Tonight it must be something very special that the apothecary has put on display

It is still extraordinarily lively on the outside in Amsterdam before the late hour. However, most shops are already closed, because it is already seven o’clock, and artificial light is expensive in the middle of the 17th century ; but the evening of May is so sweet and so seductively clear that the shopkeepers and their servants have scrambled to get the shutters on the windows, and now come with wife and children, with spinster, sister, or comrades. scooping at the delicious, cool IJ.

Thus, calm and dignified in the pedestrian pass, numerous groups, sometimes consisting of an entire family, stroll from all the streets of the city to the Buitenkant.

One of the few shops still lit seems to have a special attraction; for most of the walkers, having reached the height of the Monckelbaens bridge, turn away from the middle street as soon as they approach that house; they form a crowded mass of binoculars in front of the windows, so that the broad sidewalk is still too narrow for so many curious people; those in the back wait, until those in front have seen enough and move up, to give them a look too.

Yet it is not a shop that can attract buyers with its splendid display: it is an ordinary apothecary’s shop; but everyone knows that master Swammerdam from the pharmacy ‘De Star’ is a lover of natural history, that he has acquaintances on the ships from East and West bring all kinds of strange animals and plants; [ 8 ]and also—that he put those animals, stuffed or in spirits—before his windows, duly marked by name and surname; yes, sometimes with a short, clearly written, usually miraculous life history of the animal.

Tonight it must be something very special that the apothecary has put on display; for those who have a good seat stick to the windows in spite of the heat, and the gentle request of the master himself is necessary to make them resolve to make room for others at last.

And yet this time he has not exhibited any stuffed birds of paradise, no monkeys, snakes, or young caimans. What so captivates everyone’s attention is the contents of a large glass trough, almost completely filled with water; in the middle it is provided with a pumice rock and an artfully designed fountain.

The front of that box is placed flush against the window; from behind and to the side the light of a pair of fat candles shines through the greenish water, and from that mysterious twilight, from time to time, between aquatic plants and shells, the most wondrous monstrosities appear before the eyes of the gaping viewers.

There, with even foot strokes, like an accomplished rower, a great yellow-edged beetle appears, and hunts for the larva of a mosquito or dragonfly; a leech snakes like a flat snake along the window. Salamanders with red-and-black-spotted bellies and gracefully combed backs, rise and fall stately up and down, or dart forward suddenly, when they notice an angry-looking, red-breasted fish, with three spiky-tipped spines on its back, holding it on their backs. tail tail. And gigantic pitch-black beetle, shining through the water even bigger than it is, looms[ 9 ]suddenly out of the darkness, to appear briefly on the surface, and then kicking quickly, as if walking through the water, disappearing between the duckweed or behind the rock. Among the fine foliage of a graceful aquatic plant a great spider is building his silver sky palace. At the bottom, tube damselflies in their wondrous lockers glide slowly over the shells and the siliceous sand, and in between all that it teems and wiggles with small and large larvae, spinning beetles, blood spiders.

1 Ringed mosquito, 2 larva, 3 pupa from which the mosquito emerges, 4 the egg raft, laid by the female 6, 5 male, 7 and 8 motile pupae.
1 Ringed mosquito, 2 larva, 3 pupa from which the mosquito emerges, 4 the egg raft, laid by the female 6, 5 male, 7 and 8 motile pupae.

The exclamations of amazement which this spectacle elicits from the beholders testify to the novelty of such a scene. No wonder: an aquarium was something unseen and unheard of in those days; and its inhabitants were certainly less known to most Amsterdammers then than the tigers, the monkeys or the birds of our East Indian possessions.[ 10 ]

The master is therefore satisfied with his work; his cheerful countenance, the willingness with which he answers all questions, the most foolish at times, prove that he delights in imparting his knowledge to others; and also that it was not only a 17th century advertising drive that made him place the aquarium in front of his window, but mainly the hobby of a man who likes to see others come to look with admiration at what he has thus achieved. collected.

