Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  7 (1883–84), 731–45.

Nature's Serial Story Ch. 5  [5/13]

E P Roe


Novel, Serial

Relevant illustrations:

eng. [6]


Meteorology, Natural History, Botany, Microscopy, Horticulture, Breeding, Mathematics, Agriculture, Vitalism, Spontaneous Generation, Microbiology, Evolution, Darwinism, Unbelief, Creation, Periodicals, Theory, Natural Imperialism, Ornithology

People mentioned:

John Burroughs

    When Webb Clifford shows Amy Winfield some 'fruit germs' taken from a peach tree, she is 'astonished to find how perfect the embryo blossom appeared under the microscope', although Webb then goes on to show her the 'blackened heart of the bud' which 'needed no glass' to be seen. He explains that by 'killing the greater part of the buds' with spring frost, nature has in fact 'performed a very important labor for us' that will 'save us from thinning the fruit next summer' in order to produce a 'profitable crop of peaches'. (734) He also insists that 'buds are arranged spirally on trees in mathematical order', to which his brother Leonard exclaims, 'Oh, nonsense, Webb; you are too everlastingly scientific. Buds and leaves are scattered at hap-hazard all over the branches'. With the aid of 'slender shoots of peach, apple, and pear trees', however, Webb is able to prove to even Leonard's satisfaction that 'Nature, with all her seeming carelessness and abandon, works on strict mathematical principles'. (735) Later, the elderly Mrs Clifford declares, 'Seed catalogues, with their long lists of novelties, never lose their fascination for me' and expresses her 'love' for the 'almost endless diversity in beauty which one species of plants will exhibit', which prompts a discussion about the 'varying vitality of seeds' (736). Mrs Clifford reflects that 'Some say that certain fertilizers or conditions will produce certain kinds of vegetation without the aid of seeds—just develop them, you know', but her son Webb interjects that the only 'sensible answer is that all vegetation is developed from seeds, spores, or whatever was designed to continue the chain of being from one plant to another'. He continues, 'I am quite sure that there is not an instance on record of the spontaneous production of life, even down to the smallest animalcule in liquids, or the minutest plant life that is propagated by invisible spores. [...] Up to this time science has discovered nothing to contravene the assurance that God, or some one, "created every living creature that moveth, and every herb yielding seed after his kind". After a series of most careful and accurate experiments, Professor Tyndall could find no proof of the spontaneous production of even microscopic life, and found much proof to the contrary'. Webb goes on to claim that 'How far original creations are changed or modified by evolution, natural selection, are questions that are to be settled neither by dogmatism on the one hand nor by baseless theories on the other, but by facts, and plenty of them'. Mrs Clifford then asks her son, 'with some solicitude in her large eyes', whether 'there is anything atheistical in evolution?', and he replies reassuringly that 'If evolution is the true explanation of the world, as it now appears to us, it is no more atheistical than some theologies I have heard preached', for 'If God with His infinite leisure chooses to evolve His universe, why shouldn't He?'. The discussion is concluded by the decisive intervention of Mr Clifford, who reflects, 'I read much in the papers and magazines of theories and isms of which I never heard when I was young, but eighty years of experience have convinced me that the Lord reigns'. (737) When Burt later encounters an eagle that has been rendered immobile by the frost, he takes him proudly to Dr Marvin who as 'he was a skilful taxidermist [...] good-naturedly promised to "set the eagle up"' and 'kill him scientifically', for it was 'agreed that he would prove too dangerous a pet to keep' (742).


Roe 1885

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