple, so pure, that next to religion, it seems to be the remedy appointed by God for sorrows, bad passions, and discontent? • Let me see,' says Mudie, 'is the exclamation ready on our lips, at the proposal of a question or a doubt.' Yet from the first ray of morning, which opens the eyes of the sleeper, to the last at night, which his eye-lids shut out, how countless, how wonderful the phenomena, which having eyes, men do not see; or seeing which, they do not reflect upon, uor understand !

The morning light; the coloring of the clouds; the rising sun; the ascending mist; the mountain and valley ; tree and flower; beasts and birds; the breeze, felt and heard, but not seen ; the storm and calm; heat and cold ; snow and rain; fire and flood ; music and odors; silence and sound; taste and touch ; motion and rest; darkness and night; moon and stars. What more mysterious than this train of familiar realities? What more fitted to enlarge the mind, than the contemplation of these innumerable and diverse things ? What better to strengthen it, than to study their laws and conditions ? What to quicken it, purify it with awe, chasten it with a sense of its weakness, and lift it with hope, than the revelation that we live in the midst of beneficent and fearful powers, the beginnings only of which we see, and which end in His hands, from whom we come and to whom we go!

And then, when we rest our attention on any one of this vast multitude, what fields open for exploration, patient thought, silent wonder! It matters not which we select. All are amazing! We fix upon a blade of grass. In the first place there is its beauty to the eye. To how many thoughts and feelings has that given birth, in the separate minds which have contemplated it! Then it is food for cattle, and thence for man. Each component particle passes into infinite forms. It is continually taking up parts of the earth in the shape of moisture, and depositing parts of itself; inhaling gases, and giving them out. It has its circulation and its locomotion. Its seed is wafted miles, for which purpose it is enclosed in a case to protect it from harm, and in some plants supplied with wings. It is the home to myriads of insects, which perhaps live and die without quitting their native plant, to them a world. Its colors and coloring properties offer study to the chemist; its virtues and poisons to the physician!

What to common eyes more unlike than the rusting of metals; the formation of acids; the burning of inflammable bodies; the breath

ing of animals, and the growth of plants by night? What more exciting to find, than that the huge piston of the old steam engine descends, and the fly crawls on the window; the lizards creep on the walls, and the monstrous sea-horse climbs the ice-hills; by the same power which causes the quicksilver to stand in the weather-glass ; the water to rise in the pump, and the wind to whistle through the keyhole ? What more curious, than that the seed of plants must germipate in the dark, and yet that light is essential to their putting into leaf and flower ? What opens more worlds of thought, than that while the sun is commonly considered the source of light, yet that the Mosaic account makes light to exist before the sun; and that the researches of modern science tend to confirm this order; to show that light is concerned in crystalization, and is probably an active agent in the formation of all things ?

We see the enormous interval,' says Herschel, “between the stars and planets of the Heavens, which afford room for innumerable processes to be carried on, for light and heat to circulate, and for curious and complicated motions to go forward among them: we look more attentively, and we see sidereal systems, probably not less vast and complicated than our own, crowded apparently into a small space, from the effect of their distance from us, and forming groups resembling bodies of a substantial appearance, having form and outline: yet we recoil with incredulous surprise, when we are asked, why we cannot conceive the atoms of a grain of sand to be as remote from each other, proportionally to their sizes, as the stars of the firmament; and why there may not be going on in that little microcosm, processes as complicated and wonderful as those of the great world around us.'

A soap manufacturer remarks, that the residuum of his ley, when exhausted of the alkali for which he employs itself, produces a corrosion of his copper boiler, for which he cannot account, He puts it into the hands of a scientific chemist for analysis, and the result is the discovery of one of the most singular and important chemical elements, iodine. The properties of this being studied, are found to occur most appositely in illustration and support of a variety of new, curious, and instructive views, then gaining ground in chemistry, and thus exercise a marked influence over the whole body of that science. Curiosity is excited; the origin of the new substance is traced to the sea-plant from whose ashes the principal ingredient of soap is obtained, and ultimately to the sea-water itself. It is thence hunted through nature, discovered in salt mines and springs, and pursued into all bodies which have a marine origin, among the rest into sponge. A medical practitioner then calls to mind a reputed remedy for the cure of one of the most grievous and unsightly disorders to which the human species is subject — the GOITRE ; which infests the inhabitants of mountainous districts to an extent that, in this favored land, we have happily no experience of, and which was said to have been originally cured by the ashes of burnt sponge. Led by this indication, he tries the effect of iodine on that complaint, and the result establishes the extraordinary fact, that this singular substance, taken as a medicine, acts with the utmost promptitude and energy on the goitre; dissipating the largest and most inveterate in a short time,

