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The Transformations Of A Grain Of Soil

Why, you ask, are there such terrible things as volcanos? Of what use can they be?

They are of use enough, my child; and of many more uses, doubt not, than we know as yet, or ever shall know. But of one of their uses I can tell you.

They make, or help to make, divers and sundry curious things, from gunpowder to your body and mine.

What? I can understand their helping to make gunpowder, because the sulphur in it is often found round volcanos; and I know the story of the brave Spaniard who, when his fellows wanted materials for gunpowder, had himself lowered in a basket down the crater of a South American volcano, and gathered sulphur for them off the burning cliffs: but how can volcanos help to make me? Am I made of lava? Or is there lava in me?

My child, I did not say that volcanos helped to make you. I said that they helped to make your body; which is a very different matter, as I beg you to remember, now and always. Your body is no more you yourself than the hoop which you trundle, or the pony which you ride. It is, like them, your servant, your tool, your instrument, your organ, with which you work: and a very useful, trusty, cunningly-contrived organ it is; and therefore I advise you to make good use of it, for you are responsible for it. But you yourself are not your body, or your brain, but something else, which we call your soul, your spirit, your life. And that "you yourself" would remain just the same if it were taken out of your body, and put into the body of a bee, or of a lion, or any other body; or into no body at all. At least so I believe; and so, I am happy to say, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of every million have always believed, because they have used their human instincts and their common sense, and have obeyed (without knowing it) the warning of a great and good philosopher called Herder, that "The organ is in no case the power which works by it;" which is as much as to say, that the engine is not the engine-driver, nor the spade the gardener.

There have always been, and always will be, a few people who cannot see that. They think that a man's soul is part of his body, and that he himself is not one thing, but a great number of things. They think that his mind and character are only made up of all the thoughts, and feelings, and recollections which have passed through his brain; and that as his brain changes, he himself must change, and become another person, and then another person again, continually. But do you not agree with them: but keep in mind wise Herder's warning that you are not to "confound the organ with the power," or the engine with the driver, or your body with yourself: and then we will go on and consider how a volcano, and the lava which flows from it, helps to make your body.

Now I know that the Scotch have a saying, "That you cannot make broth out of whinstones" (which is their name for lava). But, though they are very clever people, they are wrong there. I never saw any broth in Scotland, as far as I know, but what whinstones had gone to the making of it; nor a Scotch boy who had not eaten many a bit of whinstone, and been all the better for it.

Of course, if you simply put the whinstones into a kettle and boiled them, you would not get much out of them by such rough cookery as that. But Madam How is the best and most delicate of all cooks; and she knows how to pound, and soak, and stew whinstones so delicately, that she can make them sauce and seasoning for meat, vegetables, puddings, and almost everything that you eat; and can put into your veins things which were spouted up red-hot by volcanos, ages and ages since, perhaps at the bottom of ancient seas which are now firm dry land.

This is very strange--as all Madam How's doings are. And you would think it stranger still if you had ever seen the flowing of a lava stream.

Out of a cave of slag and cinders in the black hillside rushes a golden river, flowing like honey, and yet so tough that you cannot thrust a stick into it, and so heavy that great stones (if you throw them on it) float on the top, and are carried down like corks on water. It is so hot that you cannot stand near it more than a few seconds; hotter, perhaps, than any fire you ever saw: but as it flows, the outside of it cools in the cool air, and gets covered with slag and cinders, something like those which you may see thrown out of the furnaces in the Black Country of Staffordshire. Sometimes these cling together above the lava stream, and make a tunnel, through the cracks in which you may see the fiery river rushing and roaring down below. But mostly they are kept broken and apart, and roll and slide over each other on the top of the lava, crashing and clanging as they grind together with a horrid noise. Of course that stream, like all streams, runs towards the lower grounds. It slides down glens, and fills them up; down the beds of streams, driving off the water in hissing steam; and sometimes (as it did in Iceland a few years ago) falls over some cliff, turning what had been a water-fall into a fire-fall, and filling up the pool below with blocks of lava suddenly cooled, with a clang and roar like that of chains shaken or brazen vessels beaten, which is heard miles and miles away. Of course, woe to the crops and gardens which stand in its way. It crawls over them all and eats them up. It shoves down houses; it sets woods on fire, and sends the steam and gas out of the tree-trunks hissing into the air. And (curiously enough) it does this often without touching the trees themselves. It flows round the trunks (it did so in a wood in the Sandwich Islands a few years ago), and of course sets them on fire by its heat, till nothing is left of them but blackened posts. But the moisture which comes out of the poor tree in steam blows so hard against the lava round that it can never touch the tree, and a round hole is left in the middle of the lava where the tree was. Sometimes, too, the lava will spit out liquid fire among the branches of the trees, which hangs down afterwards from them in tassels of slag, and yet, by the very same means, the steam in the branches will prevent the liquid fire burning them off, or doing anything but just scorch the bark.

