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Air, necessary to life.


Most imperious among the needs which rule over us are those of food, drink, and sleep. So long as hunger does not exceed its lesser sibling appetite which seasons and gives flavor to the coarsest of dishes; so long as thirst remains only that faint dryness of the mouth which bestows charm on a glass of fresh water; so long as sleep is only the gentle weariness which creates in us the desire for a good night's sleep--these primordial needs will require satisfaction of cravings drawn by the appeal of pleasure alone and not the harsh rudder of pain. But let their satisfaction suffer excessive delay, and they become inexorable masters whose dominion is torture. Can anyone alive fearlessly imagine the anguish of thirst? There is however one need compared to which hunger and thirst, violent as they may become, seem only secondary: an endlessly resurgent and insatiable craving, felt without cease from waking to sleep, by night, by day, at every hour, at every instant. It is the need for air. Air is of such necessity to life that its use will suffer no such regulation as we apply to food and drink, so that we be spared the fatal consequences of even a slight forgetfulness. Unbeknownst to us and independently of our volition, air penetrates our body so it can accomplish its role. In what keeps us alive, air comes first, ordinary food ranks second. We experience need for nourishment only at longish intervals; the need for air we feel unremittingly, ever imperious, inexorable. Let us attempt for a moment to suspend its arrival in our body by blocking its path into our mouths and nostrils, almost immediately we suffocate and feel that were this state to prolong itself even a little we would infallibly perish.


Air is the most pressing necessity not only to man but to animals as well, from the tiniest, least visible of gnats to Creation's colossi. Water-dwellers are no exception. Only in aerated water do they survive: in water somehow deprived of air, whether by fermentation or otherwise, they perish. Science offers an experiment to show how indispensable the presence of air is to animal life. Take any living animal, for instance a bird, and put it under the bell of pneumatic machine. As the pump sucks out the air, the bird staggers, writhes in the throes of an anguish that is awful to watch and, moribund, collapses. Should we delay in bringing air back into the bell, the poor thing will lie dead, stone dead, and nothing will bring it back to life. But if air is injected in time, it will resuscitate like a fire rekindles from the brink of extinction when breathed upon. Death by lack of air is called asphyxiation.


If, instead of withdrawing air with a pump, we simply gum the edge of the bell to prevent outside air from coming in, and abandon the animal to fend for itself, the bird will survive for a while but, however large the bell, will eventually weaken and perish. A candle placed under a bell insulated from the outside air likewise burns a while and then goes out. Animals need air to live, a candle needs air to burn. Air needs to renew itself for life to continue. Air needs to renew itself for combustion to last.


Air blown out our mouths upon a cold windowpane will soon leave there a layer of dampness. Exhaled breath must therefore contain water vapor. Ordinary air also contains some but much less: however much air we blew out of a pair of bellows onto a windowpane, no droplets of water would gather. If air contains more water leaving the body than it did coming in, it must have acquired it in the very act of breathing. Using a glass tube, let us breathe air out of our mouth into lime-water. Right away, the liquid whitens and, as it settles, leaves behind large chalk deposits. By this sign, we know that a large quantity of carbon dioxide is present. Would the same thing occur if the air had not come out of our lungs? No. When blowing air into lime-water, not through our mouth, but using bellows, the water does not turn white. Therefore air does not contain carbon dioxide, or to be exact, contains it in such small quantities that enormous volumes of air would need be blown into the water for it to become even faintly opaque. Exhaled air however causes it to go opaque immediately. Air that has not yet entered the body contains therefore very little water vapor, very little carbon dioxide; upon leaving the lungs, it contains a good deal. Is that all? Not quite. Before it is breathed in, one-fifth of air's volume is oxygen, and four-fifth is nitrogen. Air exhaled from the lungs retains almost all of its nitrogen, but very little of its oxygen. The oxygen is replaced by an approximately equal volume of carbon dioxide. In short, breathing faithfully simulates the phases of combustion. A burning candle takes oxygen from the air, combines it with its own substance, and out of that makes carbon dioxide and water vapor. An animal, when it breathes, also takes the oxygen out of the air without touching the nitrogen. It mixes it with the materials inside its body and sends it all back out as water and carbon dioxide.


