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The Coal in the Fire

My dear town-dwelling readers, let me tell you now something of a geological product well known, happily, to all dwellers in towns, and of late years, thanks to railroad extension, to most dwellers in country districts: I mean coal.

Coal, as of course you know, is commonly said to be composed of vegetable matter, of the leaves and stems of ancient plants and trees--a startling statement, and one which I do not wish you to take entirely on trust. I shall therefore spend a few pages in showing you how this fact--for fact it is--was discovered. It is a very good example of reasoning from the known to the unknown. You will have a right to say at first starting, "Coal is utterly different in look from leaves and stems. The only property which they seem to have in common is that they can both burn." True. But difference of mere look may be only owing to a transformation, or series of transformations. There are plenty in nature quite as great, and greater. What can be more different in look, for instance, than a green field of wheat and a basket of loaves at the baker's? And yet there is, I trust, no doubt whatsoever that the bread has been once green wheat, and that the green wheat has been transformed into bread--making due allowance, of course, for the bone-dust, or gypsum, or alum with which the worthy baker may have found it profitable to adulterate his bread, in order to improve the digestion of Her Majesty's subjects.

But you may say, "Yes, but we can see the wheat growing, flowering, ripening, reaped, ground, kneaded, baked. We see, in the case of bread, the processes of the transformation going on: but in the case of coal we do not see the wood and leaves being actually transformed into coal, or anything like it."

Now suppose we laid out the wheat on a table in a regular series, such as you may see in many exhibitions of manufactures; beginning with the wheat plant at one end, and ending with the loaf at the other; and called in to look at them a savage who knew nothing of agriculture and nothing of cookery--called in, as an extreme case, the man in the moon, who certainly can know nothing of either; for as there is neither air nor water round the moon, there can be nothing to grow there, and therefore nothing to cook--and suppose we asked him to study the series from end to end. Do you not think that the man in the moon, if he were half as shrewd as Crofton Croker makes him in his conversation with Daniel O'Rourke, would answer after due meditation, "How the wheat plant got changed into the loaf I cannot see from my experience in the moon: but that it has been changed, and that the two are the same thing I do see, for I see all the different stages of the change." And so I think you may say of the wood and the coal.

The man in the moon would be quite reasonable in his conclusion; for it is a law, a rule, and one which you will have to apply again and again in the study of natural objects, that however different two objects may look in some respects, yet if you can find a regular series of gradations between them, with all shades of likeness, first to one of them and then to the other, then you have a fair right to suppose them to be only varieties of the same species, the same kind of thing, and that, therefore, they have a common origin.

That sounds rather magniloquent. Let me give you a simple example.

Suppose you had come into Britain with Brute, the grandson of AEneas, at that remote epoch when (as all archaeologists know who have duly read Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Arthuric legends) Britain was inhabited only by a few giants. Now if you had met giants with one head, and also giants with seven heads, and no others, you would have had a right to say, "There are two breeds of giants here, one-headed and seven-headed." But if you had found, as Jack the Giant-Killer (who belongs to the same old cycle of myths) appears to have found, two-headed giants also, and three-headed, and giants, indeed, with any reasonable number of heads, would you not have been justified in saying, "They are all of the same breed, after all; only some are more capitate, or heady, than others!"

I hope that you agree to that reasoning; for by it I think we arrive most surely at a belief in the unity of the human race, and that the Negro is actually a man and a brother.

If the only two types of men in the world were an extreme white type, like the Norwegians, and an extreme black type, like the Negros, then there would be fair ground for saying, "These two types have been always distinct; they are different races, who have no common origin." But if you found, as you will find, many types of man showing endless gradations between the white man and the Negro, and not only that, but endless gradations between them both and a third type, whose extreme perhaps is the Chinese--endless gradations, I say, showing every conceivable shade of resemblance or difference, till you often cannot say to what type a given individual belongs; and all of them, however different from each other, more like each other than they are like any other creature upon earth; then you are justified in saying, "All these are mere varieties of one kind. However distinct they are now, they were probably like each other at first, and therefore all probably had a common origin." That seems to me sound reasoning, and advanced natural science is corroborating it more and more daily.