It has attracted his attention for some time that one of the many curious already seems to be extremely intrigued by what the master gave this evening. He’s a boy of about fifteen or sixteen. His nose is pressed against the window glass. His eyes try to penetrate into the darkest corner of the aquarium; look, they glisten, when something new arises again from the deep. He doesn’t ask questions himself, but when he hears one of the viewers ask Master Swammerdam how he managed to get all those beasts out of the East so alive, a smile comes to his face.

This has not escaped the notice of the pharmacist. More than once the latter has tapped him on the shoulder and kindly requested him not to want to sniff all the news all at once and to give someone else a look too. Then the boy, his gaze fixed on it, as if he could not part from it, went to one side; but after a while he had pushed forward again from the other side and was once again engrossed in the contemplation of that mysterious animal world.

The master from “The Star” said nothing more, and let it be. When at last he ordered his son to extinguish the candles that were on their ends, the obstinate viewer tried for a moment to penetrate the now quite murky water, and then turned away to leave.[ 11 ]

Edged water beetle. On the left a male seen from above; on the right a female (bottom).
Edged water beetle. On the left a male seen from above; on the right a female (bottom).

[ 13 ]

But Swammerdam stopped him and asked him how he liked his display.

The boy looked timidly at the kind master; it was as if he were dreaming, and still saw the wonderful creatures of a moment moving before his eyes. The master repeated his question, stopping his pipe and putting on his hat, in order to catch some air on the IJ side as well.

“Is it still there tomorrow?” softly came the question in return.

“Certainly, my boy, and if it isn’t there anymore, because I need the cupboard for jars of ointment and boxes of powder, then come into the shop. I have many bigger and more beautiful animals at home. You certainly didn’t think all those animals had come from the East, did you?”

‘No, master, not that, I understood that; but I didn’t know that so many different animals live in our ditches, so close to us, till I heard you say it.”

“Well, good evening. Yes…. what’s your name?”

“Antony, master; Anthony van Leeuwenhoek.

“Well, Antony, come and see the living water as often as you like; but you must have seen all of it by now that you can see it; you hardly took your eyes off it!”

“Yes, but I would like to know more about it. What those animals do all day long; how they eat, breathe, move, catch their prey; and I saw so much that I do not quite understand!”

“Oh, so is the matter; that pleases me. But what do you actually do for a living? You should not sacrifice your working time.”

“I’m at a cloth shop, master, I often have the afternoon off, and I’m all alone here, my family lives in Delft.”[ 14 ]

“Well, Antony, you’ll be fine with my son Jan; he is also very fond of viewing plants and animals. You’re a few years older than him, it seems, but it probably doesn’t matter. He wants to go out alone tomorrow afternoon, to replenish things. Hey, there he is! Jan, here you have a comrade who wants to help you to maintain aquatic animals. Just get to know each other. And then to bed, Jan. That’s what I would suggest to you, Antony, even if your eyes are still bright. Come back tomorrow. ”

That was not said to a deaf person. After this acquaintance Antony van Leeuwenhoek was a loyal visitor to the pharmacy “in the Star” and he and Jan Swammerdam were inseparable comrades.

Together they tended the apothecary’s aquarium, and together they went on excursions in the neighborhood of their home, in search of new plants and animals. But it didn’t stop with searching and finding. Antony especially had to enjoy everything. Unfortunately, the apothecary could seldom give the two young enthusiasts an answer to their questions that satisfied their inquisitiveness. The boys also asked such curious questions: ‘Why would that green-black beetle, with those yellow edges around the elytra, always come up with its abdomen? If it was all about breathing, why did that big pitch-black beetle keep doing it with one of the blades?” Or: ‘What would the smallest animals that we can see live on? Could there be any smaller ones in the water that we cannot see?”

The boys made it difficult for the master, and they spent more time on it than Jan’s studies and Antony’s craft would tolerate, he thought. He feared that their best apprenticeship would be lost, with—as he once expressed himself—[ 17 ]”that perception of things, there was not much gain from it, and which brought nothing of that which was necessary to live.”