But I can tell you a more curious story still. The lava stream, you must know, is continually sending out little jets of gas and steam: some of it it may have brought up from the very inside of the earth; most of it, I suspect, comes from the damp herbage and damp soil over which it runs. Be that as it may, a lava stream out of Mount Etna, in Sicily, came once down straight upon the town of Catania. Everybody thought that the town would be swallowed up; and the poor people there (who knew no better) began to pray to St. Agatha--a famous saint, who, they say, was martyred there ages ago--and who, they fancy, has power in heaven to save them from the lava stream. And really what happened was enough to make ignorant people, such as they were, think that St. Agatha had saved them. The lava stream came straight down upon the town wall. Another foot, and it would have touched it, and have begun shoving it down with a force compared with which all the battering-rams that you ever read of in ancient histories would be child's toys. But lo and behold! when the lava stream got within a few inches of the wall it stopped, and began to rear itself upright and build itself into a wall beside the wall. It rose and rose, till I believe in one place it overtopped the wall and began to curl over in a crest. All expected that it would fall over into the town at last: but no, there it stopped, and cooled, and hardened, and left the town unhurt. All the inhabitants said, of course, that St. Agatha had done it: but learned men found out that, as usual Madam How had done it, by making it do itself. The lava was so full of gas, which was continually blowing out in little jets, that when it reached the wall, it actually blew itself back from the wall; and, as the wall was luckily strong enough not to be blown down, the lava kept blowing itself back till it had time to cool. And so, my dear child, there was no miracle at all in the matter; and the poor people of Catania had to thank not St. Agatha, and any interference of hers, but simply Him who can preserve, just as He can destroy, by those laws of nature which are the breath of His mouth and the servants of His will.

But in many a case the lava does not stop. It rolls on and on over the downs and through the valleys, till it reaches the sea-shore, as it did in Hawaii in the Sandwich Islands this very year. And then it cools, of course; but often not before it has killed the fish by its sulphurous gases and heat, perhaps for miles around. And there is good reason to believe that the fossil fish which we so often find in rocks, perfect in every bone, lying sometimes in heaps, and twisted (as I have seen them) as if they had died suddenly and violently, were killed in this very way, either by heat from lava streams, or else by the bursting up of gases poisoning the water, in earthquakes and eruptions in the bottom of the sea. I could tell you many stories of fish being killed in thousands by earthquakes and volcanos during the last few years. But we have not time to tell about everything.

And now you will ask me, with more astonishment than ever, what possible use can there be in these destroying streams of fire? And certainly, if you had ever seen a lava stream even when cool, and looked down, as I have done, at the great river of rough black blocks streaming away far and wide over the land, you would think it the most hideous and the most useless thing you ever saw. And yet, my dear child, there is One who told men to judge not according to the appearance, but to judge righteous judgment. He said that about matters spiritual and human: but it is quite as true about matters natural, which also are His work, and all obey His will.