Now apply the same reasoning to coal. You may find about the world-- you may see even in England alone--every gradation between coal and growing forest. You may see the forest growing in its bed of vegetable mould; you may see the forest dead and converted into peat, with stems and roots in it; that, again, into sunken forests, like those to be seen below high-water mark on many coasts of this island. You find gradations between them and beds of lignite, or wood coal; then gradations between lignite and common or bituminous coal; and then gradations between common coal and culm, or anthracite, such as is found in South Wales. Have you not a right to say, "These are all but varieties of the same kind of thing--namely, vegetable matter? They have a common origin--namely, woody fibre. And coal, or rather culm, is the last link in a series of transformations from growing vegetation?"

This is our first theory. Let us try to verify it, as scientific men are in the habit of doing, by saying, If that be true, then something else is likely to be true too.

If coal has all been vegetable soil, then it is likely that some of it has not been quite converted into shapeless coal. It is likely that there will be vegetable fibre still to be seen here and there; perhaps leaves, perhaps even stems of trees, as in a peat bog. Let us look for them.

You will not need to look far. The coal, and the sands and shales which accompany the coal, are so full of plant-remains, that three hundred species were known to Adolphe Brongniart as early as 1849, and that number has largely increased since.

Now one point is specially noticeable about these plants of the coal; namely, that they may at least have grown in swamps.

First, you will be interested if you study the coal flora, with the abundance, beauty, and variety of the ferns. Now ferns in these islands grow principally in rocky woods, because there, beside the moisture, they get from decaying vegetable or decaying rock, especially limestone, the carbonic acid which is their special food, and which they do not get on our dry pastures, and still less in our cultivated fields. But in these islands there are two noble species, at least, which are true swamp-ferns; the Lastraea Thelypteris, which of old filled the fens, but is now all but extinct; and the Osmunda, or King-fern, which, as all know, will grow wherever it is damp enough about the roots. In Hampshire, in Devon, and Cornwall, and in the southwest of Ireland, the King-fern too is a true swamp fern. But in the Tropics I have seen more than once noble tree-ferns growing in wet savannahs at the sea-level, as freely as in the mountain-woods; ferns with such a stem as some of the coal ferns had, some fifteen feet in height, under which, as one rode on horseback, one saw the blazing blue sky, as through a parasol of delicate lace, as men might have long ages since have seen it, through the plumed fronds of the ferns now buried in the coal, had there only been a man then created to enjoy its beauty.

Next we find plants called by geologists Calamites. There is no doubt now that they are of the same family as our Equiseta, or horse- tails, a race which has, over most parts of the globe, dwindled down now from twenty or thirty feet in height, as they were in the old coal measures, to paltry little weeds. The tallest Equisetum in England--the beautiful E. Telmateia--is seldom five feet high. But they, too, are mostly mud and swamp plants; and so may the Calamites have been.

The Lepidodendrons, again, are without doubt the splendid old representatives of a family now dwindled down to such creeping things as our club-mosses, or Lycopodiums. Now it is a certain fact, which can be proved by the microscope, that a very great part of the best coal is actually made up of millions of the minute seeds of club- mosses, such as grow--a few of them, and those very small--on our moors; a proof, surely, not only of the vast amount of the vegetation in the coal-making age, but also of the vast time during which it lasted. The Lepidodendra may have been fifty or sixty feet high. There is not a Lycopodium in the world now, I believe, five feet high. But the club-mosses are now, in these islands and elsewhere, lovers of wet and peaty soils, and so may their huger prototypes have been, in the old forests of the coal.

Of the Sigillariae we cannot say as much with certainty, for botanists are not agreed as to what low order of flowerless plants they belong. But that they rooted in clay beds there is proof, as you will hear presently.

And as to the Conifers, or pine-like trees--the Dadoxylon, of which the pith goes by the name of Sternbergia, and the uncertain tree which furnishes in some coal-measures bushels of a seed connected with that of the yew--we may suppose that they would find no more difficulty in growing in swamps than the cypress, which forms so large a portion of the vegetation in the swamps of the Southern United States.