Combustion produces heat, as does breathing. It causes an animal's body to be the temperature it is. Under the burning sun or in the shivering winter cold, in a torrid equatorial climate or in the icy climate of the poles, the human body, for instance, preserves its temperature of 98 degrees. Were some grave disorder to cause even a slight drop, danger of death would ensue. How does this heat remain constant despite the cold surrounding us? Aha! There is within us a permanent central furnace which generates variable heat according to the ambient temperature. Breath feeds it with air, food with fuel. To breathe is to burn. The figure of speech by which one occasionally refers to the torch of life is, in fact, an exact expression of reality. An animal is a furnace which feeds on fuel in the form of food and burns it in the deep recesses of its body using the air it inhales. It eats and breathes to stay warm. Food is its fuel. Lungs breathe in the air. Oxygen dissolves in the massed blood which from blackish turns suddenly a beautiful shade of red. Blood, permeated with oxygen, spreads through all parts of the body by way of canals that are called arteries, and once thus disseminated, produces a combustion which results in natural heat and the formation of carbon dioxide and water. As soon that happens, dark blood carries the carbon dioxide and water back to the lungs through other canals which are called veins. There, along with the air that's breathed out, it rids itself of the exhaled water and the carbon dioxide, takes in a new load of oxygen and begins a new vivifying round. The fuel needed to maintain this unceasing organic combustion is provided by food. This explains why the need for food is sharper in winter. Contact with the cold outside air cools the body down more quickly, it must therefore burn more fuel to not lose any of its natural heat. Cold temperatures intensify the need for food, high temperatures make it languid. The hungry entrails of Siberian populations need robust fatty meals, lard, moonshine; in the Sahara, three or four dates and a pinch of flour kneaded in the hollow of one's hand suffice. Whatever reduces loss of heat reduces need for food. Sleep, rest, warm clothing are all, in a sense, an aid and supplement to food. A Common French proverb calls it "sleeping one's meal" [qui dort dine]. Food and air replenish the living furnace, the first with fuel, the latter with combining gas. This combustion results in natural heat.


Let us not go imagining, however, that organic combustion and the conflagration of embers in a fireplace are identical. Let us not believe for one instant that inside the body is ablaze. Though combustion truly occurs, there is no blaze. Some elaboration is needed here. Wood left behind in a wet ditch eventually decomposes, consumes itself, blackens and ends up brown dust. In fact this slow decomposition, this rotting, to be exact, is a kind of combustion, differing from that which occurs in the fireplace only by its slowness. Rotting wood comes in contact with the oxygen in the air and releases carbon dioxide just as it does in a chimney. Wood when it rots produces heat just as it does when it burns. One heat is the same as any other. Temperatures in a dunghill rise high; heat in stack of damp hay becomes incendiary. In both cases, there is combustion of the grasses, straw, and other decomposing plant matter. Rotting creates heat. Why this heat is most often not perceptible is easy to explain. Compare one log taking a year to burn by rotting, and a similar log taking an hour to burn in the fireplace. Both release heat. But in the case of the rotting wood, this heat is released very slowly, a little at a time, and takes a year to burn entirely. It will therefore be imperceptible. In the case of the log on fire, heat is released quickly and takes only an hour. Hence, it is quite perceptible. Although the phenomenon stays essentially the same, distinctions must therefore be made between slow combustion, quick combustion, and the several gradations in between according to the manner of burning. The old trunk of a rotting tree, a damp haystack warming, a bundle of wood igniting in a fireplace, all present various rates of combustion. Organic combustion is midway in this series; it is quicker than wood when it rots and slower than when it burns. It produces heat, but not as much as a blazing bonfire for it would then endanger the organism.


