Breath of Life

Breath of Life
Catalog # SKU1292
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.50 lbs
Author Name John Burroughs


Breath of Life

John Burroughs

As life nears its end with me, I find myself meditating more and more upon the mystery of its nature and origin, yet without the least hope that I can find out the ways of the Eternal in this or in any other world. In these studies I fancy I am about as far from mastering the mystery as the ant which I saw this morning industriously exploring a small section of the garden walk is from getting a clear idea of the geography of the North American Continent. But the ant was occupied and was apparently happy, and she must have learned something about a small fraction of that part of the earth's surface.


If life itself is not a force or a form of energy, yet behold what energy it is capable of exerting! It seems to me that Sir Oliver Lodge is a little confusing when he says in a recent essay that "life does not exert force-not even the most microscopical force-and certainly does not supply energy." Sir Oliver is thinking of life as a distinct entity-something apart from the matter which it animates. But even in this case can we not say that the mainspring of the energy of living bodies is the life that is in them?

Apart from the force exerted by living animal bodies, see the force exerted by living plant bodies. I thought of the remark of Sir Oliver one day not long after reading it, while I was walking in a beech wood and noted how the sprouting beechnuts had sent their pale radicles down through the dry leaves upon which they were lying, often piercing two or three of them, and forcing their way down into the mingled soil and leaf-mould a couple of inches. Force was certainly expended in doing this, and if the life in the sprouting nut did not exert it or expend it, what did?

When I drive a peg into the ground with my axe or mallet, is the life in my arm any more strictly the source (the secondary source) of the energy expended than is the nut in this case? Of course, the sun is the primal source of the energy in both cases, and in all cases, but does not life exert the force, use it, bring it to bear, which it receives from the universal fount of energy?

Life cannot supply energy de novo, cannot create it out of nothing, but it can and must draw upon the store of energy in which the earth floats as in a sea. When this energy or force is manifest through a living body, we call it vital force; when it is manifest through a mechanical contrivance, we call it mechanical force; when it is developed by the action and reaction of chemical compounds, we call it chemical force; the same force in each case, but behaving so differently in the one case from what it does in the other that we come to think of it as a new and distinct entity. Now if Sir Oliver or any one else could tell us what force is, this difference between the vitalists and the mechanists might be reconciled.

Darwin measured the force of the downward growth of the radicle, such as I have alluded to, as one quarter of a pound, and its lateral pressure as much greater. We know that the roots of trees insert themselves into seams in the rocks, and force the parts asunder. This force is measurable and is often very great. Its seat seems to be in the soft, milky substance called the cambium layer under the bark. These minute cells when their force is combined may become regular rock-splitters.

One of the most remarkable exhibitions of plant force I ever saw was in a Western city where I observed a species of wild sunflower forcing its way up through the asphalt pavement; the folded and compressed leaves of the plant, like a man's fist, had pushed against the hard but flexible concrete till it had bulged up and then split, and let the irrepressible plant through. The force exerted must have been many pounds. I think it doubtful if the strongest man could have pushed his fist through such a resisting medium. If it was not life which exerted this force, what was it? Life activities are a kind of explosion, and the slow continued explosions of this growing plant rent the pavement as surely as powder would have done. It is doubtful if any cultivated plant could have overcome such odds. It required the force of the untamed hairy plant of the plains to accomplish this feat.

That life does not supply energy, that is, is not an independent source of energy, seems to me obvious enough, but that it does not manifest energy, use energy, or "exert force," is far from obvious. If a growing plant or tree does not exert force by reason of its growing, or by virtue of a specific kind of activity among its particles, which we name life, and which does not take place in a stone or in a bar of iron or in dead timber, then how can we say that any mechanical device or explosive compound exerts force? The steam-engine does not create force, neither does the exploding dynamite, but these things exert force. We have to think of the sum total of the force of the universe, as of matter itself, as a constant factor, that can neither be increased nor diminished. All activity, organic and inorganic, draws upon this force: the plant and tree, as well as the engine and the explosive-the winds, the tides, the animal, the vegetable alike. I can think of but one force, but of any number of manifestations of force, and of two distinct kinds of manifestations, the organic and the inorganic, or the vital and the physical,-the latter divisible into the chemical and the mechanical, the former made up of these two working in infinite complexity because drawn into new relations, and lifted to higher ends by this something we call life.

315+ pages - 8 x 5 inches SoftCover


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