He was out by the tar pits, as usual, thinking hard about tar, as usual. Tar occupied his thoughts when he went to the tar pits, but the rest of the time he could dismiss it, tar, from his head. He was a carrot-top, and he smelled of fresh-mown grass.

Tar is a product of the destructive distillation of organic substances. It is a highly complex material, varying in its composition according to the nature of the body from which it is distilled, different products, moreover, being obtained according to the temperature at which the process of distillation is carried on. As commercial products there are two principal classes of tar in use – wood tar, the product of the special distillation of several varieties of wood, and coal tar, which is primarily a by-product of the distillation of coal during the manufacture of gas for illuminating purposes.. These tars are intimately related to bitumen, asphalt, mineral pitch and petroleum.

He knew all this, and the more he thought about it, the more his head became tar-filled, almost up to the brim. It was a relief to lollop over to the pier and to board the waiting paddle-steamer, and to chug along the wide important river, all the way home. For a paddle-steamer snack, he had a blood orange in a paper bag.

He leaned on the rail, eating his snack and keeping an eye on the riverbank in hope of spotting an otter. When he was not at the tar pits, thinking about tar, much of his time was spent trying to devise a working otter-scanner. He envisioned some sort of contraption to be worn on his head, with a visor that could be lowered, with viewfinders attached, and a hand-held control panel, with lights and buzzers. Was there a riverbank creature more glorious than the otter? He thought not.

Yet the pull of the tar pits was irresistible. Sometimes, as soon as he disembarked at the pier close to home, he turned tail and reboarded the paddle-steamer and went straight back. Then he thought hard about wood tar. Wood tar, known also as Stockholm and as Archangel tar, is principally prepared in the great pine forests of central and northern Russia, Finland and Sweden. The material chiefly employed is the resinous stools and roots of the Scotch fir and the Siberian larch, with other less common fir-tree roots. A large amount of tar is also prepared from the roots of the swamp pine in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, in the United States. In the distillation of wood a series of products, including gas, tar, pyroligneous acid, acetone, wood spirit and charcoal may be obtained, and any of these may be the primary object of the operation.

He had never been to any of those places, to Russia or Finland or Sweden, to North or South Carolina or Georgia or Alabama in the United States. He had never been anywhere really, save for along the wide important river from his home to the tar pits and back. But he had no Wanderlust. And he was a moral cretin.

A portion of fruit in a paper bag was his favourite snack. He did not care much which fruit. He used the same paper bag day in day out until it was tattered and torn and fell to bits. Then he asked the greengrocer for a fresh paper bag. The greengrocer was a huge beast of a man with a florid face and one withered arm, and he did not give out paper bags willy nilly. But he liked to hear tales of tar.

Wood tar is used in medicine under the name of Fix liquida. Its preparation unguentum picis liquidae is composed of wood tar and yellow beeswax. Externally tar is a valuable stimulating dressing in scaly skin diseases, such as psoriasis and chronic eczema. Internally wood tar is a popular remedy as an expectorant in subacute and chronic bronchitis. It is usually given as tar water, one part of wood tar being stirred into four parts of water and filtered. Given internally tar is likely to upset the digestion; taken in large quantities it causes pain and vomiting and dark urine, symptoms similar to carbolic acid poisoning.

That is what he told the greengrocer when applying for his most recent new paper bag. It was a hot Thursday in August and he had some bright ideas in his head about the otter-scanner. He bought a Carlsbad plum to go in his new paper bag and headed towards the pier. Ah! Sweet mystery of life! At last I’ve found thee. Ah! I know at last the secret of it all! All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning, the burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall. Tar and otters! Otters and tar!

The “tar” found in tar pits is not actually tar.

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