I have given you these hints, because you will naturally wish to know what sort of a world it was in which all these strange plants grew and turned into coal.

My answer is, that it was most probably just like the world in which we are living now, with the one exception that the plants and animals are different.

It was the fashion a few years since to explain the coal--like other phenomena of geology--by some mere hypothesis of a state of things quite unlike what we see now. We were brought up to believe that in the Carboniferous, or coal-bearing era, the atmosphere was intensely moist and hot, and overcharged with carbonic acid, which had been poured out from the interior of the planet by volcanic eruptions, or by some other convulsion. I forget most of it now: and really there is no need to remember; for it is all, I verily believe, a dream--an attempt to explain the unknown not by the known, but by the still more unknown. You may find such theories lingering still in sensational school-books, if you like to be unscientific. If you like, on the other hand, to be scientific you will listen to those who tell you that instead of there having been one unique carboniferous epoch, with a peculiar coal-making climate, all epochs are carboniferous if they get the chance; that coal is of every age, from that of the Scotch and English beds, up to the present day. The great coal-beds along the Rocky Mountains, for instance, are tertiary--that is, later than the chalk. Coal is forming now, I doubt not, in many places on the earth, and would form in many more, if man did not interfere with the processes of wild nature, by draining the fens, and embanking the rivers.

Let me by a few words prove this statement. They will give you, beside, a fresh proof of Sir Charles Lyell's great geological rule-- that the best way to explain what we see in ancient rocks is to take for granted, as long as we can do so fairly, that things were going on then very much as they are going on now.

When it was first seen that coal had been once vegetable, the question arose--How did all these huge masses of vegetable matter get there? The Yorkshire and Derbyshire coal-fields, I hear, cover 700 or 800 square miles; the Lancashire about 200. How large the North Wales and the Scotch fields are I cannot say. But doubtless a great deal more coal than can be got at lies under the sea, especially in the north of Wales. Coal probably exists over vast sheets of England and France, buried so deeply under later rocks, that it cannot be reached by mining. As an instance, a distinguished geologist has long held that there are beds of coal under London itself, which rise, owing to a peculiar disturbance of the strata, to within 1,000 or 1,200 feet of the surface, and that we or our children may yet see coal-mines in the marshes of the Thames. And more, it is a provable fact that only a portion of the coal measures is left. A great part of Ireland must once have been covered with coal, which is now destroyed. Indeed, it is likely that the coal now known of in Europe and America is but a remnant of what has existed there in former ages, and has been eaten away by the inroads of the sea.

Now whence did all that enormous mass of vegetable soil come? Off some neighbouring land, was the first and most natural answer. It was a rational one. It proceeded from the known to the unknown. It was clear that these plants had grown on land; for they were land- plants. It was clear that there must have been land close by, for between the beds of coal, as you all know, the rock is principally coarse sandstone, which could only have been laid down (as I have explained to you already) in very shallow water.

It was natural, then, to suppose that these plants and trees had been swept down by rivers into the sea, as the sands and muds which buried them had been. And it was known that at the mouths of certain rivers--the Mississippi, for instance--vast rafts of dead floating trees accumulated; and that the bottoms of the rivers were often full of snags, etc.; trees which had grounded, and stuck in the mud; and why should not the coal have been formed in the same way?

Because--and this was a serious objection--then surely the coal would be impure--mixed up with mud and sand, till it was not worth burning. Instead of which, the coal is usually pure vegetable, parted sharply from the sandstone which lies on it. The only other explanation was, that the coal vegetation had grown in the very places where it was found. But that seemed too strange to be true, till that great geologist, Sir W. Logan--who has since done such good work in Canada- -showed that every bed of coal had a bed of clay under it, and that that clay always contained fossils called Stigmaria. Then it came out that the Stigmaria in the under clay had long filaments attached to them, while when found in the sandstones or shales, they had lost their filaments, and seemed more or less rolled--in fact, that the natural place of the Stigmaria was in the under clay. Then Mr. Binney discovered a tree--a Sigillaria, standing upright in the coal- measures with its roots attached. Those roots penetrated into the under clay of the coal; and those roots were Stigmarias. That seems to have settled the question. The Sigillarias, at least, had grown where they were found, and the clay beneath the coal-beds was the original soil on which they had grown. Just so, if you will look at any peat bog you will find it bottomed by clay, which clay is pierced everywhere by the roots of the moss forming the peat, or of the trees, birches, alders, poplars, and willows, which grow in the bog. So the proof seemed complete, that the coal had been formed out of vegetation growing where it was buried. If any further proof for that theory was needed, it would be found in this fact, most ingeniously suggested by Mr. Boyd Dawkins. The resinous spores, or seeds of the Lepidodendra make up--as said above--a great part of the bituminous coal. Now those spores are so light, that if the coal had been laid down by water, they would have floated on it, and have been carried away; and therefore the bituminous coal must have been formed, not under water, but on dry land.

