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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/253

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THE SEASON OF THE YEAR.

an epoch at all (save for advanced astronomy) is almost or entirely due to that tilt of the earth's axis which causes the seasons—dry or wet, cold or hot. Without the seasons, in one form or other, we might have been ages longer in discovering the fact that the earth moved round the sun, and that some three hundred and sixty-five days (I omit those important fractions) were needed for its revolution. Certainly, without the seasons, at least to the extent that they occur in the tropics, plant and animal life could hardly have assumed its fixed annual cycles, nor could early men have caught at the idea of the year at all as a period of time, a unit of measurement.

Before the Glacial epoch, in particular, the discovery of the year, organically or consciously, must have been much more difficult than it is now in high latitudes. It must have been almost as difficult in what are now the temperate zones as it is to-day in the tropics. Far north or south, of course, the length of the day would tell; and within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles the long night would form an unmistakable feature. But if the plane of the equator had always found itself vertical to the sun, there could have been no recognition of the year at all, either organic or conscious. In other words, from the point of view of organic life, the year does not mean the revolution of the earth round the sun: it means the apparent northward and southward movement of the sun on either side of the equator; it means the seasons, whether recognized as winter and summer, or as dry and wet periods. That is really the year as man knows it, as plants and animals have always known it.

With the coming on of the great cold spell, however, the importance of the seasons in the temperate and frigid zones, perhaps also even in the tropics, became much more marked. I will not go here into the suggested reasons for that vast revolution, perhaps the greatest our planet has ever suffered. Most physicists now accept more or less the theory put forward with great ingenuity by Mr. Croll, which sets it down to a period of extreme eccentricity in the earth's orbit; but some weight must also be allowed, as Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace has clearly shown, to the local arrangement of land and water on the globe at the time of its origin, as well as to the occurrence of mountain ranges just then at the poles, and to other purely terrestrial causes. Never before, in all probability, had the poles been occupied by great glacier-clad mountains. It seems most likely, indeed, that we are now practically at the end of the Glacial epoch, and that if only we could once get rid of the polar ice caps, which keep a stock of chilliness always laid on (I speak the quite comprehensible language of everyday life), we might recur forthwith to the warm and almost imperceptible winters of the preglacial period. But, as things stand, the stock of ice at the poles never gets