Pitch black or spinning water beetle (Hydrophilus piceus) left male, right female, finishing the nest. (To Nature.)
Pitch black or spinning water beetle (Hydrophilus piceus) left male, right female, finishing the nest. ( To Nature. )

Oh, if only Master Swammerdam could read into the future for a moment, as we did in the past, he would have seen two famous men in those two boys who, pondering over all kinds of riddles, peered into the murky water of the aquarium. who would one day astonish the whole learned and unlearned world with the answers they themselves gave to many of the questions they addressed to the apothecary as children.

Jan Swammerdam and Anthony van Leeuwenhoek!

Had he been allowed to experience it, he, who already thought he knew so much, to read the Bible of Nature, in which the wonderful investigations and discoveries of his son Jan are described! The apothecary did not foresee, when he drove Antony from his aquarium and sent it back to the cloth shop, that that simple trough with ditch water would be the first reason to make the Netherlands of the seventeenth century richer.

So famous in his lifetime, that from all parts of Europe the scholars and many interested in the science of nature made the journey to Delft, to enjoy the privilege of speaking to Antony van Leeuwenhoek about his discoveries; to look through the microscopes that he had made himself, and with which he revealed a world of living creatures never known;—he the humble chamberlain, who for years, for six guilders a week, cleaned the council chamber and turned the stove from the mayor.

Almost all the monarchs of Europe at that time, including our stadtholder William III, did not think it beneath them to come and visit him in his study, to[ 18 ]to show the new world. Peter de Groote also came with his tow barge; to see and hear everything explained at his leisure, he invited Leeuwenhoek on board. Peter de Groote listened eagerly and looked long and intently through the microscope.

“What is that thing made of?” Peter must have asked, carefully taking the mysterious instrument in his hand.

“Made of tin and brass,” replied Antony, surprised.

“Then make them from now on out of gold and silver!” said Peter, and Leeuwenhoek actually made more than one of gold or of silver. A few of them are still hiding somewhere in the British Museum in London.

Two centuries have elapsed, and the researches of Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam are still often built upon by contemporary scholars.

However, after Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam, much has been researched and discovered, also in our country, in the creation and life of the smaller, and especially the smallest, aquatic animals. Compared to current microscopes, those of Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam were therefore mere children’s toys.

It will no longer happen so easily that a person will become famous by studying a glass of ditch water or of life in an aquarium. Yet there is still plenty to discover, even if it is not in the smallest animals and plants. The observations of an enthusiast can also have value for science, he can indicate facts from which the scholars take advantage.

But not for fame or honor should nature be studied; the great naturalists seldom did that. If Leeuwenhoek hadn’t been half-constrained, he wouldn’t even have made his discoveries known. He studied for pleasure. Often[ 19 ]one had to enlist the help of his daughter, in order to become aware of his works.

Swammerdam also worked for his own pleasure, so that first the famous Boerhave had to inform the world of what Swammerdam had wrought.

For her own pleasure—that was what she had to remain, this intimate association with nature, this study, which seems not to be a study—a stimulating pastime on vacations, a hobby for those who do not yet or no longer have to provide for their livelihood.

And it is so easy to initiate oneself into the secrets of the nature of our hometown. With a little education, a little dedication, and a little pocket money, one can make it so far in the knowledge of creation around us; which in turn can give us a deeper insight into the whole.

Few boys in their last school years are there today who do not know that between the green carpet of duckweed and the peat, sand or clay soil of every ditch a world of plants and animals lives, so rich in forms, so wonderful in way of life. that only reading them in the school-book, and seeing them in pictures, arouses the desire to know more of them, and gives rise to the desire to see in reality.