I have dwelt at length on these further arguments, because they seem to me as pretty a specimen as I can give my readers of that regular and gradual induction, that common-sense regulated, by which geological theories are worked out.

But how does this theory explain the perfect purity of the coal? I think Sir C. Lyell answers that question fully in p. 383 of his "Student's Elements of Geology." He tells us that the dense growths of reeds and herbage which encompass the margins of forest-covered swamps in the valley and delta of the Mississippi, in passing through them, are filtered and made to clear themselves entirely before they reach the areas in which vegetable matter may accumulate for centuries, forming coal if the climate be favourable; and that in the cypress-swamps of that region no sediment mingles with the vegetable matter accumulated from the decay of trees and semi-aquatic plants; so that when, in a very dry season, the swamp is set on fire, pits are burnt into the ground many feet deep, or as far as the fire can go down without reaching water, and scarcely any earthy residuum is left; just as when the soil of the English fens catches fire, red-hot holes are eaten down through pure peat till the water-bearing clay below is reached. But the purity of the water in peaty lagoons is observable elsewhere than in the delta of the Mississippi. What can be more transparent than many a pool surrounded by quaking bogs, fringed, as they are in Ireland, with a ring of white water-lilies, which you dare not stoop to pick, lest the peat, bending inward, slide you down into that clear dark gulf some twenty feet in depth, bottomed and walled with yielding ooze, from which there is no escape? Most transparent, likewise, is the water of the West Indian swamps. Though it is of the colour of coffee, or rather of dark beer, and so impregnated with gases that it produces fever or cholera when drunk, yet it is--at least when it does not mingle with the salt water--so clear, that one might see every marking on a boa- constrictor or alligator, if he glided along the bottom under the canoe.

But now comes the question--Even if all this be true, how were the forests covered up in shale and sandstone, one after another?

By gradual sinking of the land, one would suppose.

If we find, as we may find in a hundred coal-pits, trees rooted as they grew, with their trunks either standing up through the coal, and through the sandstone above the coal; their bark often remaining as coal while their inside is filled up with sandstone, has not our common-sense a right to say--The land on which they grew sank below the water-line; the trees were killed; and the mud and sand which were brought down the streams enveloped their trunks? As for the inside being full of sandstone, have we not all seen hollow trees? Do we not all know that when a tree dies its wood decays first, its bark last? It is so, especially in the Tropics. There one may see huge dead trees with their bark seemingly sound, and their inside a mere cavern with touchwood at the bottom; into which caverns one used to peep with some caution. For though one might have found inside only a pair of toucans, or parrots, or a whole party of jolly little monkeys, one was quite as likely to find a poisonous snake four or five feet long, whose bite would have very certainly prevented me having the pleasure of writing this book.

Now is it not plain that if such trees as that sunk, their bark would be turned into lignite, and at last into coal, while their insides would be silted up with mud and sand? Thus a core or pillar of hard sandstone would be formed, which might do to the collier of the future what they are too apt to do now in the Newcastle and Bristol collieries. For there, when the coal is worked out below, the sandstone stems--"coal-pipes" as the colliers call them--in the roof of the seam, having no branches, and nothing to hold them up but their friable bark of coal, are but too apt to drop out suddenly, killing or wounding the hapless men below.