Food, breath, meat, vegetables, and so forth, all contain a high proportion of carbon. Therein does organic combustion draw its fuel. We consume a quarter ounce, on average, of carbon per hour. This amount varies according to age, sex, and strength. A person living to be sixty will have consumed roughly 8,800 pounds of carbon; and the great family of man, estimated around a billion, burns eight thousand tons an hour, 192 a day, and 70,000 a year. Stacked up, this animal carbon would form a mountain a mile long in circumference at the base and 1,640 feet high. Together, we all eat the mountain, one mouthful at a time; and by the end of the year we'll have dissipated it all into the atmosphere, one mouthful at a time, only to start immediately building a new one. How many mountains of carbon, since the world came into being, has the human species breathed out into the atmosphere? The mind boggles. One should also count the animal kingdom, which must all together, beasts of the earth and sea, burn up a tremendous heap of carbon. They are more numerous than we are, they populate the entire globe, continents, and seas. That is still not all. Matter that burns by rotting, manure, for example, dissolve into carbon dioxide. Fertilizer does not need to be very powerful for a cultivated plot to yield 53,000 gallons of carbon dioxide a day and per acre. What about the wood, charcoal, coal, which we burn in our houses, and especially in our powerful industrial furnaces, do they not go up into the air as carbon dioxide? Can anyone imagine the amount of carbon dioxide spewed out the belly of a factory furnace into which cartloads of fuel have been dumped! Let us not forget volcanoes, those gigantic chimneys at earth's blazing core, which in a single eruption expel amounts that by comparison dwindle those previously mentioned to nothing.


Huge torrents of carbon dioxide pour into the atmosphere. How does this gas, which can kill with only a few gulps, not eventually make the air unbreathable? What becomes of it? What is its use? It feeds plants. With a ray of sunlight, a supreme event takes place, incomprehensible as life itself. The leaves of plants, stimulated by the light of the sun, seize the carbon dioxide out of the air, breathe it in, and rid it of its carbon. They "deburn", this word is not in the dictionary and this is a shame for it conveys the idea well, they deburn the burnt carbon, they undo what combustion has done, they separate the carbon from the oxygen that entered it, in a word they decompose carbon dioxide. In no time it's done: carbon and oxygen separate as if they'd never been joined, and each regains its original properties. Rid of carbon, oxygen once again turns back to what it was before the beginning of their association, it becomes a breathable gas, able to sustain both fire and life. In this state, it is expelled into the atmosphere, so it can again sustain combustion and breath. It was a deadly gas when it entered the leaf, it comes out one that gives life. One day, it will come back with new loads of carbon, deposit them in the leaves, and instantly purified start again its tour of the atmosphere. The bee-swarm goes forth from the hive to the field, light and hot on the make, and flies back from the field to the hive, heavy-laden with its honey burden before seeking the rays anew. Oxygen is a bee-swarm to the leaves. It arrives freighted with its load of carbon, gleaned from an animal's lungs, a glowing ember, the putrefaction of matter, it cedes its carbon to the plant and goes forth again, untiring, to new harvests. Thus does the atmosphere purify itself of the huge torrents of carbon dioxide which are dumped there endlessly. Under the influence of sunlight, plants inhale the lethal gas, decompose it into breathable oxygen, and return it to the atmosphere. They keep the carbon and combine it with other stuff to make wood, flowers, fruits. Animals and plants lend each other a mutual service: the animal makes the carbon dioxide that nourishes the plant, the plant, out of this murderous gas, makes breathable air and edible matter. It is doubly thanks to plants that we are alive: they purify the atmosphere, they make us food.


1. The need for air is the most imperious need of all.

2. All animals perish without air.

3. Life cannot last in a limited volume of air. Similarly, without air, fire goes out. In a limited volume of air, combustion eventually ceases.

4. The products of breathing are the same as those of combustion: water and carbon dioxide.

5. Breathing is a source of heat. Animal heat has no other cause. Breathing belongs to the same order of things as combustion. To breathe is to burn. Food is the fuel that nourishes life's fiery core. The colder it is the sharper the need for food.

6. Organic combustion is less active than ordinary combustion. We call it slow combustion. Matter that decomposes by rotting is an example of slow combustion. It releases heat and carbon dioxide.

7. The quantity of carbon dioxide the breathing of animals releases into the atmosphere is tremendous.

8. Plants, influenced by the sun, feed on carbon dioxide, decompose it into breathable oxygen with which they replenish the atmosphere, and carbon with which they make wood, fruits, etc. Thus is the purity of the atmosphere preserved. Animals keep plants alive, and plants keep animals alive.

translated by Michael Attias
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Author:Fabre, Jean-Henri
Publication:Chicago Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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