It usually remains with desire, for the living ditch, although close to everywhere in our country, is seldom transparent, and it takes so long before something appears on the surface; a few skaters, swift insects, who race over the water with their long legs, remarkably well arranged for that purpose, as if the ice were as smooth as mirrors; a dozen turrets, glistening in the sunlight, like new steel with silver, performing their graceful, sometimes fairly regular dances and thereby attracting everyone’s attention—but this is also about all that can be seen from the side in most cases. is.[ 20 ]

Whoever really wants to learn and enjoy it a little more, as with anything worth learning and enjoying, must make some effort and, unfortunately in this case, some expense. Above all, you need a sturdy landing net. Those who want to use an ordinary butterfly net for this purpose are more likely to be disappointed than waiting for a good catch. Buy a yard of the thickest wire you can get from a hardware store; and let it bend for a moment on the anvil, which is always available in such shops, into a ring with two stems. Such a piece costs at most 10 cents.

Those two stems, which together form the handle of the ring, must be at least a decimetre long, leaving for the ring a diameter of about 2½ dM; think about it. Usually the wire is so stubborn that it can only be closed into a ring by force, and that is precisely a virtue and an advantage, as will be shown later.

Now take your sister in her arm, and have her sew to the ring a sack of strong muslin or gauze of the coarsest kind; canvas or embroidery mesh is even better, but also more expensive. The bag should be about 3 dM deep. Then tie the net with the handle firmly to a long stick and try if you can bend it back from the stick sideways; if this is not done without great effort, then all is well.

He who is well in his pocket, or who can form a society on shares with good comrades, would do better to purchase a 2 or 3 Meter long bamboo, with a copper band around the hollow top; it can be bought for 30 to 40 cents in any fishing tackle shop. But see that they do not put sugar cane in your hands instead of bamboo; bamboo is unbreakable, sugar cane is much lighter and also cheaper, but gets very light[ 21 ]longitudinal cracks, tears up or snaps off: water and especially ditch water is heavier than you think. In the upper end of the hollow bamboo you now insert the two, unbound, stems of the iron net ring; this is done with difficulty, but the spring force with which the ring wants to relax causes the stems to clamp so firmly in the cavity that further fastening is usually superfluous. Moreover, it also has the convenience that, without using rope or screws, one can remove the net from the stick whenever one wants.

Now see to get some bottles with short, wide necks, canning bottles; in comestible shops English liquorice bottles are sold for ten cents; they are very suitable to take with you. A rope around the neck serves as a handle.

Now also have a few goldfish bowls of the largest kind ready at home, and your equipment will be in top form. The hunt is easy, and I assure you that you will never come home broke, or in that case more ’empty bottle’.

And now, the first Wednesday or Saturday afternoon of the spring, you go and fetch your comrades who have paid for the party.

But even if you have had to pay for everything alone, it is advisable, for various reasons, to never go out alone.

At first it may cause some bickering, because one person keeps the net in use for too long, and the other does not want to carry that annoying bottle for so long, but you get used to that and learn to be lenient.

Start with a ditch in which not too many aquatic plants grow and which also does not run close to a human dwelling. And now the first shovel! Not deep and not[ 22 ]long, but quickly stroking through the water! duckweed and other floating aquatic plants to slip in! pick up and dump the contents (let the full net fall through the ring upside down), on a bare spot in the grass, or else on the road. With a stick in the left hand quickly spread out the duckweed and the other plants, and with the right thrown everything that lives into the bottle brought along. A little ditch water has been shoveled into it beforehand and it is firmly fixed between the grass. A few more shovels and you must be very unhappy, or the bottles will be crawling with each other, that it has a nature. Fill the bottles with duckweed and other small floating plants and then, if it is very sunny, hurry home. Do not put too much water in the bottle.

There the first job is to rinse the net and hang it to dry, and the second to examine the loot and divide it among the goldfish bowls and the flasks, which are half filled with clean water. Much more is coming out now than you think you have caught; for among the water-plants with which the bottles have been replenished, it was teeming with small things that were not conspicuous on dry land. Do not put more duckweed or plants in each bottle than is necessary to cover the surface loosely, and let everything stand quietly for a while, out of the sun; now go and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and then the study begins.

“Yes,” many of our readers may think, “that’s easier said than done, but we don’t even know the names of all those strange animals and plants and it’s so jumbled up that it’s impossible to keep an eye on them.” ; so it is not easy to look closely.”