Or again, if we find--as we very often find--as was found at Parkfield Colliery, near Wolverhampton, in the year 1814--a quarter of an acre of coal-seam filled. with stumps of trees as they grew, their trunks broken off and lying in every direction, turned into coal, and flattened, as coal-fossils so often are, by the weight of the rock above--should we not have a right to say--These trees were snapped off where they grew by some violent convulsion; by a storm, or by a sudden inrush of water owing to a sudden sinking of the land, or by the very earthquake shock itself which sank the land?

But what evidence have we of such sinkings? The plain fact that you have coal-seam above coal-seam, each with its bed of under-clay; and that therefore the land MUST have sunk ere the next bed of soil could have been deposited, and the next forest have grown on it.

In one of the Rocky Mountain coal-fields there are more than thirty seams of coal, each with its under-clay below it. What can that mean but thirty or more subsidences of the land, and the peat of thirty or more forests or peat-mosses, one above the other? And now if any reader shall say, Subsidence? What is this quite new element which you have brought into your argument? You told us that you would reason from the known to the unknown. What do we know of subsidence? You offered to explain the thing which had gone on once by that which is going on now. Where is subsidence going on now upon the surface of our planet? And where, too, upheaval, such as would bring us these buried forests up again from under the sea-level, and make them, like our British coal-field, dry land once more?

The answer is--Subsidence and elevation of the land are common now, probably just as common as they were in any age of this planet's history.

To give two instances, made now notorious by the writings of geologists. As lately as 1819 a single earthquake shock in Cutch, at the mouth of the Indus, sunk a tract of land larger than the Lake of Geneva in some places to a depth of eighteen feet, and converted it into an inland sea. The same shock raised, a few miles off, a corresponding sheet of land some fifty miles in length, and in some parts sixteen miles broad, ten feet above the level of the alluvial plain, and left it to be named by the country-people the "Ullah Bund," or bank of God, to distinguish it from the artificial banks in the neighbourhood.

Again: in the valley of the Mississippi--a tract which is now, it would seem, in much the same state as central England was while our coal-fields were being laid down--the earthquakes of 1811-12 caused large lakes to appear suddenly in many parts of the district, amid the dense forests of cypress. One of these, the "Sunk Country," near New Madrid, is between seventy and eighty miles in length, and thirty miles in breadth, and throughout it, as late as 1846, "dead trees were conspicuous, some erect in the water, others fallen, and strewed in dense masses over the bottom, in the shallows, and near the shore." I quote these words from Sir Charles Lyell's "Principles of Geology" (11th edit.), vol. i. p. 453. And I cannot do better than advise my readers, if they wish to know more of the way in which coal was formed, to read what is said in that book concerning the Delta of the Mississippi, and its strata of forests sunk where they grew, and in some places upraised again, alternating with beds of clay and sand, vegetable soil, recent sea-shells, and what not, forming, to a depth of several hundred feet, just such a mass of beds as exists in our own coal-fields at this day.

If, therefore, the reader wishes to picture to himself the scenery of what is now central England, during the period when our coal was being laid down, he has only, I believe, to transport himself in fancy to any great alluvial delta, in a moist and warm climate, favourable to the growth of vegetation. He has only to conceive wooded marshes, at the mouth of great rivers, slowly sinking beneath the sea; the forests in them killed by the water, and then covered up by layers of sand, brought down from inland, till that new layer became dry land, to carry a fresh crop of vegetation. He has thus all that he needs to explain how coal-measures were formed. I myself saw once a scene of that kind, which I should be sorry to forget; for there was, as I conceived, coal, making, or getting ready to be made, before my eyes: a sheet of swamp, sinking slowly into the sea; for there stood trees, still rooted below high-water mark, and killed by the waves; while inland huge trees stood dying, or dead, from the water at their roots. But what a scene--a labyrinth of narrow creeks, so narrow that a canoe could not pass up, haunted with alligators and boa-constrictors, parrots and white herons, amid an inextricable confusion of vegetable mud, roots of the alder-like mangroves, and tangled creepers hanging from tree to tree; and overhead huge fan-palms, delighting in the moisture, mingled with still huger broad-leaved trees in every stage of decay. The drowned vegetable soil of ages beneath me; above my head, for a hundred feet, a mass of stems and boughs, and leaves and flowers, compared with which the richest hothouse in England was poor and small. But if the sinking process which was going on continued a few hundred years, all that huge mass of wood and leaf would be sunk beneath the swamp, and covered up in mud washed down from the mountains, and sand driven in from the sea; to form a bed many feet thick, of what would be first peat, then lignite, and last, it may be, coal, with the stems of killed trees standing up out of it into the new mud and sand-beds above it, just as the Sigillariae and other stems stand up in the coal-beds both of Britain and of Nova Scotia; while over it a fresh forest would grow up, to suffer the same fate--if the sinking process went on--as that which had preceded it.

