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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Nature
By Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788)
 
From the ‘Natural History’

SO with what magnificence Nature shines upon the earth! A pure light extending from east to west gilds successively the hemispheres of the globe. An airy transparent element surrounds it; a warm and fruitful heat animates and develops all its germs of life; living and salutary waters tend to their support and increase; high points scattered over the lands, by arresting the airy vapors, render these sources inexhaustible and always fresh; gathered into immense hollows, they divide the continents.  1
  The extent of the sea is as great as that of the land. It is not a cold and sterile element, but another empire as rich and populated as the first. The finger of God has marked the boundaries. When the waters encroach upon the beaches of the west, they leave bare those of the east. This enormous mass of water, itself inert, follows the guidance of heavenly movements. Balanced by the regular oscillations of ebb and flow, it rises and falls with the planet of night; rising still higher when concurrent with the planet of day, the two uniting their forces during the equinoxes cause the great tides. Our connection with the heavens is nowhere more clearly indicated. From these constant and general movements result others variable and particular: removals of earth, deposits at the bottom of water forming elevations like those upon the earth’s surface, currents which, following the direction of these mountain ranges, shape them to corresponding angles; and rolling in the midst of the waves, as waters upon the earth, are in truth the rivers of the sea.  2
  The air, too, lighter and more fluid than water, obeys many forces: the distant action of sun and moon, the immediate action of the sea, that of rarefying heat and of condensing cold, produce in it continual agitations. The winds are its currents, driving before them and collecting the clouds. They produce meteors; transport the humid vapors of maritime beaches to the land surfaces of the continents; determine the storms; distribute the fruitful rains and kindly dews; stir the sea; agitate the mobile waters, arrest or hasten the currents; raise floods; excite tempests. The angry sea rises toward heaven and breaks roaring against immovable dikes, which it can neither destroy nor surmount.  3
  The land elevated above sea-level is safe from these irruptions. Its surface, enameled with flowers, adorned with ever fresh verdure, peopled with thousands and thousands of differing species of animals, is a place of repose; an abode of delights, where man, placed to aid nature, dominates all other things, the only one who can know and admire. God has made him spectator of the universe and witness of his marvels. He is animated by a divine spark which renders him a participant in the divine mysteries; and by whose light he thinks and reflects, sees and reads in the book of the world as in a copy of divinity.  4
  Nature is the exterior throne of God’s glory. The man who studies and contemplates it rises gradually towards the interior throne of omniscience. Made to adore the Creator, he commands all the creatures. Vassal of heaven, king of earth, which he ennobles and enriches, he establishes order, harmony, and subordination among living beings. He embellishes Nature itself; cultivates, extends, and refines it; suppresses its thistles and brambles, and multiplies its grapes and roses.  5
  Look upon the solitary beaches and sad lands where man has never dwelt: covered—or rather bristling—with thick black woods on all their rising ground, stunted barkless trees, bent, twisted, falling from age; near by, others even more numerous, rotting upon heaps already rotten,—stifling, burying the germs ready to burst forth. Nature, young everywhere else, is here decrepit. The land surmounted by the ruins of these productions offers, instead of flourishing verdure, only an incumbered space pierced by aged trees, loaded with parasitic plants, lichens, agarics—impure fruits of corruption. In the low parts is water, dead and stagnant because undirected; or swampy soil neither solid nor liquid, hence unapproachable and useless to the habitants both of land and of water. Here are swamps covered with rank aquatic plants nourishing only venomous insects and haunted by unclean animals. Between these low infectious marshes and these higher ancient forests extend plains having nothing in common with our meadows, upon which weeds smother useful plants. There is none of that fine turf which seems like down upon the earth, or of that enameled lawn which announces a brilliant fertility; but instead an interlacement of hard and thorny herbs which seem to cling to each other rather than to the soil, and which, successively withering and impeding each other, form a coarse mat several feet thick. There are no roads, no communications, no vestiges of intelligence in these wild places. Man, obliged to follow the paths of savage beasts and to watch constantly lest he become their prey, terrified by their roars, thrilled by the very silence of these profound solitudes, turns back and says:—  6
  Primitive nature is hideous and dying; I, I alone, can make it living and agreeable. Let us dry these swamps; converting into streams and canals, animate these dead waters by setting them in motion. Let us use the active and devouring element once hidden from us, and which we ourselves have discovered; and set fire to this superfluous mat, to these aged forests already half consumed, and finish with iron what fire cannot destroy! Soon, instead of rush and water-lily from which the toad compounds his venom, we shall see buttercups and clover, sweet and salutary herbs. Herds of bounding animals will tread this once impracticable soil and find abundant, constantly renewed pasture. They will multiply, to multiply again. Let us employ the new aid to complete our work; and let the ox, submissive to the yoke, exercise his strength in furrowing the land. Then it will grow young again with cultivation, and a new nature shall spring up under our hands.  7
  How beautiful is cultivated Nature when by the cares of man she is brilliantly and pompously adorned! He himself is the chief ornament, the most noble production; in multiplying himself he multiplies her most precious gem. She seems to multiply herself with him, for his art brings to light all that her bosom conceals. What treasures hitherto ignored! What new riches! Flowers, fruits, perfected grains infinitely multiplied; useful species of animals transported, propagated, endlessly increased; harmful species destroyed, confined, banished; gold, and iron more necessary than gold, drawn from the bowels of the earth; torrents confined; rivers directed and restrained; the sea, submissive and comprehended, crossed from one hemisphere to the other; the earth everywhere accessible, everywhere living and fertile; in the valleys, laughing prairies; in the plains, rich pastures or richer harvests; the hills loaded with vines and fruits, their summits crowned by useful trees and young forests; deserts changed to cities inhabited by a great people, who, ceaselessly circulating, scatter themselves from centres to extremities; frequent open roads and communications established everywhere like so many witnesses of the force and union of society; a thousand other monuments of power and glory: proving that man, master of the world, has transformed it, renewed its whole surface, and that he shares his empire with Nature.  8
  However, he rules only by right of conquest, and enjoys rather than possesses. He can only retain by ever-renewed efforts. If these cease, everything languishes, changes, grows disordered, enters again into the hands of Nature. She retakes her rights; effaces man’s work; covers his most sumptuous monuments with dust and moss; destroys them in time, leaving him only the regret that he has lost by his own fault the conquests of his ancestors. These periods during which man loses his domain, ages of barbarism when everything perishes, are always prepared by wars and arrive with famine and depopulation. Man, who can do nothing except in numbers, and is only strong in union, only happy in peace, has the madness to arm himself for his unhappiness and to fight for his own ruin. Incited by insatiable greed, blinded by still more insatiable ambition, he renounces the sentiments of humanity, turns all his forces against himself, and seeking to destroy his fellow, does indeed destroy himself. And after these days of blood and carnage, when the smoke of glory has passed away, he sees with sadness that the earth is devastated, the arts buried, the nations dispersed, the races enfeebled, his own happiness ruined, and his power annihilated.  9
 
 
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