and acting (of course like all medicines, even the most approved, with occasional failures) as a specific or natural antagonist against that odious deformity. It is thus that any accession to our knowledge of nature is sure, sooner or later, to make itself felt in some practical application, and that a benefit conferred on science by the casual observation or shrewd remark of even an unscientific or illiterate person, infallibly repays itself with interest, though in a way that could never have been at first contemplated.'

But it is not the object of this article to sketch the advantages of science. Viewing it as one of the departments of study peculiarly appropriate to the country, by a passing notice of some of its features we would simply awaken an interest in it proportionate to its importance.

In this connexion, there is a view of it .which must not be overlooked : its effect to liberalize the mind. Not merely to wean it from base passions; that is the effect of most study; but to free it from unworthy prejudices; to bring it out of that state in which we are all so apt to regard our world of thought as the universe; and the opinions we have espoused of the truth, as the only ones worthy of the name. In other words, to dogmatize, whether in religion, morals, or politics. This is a fault to which society in our country is peculiarly prone, owing to our known interest in these questions ; the superficial education of the most, and the thorough education of few, if any. Hence, while all form opinions, all urge them with that warmth and intolerance which is rarely the characteristic of the wisdom that has sounded the depths, and felt the real difficulties at the bottom, of the most interesting subjects which divide the human mind. For however confident the wise man is, that he has arrived at the truth, he sees enough even of truth blended with his neighbor's errors, and of perplexities with his own convictions, not certainly to shake his conclusions, but to cause him to sympathize with every truth-seeker; to make allowance, where be cannot assent, and to hold his own opinions with a charity which never faileth.

Now an admirable corrective for this intolerance of opinion, which is peculiarly the tyrant of our country, is the study of Natural Science, Its subjects are removed from all that inflames, and takes their student into the pure regions of thought. They dwell, like the stars, in those depths which know no storms. But not only does Natural Science teach caution, moderation, humility, by the serenity of its pursuits — by virtue of its calm comtemplative eye. In the wonders which it unfolds, it prepares the mind to admit more wonders; to welcome light; and to discard a spirit which would limit truth by its own previous conceptions.

It is in this spirit that Sir Humphrey Davy finely remarks, that • the deep philosopher sees chains of causes and effects so wonderfully and strangely linked together, that he is usually the last person to decide upon the impossibility of any two series of events being independent of each other; and in science, so many natural miracles, as it were, have been brought to light, such as the fall of stones from meteors in the atmosphere, the disarming of a thunder-bolt by a metallic point, the production of fire from ice by a metal white as silver, and referring certain laws of motion of the sea to the moon,

that the physical inquirer is seldom disposed to enlarge confidently on any abstruse subject belonging to the order of natural things, and still less so on those relating to the more mysterious relations of moral events and intellectual natures.

Sir John Herschel, in his discourse on Natural Philosophy, has the following paragraph in point :

• In Captain Head's amusing and vivid description of his journey across the Pampas of South America,' says Herschel, ‘his guide one day suddenly stopped, and, pointing high into the air, cried out, 'A Lion!. Surprised at such an exclamation, accompanied with such an act, he turned up his eyes, and with difficulty perceived, at an immeasurable height, a flight of condors soaring in circles in a particular spot. Beneath that spot, far out of sight of himself or guide, lay the carcass of a lion, whom the condors were eyeing with envy from their airy height. The signal of the birds was to him, what the sight of the lion alone could have been to the traveller, a full assurance of its existence.' Thus science teaches a man to deny nothing because unknown to bim; to look beyond the obvious, oftentimes, for the explanation of what he sees; and to discover relations where he least expected them.

