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Young Folks' Library: Wonders of Earth, Sea and Sky
Edward Singleton Holden (Editor)
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(From Facts and Fictions of ZoÖlogy.)
When the country swain, loitering along some lane, comes to a standstill to contemplate,
with awe and wonder, the spectacle of a mass of the familiar "hair-eels" or "hair-worms"
wriggling about in a pool, he plods on his way firmly convinced that, as he has been
taught to believe, he has just witnessed the results of the transformation of some horse's
hairs into living creatures. So familiar is this belief to people of professedly higher
culture than the countryman, that the transformation just alluded to has to all, save a few
thinking persons and zoölogists, become a matter of the most commonplace kind. When
some quarrymen, engaged in splitting up the rocks, have succeeded in dislodging some
huge mass of stone, there may sometimes be seen to hop from among the débris a lively
toad or frog, which comes to be regarded by the excavators with feelings akin to those of
superstitious wonder and amazement. The animal may or may not be captured; but the
fact is duly chronicled in the local newspapers, and people wonder for a season over the
phenomenon of a veritable Rip Van Winkle of a frog, which to all appearance, has lived
for "thousands of years in the solid rock." Nor do the hair-worm and the frog stand alone
in respect of their marvellous origin. Popular zoölogy is full of such marvels. We find
unicorns, mermaids, and mermen; geese developed from the shell-fish known as
"barnacles"; we are told that crocodiles may weep, and that sirens can sing—in short,
there is nothing so wonderful to be told of animals that people will not believe the tale.
Whilst, curiously enough, when they are told of veritable facts of animal life, heads begin
to shake and doubts to be expressed, until the zoölogist despairs of educating people into
distinguishing fact from fiction, and truth from theories and unsupported beliefs. The
story told of the old lady, whose youthful acquaintance of seafaring habits entertained her
with tales of the wonders he had seen, finds, after all, a close application in the world at
large. The dame listened with delight, appreciation, and belief, to accounts of mountains
of sugar and rivers of rum, and to tales of lands where gold and silver and precious stones
were more than plentiful. But when the narrator descended to tell of fishes that were able
themselves out of the water in flight, the old lady's credulity began to fancy
itself imposed upon; for she indignantly repressed what she considered the lad's tendency
to exaggeration, saying, "Sugar mountains may be, and rivers of rum may be, but fish that
flee ne'er can be!" Many popular beliefs concerning animals partake of the character of
the old lady's opinions regarding the real and fabulous; and the circumstance tells
powerfully in favor of the opinion that a knowledge of our surroundings in the world, and
an intelligent conception of animal and plant life, should form part of the school-training
of every boy and girl, as the most effective antidote to superstitions and myths of every
The tracing of myths and fables is a very interesting task, and it may, therefore, form a
curious study, if we endeavor to investigate very briefly a few of the popular and
erroneous beliefs regarding lower animals. The belief regarding the origin of the hair-
worms is both widely spread and ancient. Shakespeare tells us that
"Much, is breeding
Which, like the courser's hair, hath, yet but life,
And not a serpent's poison."