The Layman’s Library
There was a time when it was not easy for the farmer to know the nature of science, or to stay abreast of modern – or even more ancient – history. His library consisted of the Bible, Magner’s Farm and Stock Book and Complete Instructor, and perhaps just one other volume – one which could convey succinctly and with clarity all knowledge heretofore worth knowing. With the Bible, man’s spiritual purpose and the foundation for his life would be elucidated. With Magner’s, he would be ready to tend the soil and care for livestock – and practice law on the side. But what would be the final book, the one which completed the human condition? It must explain our understanding of the natural world, and of great figures in human history, and works of high esteem in artistic, poetic, and philosophic circles.
It is Belden’s Guide to Natural Science, History, Biography, and General Literature.
The introduction to Belden’s Guide makes clear its mission – one does not have the time to undertake a thorough study of all the different fields pursued by scientific and artistic minds across the millennia. Belden endeavors to relay, with brevity, the most imminently useful discoveries and accepted facts regarding astronomy and geology, before discussing world and American history, and literature.
It is through his chronological structure and his integration of colored tables and charts that these facts and descriptions are readily understood and remembered. It is this editor’s hope that by summarizing the summarizer, Belden might reach a new audience and important topics – such as the distance of the earth from the sun – will not be forgotten.
As we have previously reviewed Magner’s Farm and Stock Book and Complete Instructor, we will attempt to aid posterity by digitizing certain passages of Belden’s Guide and making them freely available via our Literature section. If one wishes to find a physical copy of Belden’s Guide, he must resort to combing local antique shops – such was the manner that I came upon it.
It must be noted that Belden’s illustrations seem to be woodcarvings and lithographs not of his own making, which is quite unfortunate, but one must remember that not all great men have the talents of da Vinci – or Magner.
ASTRONOMY – The astronomy section is rather pedestrian, but can still serve as a useful primer for those isolated tribes with no fundamental understanding of the universe. Belden seems insistent that the earth revolves around the sun and that our planet is, in fact, spherical (18). Some other interesting facts:
- It is now believed that the moon contains no water (26)
- The planets of our solar system consist of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, the Planetoids, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (30)
- Neptune takes 165 years to revolve around the sun (33)
- In Rome, it was blasphemy and unlawful to publicly speak of eclipses being due to natural causes (38)
- “We are totally ignorant of the real size of the fixed stars” (40)
And that is all there is worth knowing of our universe.
GEOLOGY – What is it that makes rocks so intriguing? Belden does not know; he simply lays out his discussion of the layers of the earth with textbook acuity. Man has not penetrated more than a few hundred yards from the surface of the earth (41), so it’s tough to know what’s going on down there. It’s agreed that the earth is hot inside (41), and that “rocks are the leaves on which geological history is written” (47). There are also such things as valleys and mountains, but these are of little interest (47).
Belden then diverges into a discussion of the different ages of geologic history (48-64), with attention paid to which parts of North America were above water at different times. Disappointingly, Belden spends more time discussing the Carboniferous period than he does the “age of Reptiles” (57).
The author does not use the word dinosaur, and he devotes a mere four paragraphs to these creatures that spent 150 million years dominating our planet. Perhaps he retains some skepticism himself, or perhaps he hopes to avoid terrifying his audience, but Belden relates the monsters thusly:
In the sandstone of the Connecticut valley are found footprints of lizard-like reptiles, which walked on two feet. Some of these tracks are 16 to 20 inches long and nearly as wide, with a stride of three feet, showing that the height of the reptiles must have been ten feet or more. These monsters had large teeth and scaly bodies. Others went on all fours and were 25 to 30 feet long. Another class, called Sea-Saurians were fifty feet long and had paddles like whales.
There were snake-like reptiles 80 feet long, with short paddles, and jaws a yard long… There were immense Crocodiles, and huge flying reptiles, whose wings measured 25 feet from tip to tip (58).
One can only imagine the thoughts of someone learning of these prehistoric creatures for the first time; it is a frightening revelation. Belden also discusses some unusual animal populations during the Champlain Period, with Europe having “Bears, Hyenas and Lions much larger than any living now,” and North America with “Lions and Bears, Elephants of great size, and the Mastodon, larger than the Elephant” (63).
Finally, Belden attempts to assuage any philosophical conflicts that might arise from these scientific discoveries. It bears repeating here without truncation:
With the close of the era of gigantic beasts, the perfected world in all its beauty and variety of surface and climate was left for man…
There have been strong efforts on the part of some scientists to prove an antagonism between revealed religion and the teachings of geology. These efforts have not been successful.
Prof. James A. Dana, one of the very ablest geologists in this or any country, says: ‘It may be thought that by thus referring to secondary causes, the making and crystallizing of rocks, the placing and raising of mountain chains, and the defining of continents, we leave little for the Deity to do. On the contrary we leave all to Him. There is no secondary cause in action which is not by His appointment and for His purpose, no power in the universe but His will. Man’s body is for each of us a growth, but God’s will and wisdom are manifested in all its developments. The world has by gradual development reached its present perfected state, suited in every respect to man’s needs and happiness; and it shows throughout Divine purpose, guiding all things toward the one chief end – man’s material and spiritual good.’
Again speaking of the origin of man, he says, ‘The connecting links between man and any man-ape of past geological time have not been found, although earnestly looked for. Until the long interval is bridged over by the discovery of intermediate species, it is certainly unsafe to declare that such a line of intermediate species ever existed, and as unphilosophical as it is unsafe. The present teaching of geology strongly confirms the belief that Man is not of Nature’s making. Independently of such evidence, Man’s high reason, his unsatisfied aspirations, his free will, all afford the fullest assurance that he owes his existence to the special act of the Infinite Being whose image he bears’ (64).
METEOROLOGY – Although he never states this, it is well understood that meteorology, or the study of the atmosphere, weather, and winds, is a branch of science well worth ignoring (65-84).
The next section will delve into the history of man.