Now compare for one moment that man's means of virtue and happiness, who habitually exercises his eyes and his mind; who observes, studies, ponders, all that he sees; who opens the avenues of his soul to the blessings of knowledge; with that of the man who shuts them ; who makes this a working world, or a playing world, an eating and sleeping world, but not a world to grow wise in; not a world where above, below, and on all sides ; in lying down and rising up; in the house and by the wayside ; toiling or at rest in light, freedom, purity; are angels hovering around, whom he may, if he will, make his guests. Is there not many a man, to whom in vain the stars of heaven rise and set, and this ball of earth turns, with its atmosphere of storm and calm ; to whom in vain 'the sweet approach of morn or even; the sight of vernal bloom, and summer's rose, and charm of early birds ?'

A prism would teach him to comprehend something of those glories which kindle the clouds, and at times almost paint in the sky the throne of the Eternal. But he has no taste for such things, and he cares not to look through a prism. A little more study would explain to him the treasures of the air, the dew, the snow, and the rain. But of what avail study to him, when the rain descends, and the winds blow, whether he study or not?

Perhaps he might be curious to trace the same substance in the glittering diamond, and in the brand burning in his chimney; and to obtain some evidence of the affinities between the lightning, which at one moment plays harmless in a summer sky, in the next descends to blast and to burn, and that mysterious nervous power, which swift as thought moves his muscles and limbs at his bidding. But no; he cares for none of these things. Such a man lives and breathes outwardly: the air and the sunshine, the lungs and the arteries, do their part; but as for the life of the soul, growing knowledge ; virtue; an approving conscience; they are not in him. What Dr. CHANNING says of such a man, in relation to the next world, is true of him in this : ‘A human being who has lived without self-improvement, can

no more enjoy it, than a mouldering body, lifted from the tomb, and placed amid beautiful prospects, can enjoy the light through its decayed eyes, or feel the balmy air which blows away its dust."

But men so untrue to themselves and society, are becoming rarer every day. Under divine Providence, Science with its startling discoveries is sending home to the heart, with new force, the voice of Nature; and both are aiding Revelation. The effect of superficial knowledge, the world over, is to incline men to skepticism. But the deeper science of the present day is dispersing those mechanical notions which sprang from the imperfect developments of Philosophy.

In the mean time, those active studies, active in reference both to body and mind, the Natural Sciences, so well adapted to the ardor of youth, and the strength of manhood, supply proper objects to the contemplations of declining life. The eye, too dim to read the holy page, still sees what so often recurs on that

page, the images of God's love in nature, and thereby helps the thoughts to Heaven. The prayer of the poet well describes many hoary saint:

'And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,,
Where I may sit, and rightly spell
Of every star that Heaven doth show,
And every herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain

To something of prophetic strain.'
The Natural Sciences have been dwelt

upon,

because the country is the place for pursuing many of them. The country offers peculiar advantages, likewise, for studying history and letters, and contri. buting to these departments. But knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom consists in ascertaining truth, and acting it out; not merely in knowing it, but in being it. Knowledge is compatible with folly, impertinence, all evil. desires, and all crimes. A man may speak all tongues, yet never speak the truth. He may know all plants, from

the cedar, to the hyssop that grows on the wall,' and yet make an idol under every green tree.

Like Goldsmith, he may unite the delightful powers of a writer, with more than feminine incapacity for the affairs of life; the genius of Byron, with his profligacy and self-scourging misanthropy. His acquisitions and talents may be curses, not blessings; the foundation of responsibilities, not of hopes.

A college, too, may boast of the library of the Ptolemies, and learning, after all, nod in its alcoves. Its influences may deaden all that is free and spontaneous in effort; measuring it by the square of critics, instead of the souls of men. Charity in cities may rear her monumental piles, and endow them with the munificence of princes. Yet she, too = warm, impulsive, heaven-born Charity — may degenerate into a cold, mechanical, political economy. Her life may be crushed beneath a system.

For these reasons it is, that the country, in its freedom from a thousand noxious influences, is so favorable to becoming wise. There is an air in cities, more pestilent than pent up vapors.

It is the atmosphere of vice. There is a glare there, worse than the outward dazzle of tinsel life. It blinds the eye to truth. There is a

14

VOL. XVI.

« PreviousContinue »