Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/631

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611
TO EAT AND TO BE EATEN.

those high-strung creatures who can not, like these plants, live on rock, dust, water, and air, but must have their victuals ready cooked and served.

Look at the throng of vegetarians! Here is man, daintily plucking the luscious fruits and juicy berries, the rich seeds and fat roots, and extracting sugars and wines, vinegars and spices, to make his meal palatable. Yonder are the hosts of the cloven-footed, perfectly content to grow fat upon leaves and grasses. And here are armies of humbler guests—cherry-pecking birds, honey-sucking bees, leaf-eating grubs, that convert the waving banner of a leafing tree into one great spider-web, and then perchance go to sleep in hammocks of silk; carpenters and miners who bore into the hard wood itself, and leave behind them long, winding galleries that look like the lanes and alleys of an Old World city; locusts, army-worms, and potato-bugs that ruin man's harvests; and millions of centipeds and millepeds, ticks, mites, and gnats, that suck the living juices and fatten on the palatable meat of the tree.

But all this is only the beginning of the feast. What we call death is only, in another sense, the spring-tide of life. The leaves fall and rot, the grass decays, but not to return to the inorganic world. They are dished up as food for new waving fields and flaunting leaves. In the chemical balance of Nature part of this nutriment bears down its side of the scale into the lifeless world, yielding force to lift the nutriment in the other scale back again into the circle of life.

And when the great tree dies, what then? Its dead body is but a vast nursery of life. The long, lithe, twisting and clinging parasites, that have drunk its blood while alive, are replaced by flat lichens, umbrella-like fungi, and luxuriant mosses, which feast on its decaying trunk; while borers, chiselers, and miners do their part in transforming the great dead mass. again into living forms.

And when it drops into a heap of decaying vegetable flesh, what new hosts of life batten upon it! And when the earth takes back the ruins of the dead giant beneath her generous breast, it is not to keep them there. They have too much vitality left for that. They climb to the air and the sunlight again in grasses and ferns and airy little plants. They blossom into flowers, eye-gladdening, honey-yielding, color-mad clumps of bloom, from which not alone the bee drinks sweets.

Thus is the fallen tree transformed into multitudinous life, bursting above the soil in new generations of beauty, until scarce a shred remains that does not live again. And creeping rootlets of trees hunt these last fragments underground, and crawling, flexible worms eagerly swallow the earth itself, and digest from it the stray crumbs of the old tree that are mixed throughout the soil.

Nor have we yet got to the bottom of this cycle of vegetable life. There are worlds, solar systems of life beneath all this, dwelling far