That was a sight not easily to be forgotten. But we need not have gone so far from home, at least, a few hundred years ago, to see an exactly similar one. The fens of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, before the rivers were embanked, the water pumped off, the forests felled, and the reed-beds ploughed up, were exactly in the same state. The vast deposits of peat between Cambridge and the sea, often filled with timber-trees, either fallen or upright as they grew, and often mixed with beds of sand or mud, brought down in floods, were formed in exactly the same way; and if they had remained undrained, then that slow sinking, which geologists say is going on over the whole area of the Fens, would have brought them gradually, but surely, below the sea-level, to be covered up by new forests, and converted in due time into coal. And future geologists would have found--they may find yet, if, which God forbid, England should become barbarous and the trees be thrown out of cultivation--instead of fossil Lepidodendra and Sigillariae, Calamites and ferns, fossil ashes and oaks, alders and poplars, bulrushes and reeds. Almost the only fossil fern would have been that tall and beautiful Lastraea Thelypteris, once so abundant, now all but destroyed by drainage and the plough.

We need not, therefore, fancy any extraordinary state of things on this planet while our English coal was being formed. The climate of the northern hemisphere--Britain, at least, and Nova Scotia--was warmer than now, to judge from the abundance of ferns; and especially of tree-ferns; but not so warm, to judge from the presence of conifers (trees of the pine tribe), as the Tropics. Moreover, there must have been, it seems to me, a great scarcity of animal-life. Insects are found, beautifully preserved; a few reptiles, too, and land-shells; but very few. And where are the traces of such a swarming life as would be entombed were a tropic forest now sunk; which is found entombed in many parts of our English fens? The only explanation which I can offer is this--that the club-mosses, tree- ferns, pines, and other low-ranked vegetation of the coal afforded little or no food for animals, as the same families of plants do to this day; and if creatures can get nothing to eat, they certainly cannot multiply and replenish the earth. But, be that as it may, the fact that coal is buried forest is not affected.

Meanwhile, the shape and arrangements of sea and land must have been utterly different from what they are now. Where was that great land, off which great rivers ran to deposit our coal-measures in their deltas? It has been supposed, for good reasons, that north-western France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany were then under the sea; that Denmark and Norway were joined to Scotland by a continent, a tongue of which ran across the centre of England, and into Ireland, dividing the northern and southern coal-fields. But how far to the west and north did that old continent stretch? Did it, as it almost certainly did long ages afterwards, join Greenland and North America with Scotland and Norway? Were the northern fields of Nova Scotia, which are of the same geological age as our own, and contain the same plants, laid down by rivers which ran off the same continent as ours? Who can tell now? That old land, and all record of it, save what these fragmentary coal-measures can give, are buried in the dark abyss of countless ages; and we can only look back with awe, and comfort ourselves with the thought--Let Time be ever so vast, yet Time is not Eternity.

One word more. If my readers have granted that all for which I have argued is probable, they will still have a right to ask for further proof.

They will be justified in saying: "You say that coal is transformed vegetable matter; but can you show us how the transformation takes place? Is it possible according to known natural laws?"

The chemist must answer that. And he tells us that wood can become lignite, or wood-coal, by parting with its oxygen, in the shape of carbonic acid gas, or choke-damp; and then common or bituminous coal, by parting with its hydrogen, chiefly in the form of carburetted hydrogen--the gas with which we light our streets. That is about as much as the unscientific reader need know. But it is a fresh corroboration of the theory that coal has been once vegetable fibre, for it shows how vegetable fibre can, by the laws of nature, become coal. And it certainly helps us to believe that a thing has been done, if we are shown that it can be done.