Now if you had seen, as I have seen, close round the edges of these lava streams, and sometimes actually upon them, or upon the great bed of dust and ashes which have been hurled far and wide out of ancient volcanos, happy homesteads, rich crops, hemp and flax, and wheat, tobacco, lucerne, roots, and vineyards laden with white and purple grapes, you would have begun to suspect that the lava streams were not, after all, such very bad neighbours. And when I tell you that volcanic soils (as they are called), that is, soil which has at first been lava or ashes, are generally the richest soils in the world--that, for instance (as some one told me the other day), there is soil in the beautiful island of Madeira so thin that you cannot dig more than two or three inches down without coming to the solid rock of lava, or what is harder even, obsidian (which is the black glass which volcanos sometimes make, and which the old Mexicans used to chip into swords and arrows, because they had no steel)--and that this soil, thin as it is, is yet so fertile, that in it used to be grown the grapes of which the famous Madeira wine was made--when you remember this, and when you remember, too, the Lothians of Scotland (about which I shall have to say a little to you just now), then you will perhaps agree with me, that Lady Why has not been so very wrong in setting Madam How to pour out lava and ashes upon the surface of the earth.

For see--down below, under the roots of the mountains, Madam How works continually like a chemist in his laboratory, melting together all the rocks, which are the bones and leavings of the old worlds. If they stayed down below there, they would be of no use; while they will be of use up here in the open air. For, year by year--by the washing of rain and rivers, and also, I am sorry to say, by the ignorant and foolish waste of mankind--thousands and millions of tons of good stuff are running into the sea every year, which would, if it could be kept on land, make food for men and animals, plants and trees. So, in order to supply the continual waste of this upper world, Madam How is continually melting up the under world, and pouring it out of the volcanos like manure, to renew the face of the earth. In these lava rocks and ashes which she sends up there are certain substances, without which men cannot live--without which a stalk of corn or grass cannot grow. Without potash, without magnesia, both of which are in your veins and mine--without silicates (as they are called), which give flint to the stems of corn and of grass, and so make them stiff and hard, and able to stand upright--and very probably without the carbonic acid gas, which comes out of the volcanos, and is taken up by the leaves of plants, and turned by Madam How's cookery into solid wood--without all these things, and I suspect without a great many more things which come out of volcanos--I do not see how this beautiful green world could get on at all.

Of course, when the lava first cools on the surface of the ground it is hard enough, and therefore barren enough. But Madam How sets to work upon it at once, with that delicate little water-spade of hers, which we call rain, and with that alone, century after century, and age after age, she digs the lava stream down, atom by atom, and silts it over the country round in rich manure. So that if Madam How has been a rough and hasty workwoman in pumping her treasures up out of her mine with her great steam-pumps, she shows herself delicate and tender and kindly enough in giving them away afterwards.

Nay, even the fine dust which is sometimes blown out of volcanos is useful to countries far away. So light it is, that it rises into the sky and is wafted by the wind across the seas. So, in the year 1783, ashes from the Skaptar Jokull, in Iceland, were carried over the north of Scotland, and even into Holland, hundreds of miles to the south.

So, again, when in the year 1812 the volcano of St. Vincent, in the West India Islands, poured out torrents of lava, after mighty earthquakes which shook all that part of the world, a strange thing happened (about which I have often heard from those who saw it) in the island of Barbados, several hundred miles away. For when the sun rose in the morning (it was a Sunday morning), the sky remained more dark than any night, and all the poor negroes crowded terrified out of their houses into the streets, fancying the end of the world was come. But a learned man who was there, finding that, though the sun was risen, it was still pitchy dark, opened his window, and found that it was stuck fast by something on the ledge outside, and, when he thrust it open, found the ledge covered deep in soft red dust; and he instantly said, like a wise man as he was, "The volcano of St. Vincent must have broken out, and these are the ashes from it." Then he ran down stairs and quieted the poor negroes, telling them not to be afraid, for the end of the world was not coming just yet. But still the dust went on falling till the whole island, I am told, was covered an inch thick; and the same thing happened in the other islands round. People thought--and they had reason to think from what had often happened elsewhere--that though the dust might hurt the crops for that year, it would make them richer in years to come, because it would act as manure upon the soil; and so it did after a few years; but it did terrible damage at the time, breaking off the boughs of trees and covering up the crops; and in St. Vincent itself whole estates were ruined. It was a frightful day, but I know well that behind that How there was a Why for its happening, and happening too, about that very time, which all who know the history of negro slavery in the West Indies can guess for themselves, and confess, I hope, that in this case, as in all others, when Lady Why seems most severe she is often most just and kind.

