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Jean Henri Fabre

The Nettle

A FTER dinner, while their uncle read under the chestnut tree, the children scattered in the garden. Claire attended to her cuttings, Jules watered his vases, and Emile—Ah, giddy-pate, what should happen to him but another misfortune! A large butterfly was flying over the weeds that grow at the foot of the wall. Oh, what a magnificent butterfly! On the upper side its wings are red, fringed with black, with big blue eyes; underneath they are brown with wavy lines. It alights. Good. Emile makes himself small, approaches softly on tip-toe, puts out his hand, and, all at once, the butterfly is gone. But mark what follows. Emile draws his hand back quickly; it smarts, is red. The pain increases and becomes so bad that the poor boy runs to his uncle, his eyes swollen with tears.

"A venomous creature has stung me!" he cries. "See my hand, Uncle! It smarts—oh, how it smarts! Some viper has bitten me!"

At this word viper, Uncle Paul started. He rose and looked at the injured hand. A smile came to his lips.

"Impossible, my little friend; there is no viper in the garden. What foolishness have you been committing? Where have you been?"

"I ran after a butterfly, and when I put out my hand to catch it on the weeds at the foot of the wall, something stung me. See!"

"It is nothing, my poor Emile; go and dip your hand into the cool water of the fountain, and the pain will go away."

Quarter of an hour later they were talking of Emile's accident, he being quite recovered from his misadventure.

"Now that the pain is gone, does not Emile want to know what stung him?" asked his uncle.

"I certainly ought to know, so as not to be caught another time."

"Well, it is a plant called nettle. Its leaves, stems, slightest branches are covered with a multitude of bristles, stiff, hollow, and filled with a venomous liquid. When one of these bristles penetrates the skin, the point breaks, the little vial of venom opens and spills its contents into the wound. From that comes a smarting but not dangerous pain. You see, the nettle's bristles act like the weapons of venomous creatures. It is always a hollow point that makes a fine wound in the skin, and passes a drop of liquid into it, the cause of all the ill. The nettle is thus a venomous plant.



"I will also tell Emile that the beautiful butterfly for which he thoughtlessly thrust his hand into the tuft of nettles is called the Vanessa Io. Its caterpillar is velvety black with white spots. It also bristles with thorns. It does not make a cocoon. Its chrysalis, ornamented with bands that shine like gold, is suspended in the air by the end of its tail. The caterpillar lives on the nettle, of which it eats the leaves, notwithstanding their venomous bristles."

"In browsing on the venomous plant, how does the caterpillar manage so as not to poison itself?" Claire inquired.

"My dear child, you confound venomous  with poisonous.Venomous  is said of a substance that, introduced into the blood by any kind of a wound, causes injury in the manner of the viper's venom. Poisonous  is said of a substance that, swallowed or introduced into the stomach, may cause death. Fatal drugs are poisonous: they kill if eaten or drunk. The liquid that flows from the viper's fangs and the scorpion's sting is venomous: it kills when it mixes with the blood; but it is not poisonous, for it can be swallowed with impunity. It is the same with the nettle's venom. So Mother Ambroisine gives the poultry chopped nettles, and the caterpillar of the Vanessa feeds without danger on the plant which, a little while ago, made Emile cry with pain. Of venomous plants we have in our country only nettles; but we have many poisonous plants that, when eaten, cause illness and even death, I must certainly tell you about them some day, so as to teach you to avoid them.

"The nettle's bristles remind me of the caterpillar's hairs. Many caterpillars have the skin quite bare. They are then perfectly inoffensive. They can be handled without any danger, however large they may be, even those that have horn at the end of the back. They are no more to be feared than the silkworm. Others have bodies all bristly with hairs, sometimes very sharp and barbed, which can lodge in the skin, leave their points there, and thus produce lively itchings or even painful swellings. It is well then to mistrust velvety caterpillars, particularly those living in companies on oaks and pines, in large silk nests, and called processionary caterpillars. But here we have a word that calls for another story."