The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre


M OTHER AMBROISINE called Claire. A friend had just come to see her to learn about an embroidery stitch that troubled her. At the request of Jules and Emile, however, Uncle Paul continued. He knew Jules would take pleasure in repeating the conversation to his sister.

"Flax, linen, and cotton, especially the last-named, have still another use of great importance. First they clothe us; then, when too ragged to use any more, they serve to make paper."

"Paper!" exclaimed Emile.

"Paper, real paper, that on which we write, of which we make books. The beautiful white sheets of your copybooks, the leaves of a book, even the costliest, gilt-edged and enriched with magnificent pictures, come to us from miserable rags.

"Despicable tatters are collected: some of them are picked up from the filth of the street, some are unspeakably filthy. They are sorted over, these for fine paper, those for coarse. They are thoroughly washed, for they need it. Now machines take them in hand. Scissors cut them, steel claws tear them, wheels make pulp of them and reduce them to shreds. Mill-stones take them and grind them still more, then triturate them in water, and convert them into a sort of soup. The pulp is gray, it must be whitened. Then recourse is had to powerful drugs, which attack everything they touch, and in less than no time make it white as snow. Behold the pulpy mass thoroughly purified. Other machines spread it in thin layers on sieves. Water drips through, and the rag soup forms into felt. Cylinders press this felt, others dry it, others give it a polish. The paper is finished.

"Before it became paper, the first material was rags, or cloth too tattered to use. How many uses has not this cloth served, and what energetic treatments has it not undergone before being cast out as rubbish! Washing with corrosive ashes, contact with acrid soup, pounding with a beetle, exposure to the sun, air, and rain. What is then this material which, in spite of its delicacy, resists the brutalities of washing, soap, sun, and air; which remains intact in the bosom of rottenness; which braves the machines and drugs of paper-making, and always comes out of these ordeals more supple and whiter, to become at last a sheet of paper, beautiful satiny paper, the confidant of our thoughts? You know now, my little friends, this admirable material, source of so much intellectual progress, comes to us from the flock of the cotton plant and the bark of hemp and flax."

"I am certainly going to surprise Claire," said Jules, "when I tell her that her beautiful prayer-book with the silver clasp was made from horrid rags, perhaps from ragged handkerchiefs thrown away for rubbish, or from tatters picked up from the mud of the street."

"Claire will be interested to learn the nature of paper; but, I am sure, the lowly origin of her prayer-book will not lessen the value of it in her mind. Skill performs a marvel in transforming despicable rags into a book, depository of noble thoughts. God, my dear child, does incomparably more in the miracle of vegetation. The filth of the dung-hill, when buried in the soil, becomes transformed into the most pleasing things in the world; for it becomes the rose, the lily, and other flowers. As for us, let us be like Claire's book and the flowers of the good God: let us try to have real value in ourselves, and let us never blush at our humble extraction. There is only one true greatness, only one true nobility: greatness and nobility of the soul. If we possess them, the merit is all the greater by reason of our lowly origin."