This fact explains, also, why in mines of wood-coal carbonic acid, i.e. choke-damp, alone is given off. For in the wood-coal a great deal of the hydrogen still remains. In mines of true coal, not only is choke-damp given off, but that more terrible pest of the miners, fire-damp, or explosive carburetted hydrogen and olefiant gases. Now the occurrence of that fire-damp in mines proves that changes are still going on in the coal: that it is getting rid of its hydrogen, and so progressing toward the state of anthracite or culm--stone-coal as it is sometimes called. In the Pennsylvanian coal-fields some of the coal has actually done this, under the disturbing force of earthquakes; for the coal, which is bituminous, like our common coal, to the westward where the strata are horizontal, becomes gradually anthracite as it is tossed and torn by the earthquake faults of the Alleghany and Appalachian mountains.

And is a further transformation possible? Yes; and more than one. If we conceive the anthracite cleared of all but its last atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, till it has become all but pure carbon, it would become--as it has become in certain rocks of immense antiquity, graphite--what we miscall black-lead. And, after that, it might go through one transformation more, and that the most startling of all. It would need only perfect purification and crystallisation to become--a diamond; nothing less. We may consider the coal upon the fire as the middle term of a series, of which the first is live wood, and the last diamond; and indulge safely in the fancy that every diamond in the world has probably, at some remote epoch, formed part of a growing plant.

A strange transformation; which will look to us more strange, more truly poetical, the more steadily we consider it.

The coal on the fire; the table at which I write--what are they made of? Gas and sunbeams; with a small percentage of ash, or earthy salts, which need hardly be taken into account.

Gas and sunbeams. Strange, but true.

The life of the growing plant--and what that life is who can tell?-- laid hold of the gases in the air and in the soil; of the carbonic acid, the atmospheric air, the water--for that too is gas. It drank them in through its rootlets: it breathed them in through its leaf- pores, that it might distil them into sap, and bud, and leaf, and wood. But it has to take in another element, without which the distillation and the shaping could never have taken place. It had to drink in the sunbeams--that mysterious and complex force which is for ever pouring from the sun, and making itself partly palpable to our senses as heat and light. So the life of the plant seized the sunbeams, and absorbed them, buried them in itself--no longer as light and heat, but as invisible chemical force, locked up for ages in that woody fibre.

So it is. Lord Lytton told us long ago, in a beautiful song, how

The Wind and the Beam loved the Rose.

But Nature's poetry was more beautiful than man's. The wind and the beam loved the rose so well that they made the rose--or rather, the rose took the wind and the beam, and built up out of them, by her own inner life, her exquisite texture, hue, and fragrance.

What next? The rose dies; the timber tree dies; decays down into vegetable fibre, is buried, and turned to coal: but the plant cannot altogether undo its own work. Even in death and decay it cannot set free the sunbeams imprisoned in its tissue. The sun-force must stay, shut up age after age, invisible, but strong; working at its own prison-cells; transmuting them, or making them capable of being transmuted by man, into the manifold products of coal--coke, petroleum, mineral pitch, gases, coal-tar, benzole, delicate aniline dyes, and what not, till its day of deliverance comes.

Man digs it, throws it on the fire, a black, dead-seeming lump. A corner, an atom of it, warms till it reaches the igniting point; the temperature at which it is able to combine with oxygen.

And then, like a dormant live thing, awaking after ages to the sense of its own powers, its own needs, the whole lump is seized, atom after atom, with an infectious hunger for that oxygen which it lost centuries since in the bottom of the earth. It drinks the oxygen in at every pore; and burns.

And so the spell of ages is broken. The sun-force bursts its prison- cells, and blazes into the free atmosphere, as light and heat once more; returning in a moment into the same forms in which it entered the growing leaf a thousand centuries since.

Strange it all is, yet true. But of nature, as of the heart of man, the old saying stands--that truth is stranger than fiction.


Charles Kingsley

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