Ah! my dear child, that I could go on talking to you of this for hours and days! But I have time now only to teach you the alphabet of these matters--and, indeed, I know little more than the alphabet myself; but if the very letters of Madam How's book, and the mere A, B, AB, of it, which I am trying to teach you, are so wonderful and so beautiful, what must its sentences be and its chapters? And what must the whole book be like? But that last none can read save He who wrote it before the worlds were made.

But now I see you want to ask a question. Let us have it out. I would sooner answer one question of yours than tell you ten things without your asking.

Is there potash and magnesia and silicates in the soil here? And if there is, where did they come from? For there are no volcanos in England.

Yes. There are such things in the soil; and little enough of them, as the farmers here know too well. For we here, in Windsor Forest, are on the very poorest and almost the newest soil in England; and when Madam How had used up all her good materials in making the rest of the island, she carted away her dry rubbish and shot it down here for us to make the best of; and I do not think that we and our forefathers have done so very ill with it. But where the rich part, or staple, of our soils came from first it would be very difficult to say, so often has Madam How made, and unmade, and re-made England, and sifted her materials afresh every time. But if you go to the Lowlands of Scotland, you may soon see where the staple of the soil came from there, and that I was right in saying that there were atoms of lava in every Scotch boy's broth. Not that there were ever (as far as I know) volcanos in Scotland or in England. Madam How has more than one string to her bow, or two strings either; so when she pours out her lavas, she does not always pour them out in the open air. Sometimes she pours them out at the bottom of the sea, as she did in the north of Ireland and the south-west of Scotland, when she made the Giant's Causeway, and Fingal's Cave in Staffa too, at the bottom of the old chalk ocean, ages and ages since. Sometimes she squirts them out between the layers of rock, or into cracks which the earthquakes have made, in what are called trap dykes, of which there are plenty to be seen in Scotland, and in Wales likewise. And then she lifts the earth up from the bottom of the sea, and sets the rain to wash away all the soft rocks, till the hard lava stands out in great hills upon the surface of the ground. Then the rain begins eating away those lava-hills likewise, and manuring the earth with them; and wherever those lava-hills stand up, whether great or small, there is pretty sure to be rich land around them. If you look at the Geological Map of England and Ireland, and the red spots upon it, which will show you where those old lavas are, you will see how much of them there is in England, at the Lizard Point in Cornwall, and how much more in Scotland and the north of Ireland. In South Devon, in Shropshire--with its beautiful Wrekin, and Caradoc, and Lawley--in Wales, round Snowdon (where some of the soil is very rich), and, above all, in the Lowlands of Scotland, you see these red marks, showing the old lavas, which are always fertile, except the poor old granite, which is of little use save to cut into building stone, because it is too full of quartz--that is, flint.

Think of this the next time you go through Scotland in the railway, especially when you get near Edinburgh. As you run through the Lothians, with their noble crops of corn, and roots, and grasses--and their great homesteads, each with its engine chimney, which makes steam do the work of men--you will see rising out of the plain, hills of dark rock, sometimes in single knobs, like Berwick Law or Stirling Crag--sometimes in noble ranges, like Arthur's Seat, or the Sidlaws, or the Ochils. Think what these black bare lumps of whinstone are, and what they do. Remember they are mines--not gold mines, but something richer still--food mines, which Madam How thrust into the inside of the earth, ages and ages since, as molten lava rock, and then cooled them and lifted them up, and pared them away with her ice-plough and her rain-spade, and spread the stuff of them over the wide carses round, to make in that bleak northern climate, which once carried nothing but fir-trees and heather, a soil fit to feed a great people; to cultivate in them industry, and science, and valiant self-dependence and self-help; and to gather round the Heart of Midlothian and the Castle Rock of Edinburgh the stoutest and the ablest little nation which Lady Why has made since she made the Greeks who fought at Salamis.

