Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/249

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
235
THE SEASON OF THE YEAR.

glaciers of mountain systems. And here we come face to face with the very core of our problem: for the odd part of it is that seasons (at least as we know them) seem to be quite a recent and exceptional phenomenon in the history of our planet. So far as we can judge, geologically speaking, the earth during all its earlier life enjoyed, over all its surface, what we should now consider tropical or subtropical conditions. England—or rather the land that occupied the part of the earth's crust where England now stands—had a vegetation of huge tree ferns and palms and cycads during the Primary period; as late even as the middle Tertiaries it had a vegetation like that of South Carolina or Upper India. Greenland itself, in quite recent times, nourished like a green bay tree, and did not belie its odd modern name. The world as a whole enjoyed perpetual summer: In one word, except in something like the equatorial sense, there were practically no seasons. The sun went north and south, no doubt, as now, but the temperature, even in the relative winter, seems to have remained perennially mild and genial.

It is true, occasional slight traces of glacial epochs, earlier than the great and well-known Glacial epoch, break here and there the almost continuous geological record of palmy and balmy world-wide summers; yet, taking the geological monuments as a whole, they show us few or no signs of anything worth calling a serious winter till quite recent periods. Large-leaved evergreens are still, in the day-bef ore-yesterday of geology, the order of the day; magnolias and liquidambars, cinnamons and holly oaks, vines and rotang palms formed the forests even of Miocene Britain. The animals during all the Tertiary period were of what we now regard as tropical or subtropical types—lions, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, monkeys, or more antique races, equally southern in aspect. There could have been little change of winter and summer during this long warm spell; the variations can have been scarcely more than those of dry and rainy seasons. The trees never lost their leaves; the fruits and flowers never ceased to follow one another; no interruption of the food supply drove insects to hibernate in their silken cocoons, or squirrels and bears to lay by stores of food or fat for the cold and hungry winter.

Nevertheless, taking the world round as it stands, we must believe that the distinction of seasons grew up, both for plants and animals, and for man or his ancestors, during this age of relatively unmarked summers and winters. For the tropics more than anywhere else preserve for us to-day the general features and aspect of this earlier time; they have never had the continuity of their stream of life rudely interrupted by the enormous changes of the Glacial epoch. Yet, even in the tropics, things, as we saw, have seasons.