Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Relation between the Tropic of Cancer
and the Planting of the Garden

by John W. Spencer

A portion of a letter to apprentice gardeners from Uncle John, published as a supplement to the Home Nature-Study Course Leaflet, for April-May, 1907.

A Story To Be Read to the Pupils

In years gone by, many farmers had a favorite phase of the moon when they planted certain crops, usually spoken of as the "dark" or the "light" of the moon. I once knew a woman who picked her geese by the "sign of the moon." Hogs were butchered in the "light" of the moon, and then the pork would not "fry away" so much in the skillet. It is true some pork from some hogs wastes faster than that of others, but the difference is due to the kind of food given the hogs. Many farmers hold to those old superstitions yet, but the number is much less now than twenty-five years ago. I wish I might impress on you young agriculturists that the moon has no influence on plant life, or pork, or geese, but the position of the sun most decidedly has. We have some plants that had best be planted when the sun's rays strike the state of New York slantingly, which means in early spring or late fall. We have other plants that should not be put in the open ground until the rays of the sun strike the state more direct blows, which means the hotter weather of summer. If I were in close touch with you pupils, I should be glad to tell some things that happen to three young friends of mine, hoping that thereby my statement might give the boys and girls an interest in three geographical lines concerning the tropics, and lead them to find their location on the map, particularly when later they learn what happens to my three young friends, whom we will call by the following names: There is one in Quito, Ecuador, of whom we will speak as Equator Shem; the one on the Island of Cuba is named Tropic of Cancer Ham; and the other in San Paulo, Brazil, answers to the name of Tropic of Capricorn Japhet.

What happens to these three boys, Shem, Ham and Japhet, is this. At certain times of the year they have no shadow when they go home for dinner at noon. This state of affairs is no fault of theirs. It is not because they are too thin to make shadows. It is due to the position of the sun. If the boys should look for that luminary at noon, they would find it as directly over their heads as a plumb line. It is a case of direct or straight blows from rays of the sun, and, oh, how hot—hotter than any Fourth of July the oldest inhabitant can remember! These three boys are not hit squarely on the head on one and the same day. Each is hit three months after the other. The first boy to be hit this year in the above manner will be the Equator Shem. The time will be during the last half of March. Can any of my young friends in this grade tell me the exact day of March that Equator Shem has no shadow? If no one of you can answer that question at this time, you had best talk it over with your friends, and bring your answers tomorrow. It happens at a time when our days are of about equal length.

Another thing about this particular day is that our almanacs call it the first day of spring. All because no boy or anything else has a shadow on the equator at noon time. People and bluebirds and robins in the state of New York will see squalls of snow about that time, and there will be some freezing nights. But after the first day of spring the cold storms do not last so long, as was the case during December, January, and early February, when the sun's rays hit us with very glancing blows. Watch to see how much faster the sun melts the snow on the last days of March than it did at Christmas time. The light is also stronger and brighter, and plants in greenhouses and our homes have more life, and are not so shiftless, so to speak. Even the hens feel the influence, for they begin to lay more eggs and cackle, and down goes the price of eggs. Do not forget to learn what day in March spring begins, when the Equator boy finds it so hot that he would like to take off his flesh, and sit in his bones. After a few days, Equator Shem will find he again has a shadow at noon. A short one it is true, but it will get longer and longer each day. Now his shadow will be on the south side of him. Is this a queer thing to happen? On which side of you is your noon-time shadow? I will give every one of you a red apple that finds it anywhere but on the north side of him at twelve o'clock. Every time the sun shines at noon, watch to find your old uncle in the wrong, and thereby get the apple. Each day that the shadow of Equator Shem becomes longer and longer, the noon-day shadow of Tropic of Cancer Ham, living on the Island of Cuba, will be getting shorter and shorter, until at last there comes a day during the last of June that he, too, will have no shadow, and the almanac says that that day is the beginning of summer.

Now it will be the turn of the Tropic of Cancer, Ham, on the Island of Cuba, to say the weather is hotter than two Fourths of July beat into one, and he too will wish that he could take off his flesh, and sit in his bones. Everybody in the state of New York will say that the first summer day is the longest day of the year. It is on this day that Equator Shem will have as long a shadow as he  ever had in his life. No United States boy will ever be without a shadow at noon so long as he remains in his own country. When the eight o'clock curfew bell says it is time for boys and girls to go to bed, it will yet be light enough to read the papers. The sun not only sets late on that first summer day, but it appears early next morning. What a beautiful spectacle a sunrise in June is! Men of wealth will pay thousands of dollars for pictures showing its glory, yet I suppose that not one boy in five hundred ever saw the beauty of the birth of a new day in the sixth month of the year, and with no price of admission at that.

For only one day do the sun's rays fall directly on top of the head of Tropic of Cancer Ham, who lives on the Island of Cuba—just for one day, after which the up and down rays travel back towards the Equator Shem. On the twenty-first of September Shem again has no shadow at noon, and the almanac makers say that is the last day of summer, and tomorrow will be the first day of autumn. Again it is very hot where Shem lives, but the alligators and monkeys and the parrots do not seem to mind it. Where do the up and down rays of the sun go next? They keep going south, hunting for the boy named Tropic of Capricorn Japhet, to warm him  up, as was the case with the boys in Cuba and at the Equator. The up and down rays do not find the top of the head of the lad in the City of San Paulo, Brazil until the last part of December, just four days before Christmas, and then the almanac says this is the beginning of winter, and the shorter days of the year, when we in the state of New York light the lamp at five o'clock in the afternoon. Now, my boys and girls, do you understand why we have a change of seasons? Do you understand that the sun changes his manner of pitching his rays at us? That in winter, when he is over the head of the Tropic of Capricorn Japhet in San Paulo, and making summer on that part of the earth, to us people in the north, in the State of New York, he pitches only slanting rays that do not hit us hard, and have but little power? Thus you will see that the rays of the sun that strike the earth direct blows, swing back and forth like a pendulum, year after year, and century after century, coming north as far as Tropic of Cancer Shem, but no farther, and then swinging south as far as the boy named Tropic of Capricorn Japhet, and no farther, just stopping and swinging back again towards the north.

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