Of those Greeks you have read, or ought to read, in Mr. Cox's Tales of the Persian War. Some day you will read of them in their own books, written in their grand old tongue. Remember that Lady Why made them, as she has made the Scotch, by first preparing a country for them, which would call out all their courage and their skill; and then by giving them the courage and the skill to make use of the land where she had put them.

And now think what a wonderful fairy tale you might write for yourself--and every word of it true--of the adventures of one atom of Potash or some other Salt, no bigger than a needle's point, in such a lava stream as I have been telling of. How it has run round and round, and will run round age after age, in an endless chain of change. How it began by being molten fire underground, how then it became part of a hard cold rock, lifted up into a cliff, beaten upon by rain and storm, and washed down into the soil of the plain, till, perhaps, the little atom of mineral met with the rootlet of some great tree, and was taken up into its sap in spring, through tiny veins, and hardened the next year into a piece of solid wood. And then how that tree was cut down, and its logs, it may be, burnt upon the hearth, till the little atom of mineral lay among the wood-ashes, and was shovelled out and thrown upon the field and washed into the soil again, and taken up by the roots of a clover plant, and became an atom of vegetable matter once more. And then how, perhaps, a rabbit came by, and ate the clover, and the grain of mineral became part of the rabbit; and then how a hawk killed that rabbit, and ate it, and so the grain became part of the hawk; and how the farmer shot the hawk, and it fell perchance into a stream, and was carried down into the sea; and when its body decayed, the little grain sank through the water, and was mingled with the mud at the bottom of the sea. But do its wanderings stop there? Not so, my child. Nothing upon this earth, as I told you once before, continues in one stay. That grain of mineral might stay at the bottom of the sea a thousand or ten thousand years, and yet the time would come when Madam How would set to work on it again. Slowly, perhaps, she would sink that mud so deep, and cover it up with so many fresh beds of mud, or sand, or lime, that under the heavy weight, and perhaps, too, under the heat of the inside of the earth, that Mud would slowly change to hard Slate Rock; and ages after, it may be, Madam How might melt that Slate Rock once more, and blast it out; and then through the mouth of a volcano the little grain of mineral might rise into the open air again to make fresh soil, as it had done thousands of years before. For Madam How can manufacture many different things out of the same materials. She may have so wrought with that grain of mineral, that she may have formed it into part of a precious stone, and men may dig it out of the rock, or pick it up in the river-bed, and polish it, and set it, and wear it. Think of that--that in the jewels which your mother or your sisters wear, or in your father's signet ring, there may be atoms which were part of a live plant, or a live animal, millions of years ago, and may be parts of a live plant or a live animal millions of years hence.

Think over again, and learn by heart, the links of this endless chain of change: Fire turned into Stone--Stone into Soil--Soil into Plant--Plant into Animal--Animal into Soil--Soil into Stone--Stone into Fire again--and then Fire into Stone again, and the old thing run round once more.

So it is, and so it must be. For all things which are born in Time must change in Time, and die in Time, till that Last Day of this our little earth, in which,

"Like to the baseless fabric of a vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all things which inherit, shall dissolve, And, like an unsubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind."

So all things change and die, and so your body too must change and die--but not yourself. Madam How made your body; and she must unmake it again, as she unmakes all her works in Time and Space; but you, child, your Soul, and Life, and Self, she did not make; and over you she has no power. For you were not, like your body, created in Time and Space; and you will endure though Time and Space should be no more: because you are the child of the Living God, who gives to each thing its own body, and can give you another body, even as seems good to Him.


Charles Kingsley

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