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The Lime in the Mortar

I shall presume in all my readers some slight knowledge about lime. I shall take for granted, for instance, that all are better informed than a certain party of Australian black fellows were a few years since.

In prowling on the track of a party of English settlers, to see what they could pick up, they came--oh joy!--on a sack of flour, dropped and left behind in the bush at a certain creek. The poor savages had not had such a prospect of a good meal for many a day. With endless jabbering and dancing, the whole tribe gathered round the precious flour-bag with all the pannikins, gourds, and other hollow articles it could muster, each of course with a due quantity of water from the creek therein, and the chief began dealing out the flour by handfuls, beginning of course with the boldest warriors. But, horror of horrors, each man's porridge swelled before his eyes, grew hot, smoked, boiled over. They turned and fled, man, woman, and child, from before that supernatural prodigy; and the settlers coming back to look for the dropped sack, saw a sight which told the whole tale. For the poor creatures, in their terror, had thrown away their pans and calabashes, each filled with that which it was likely to contain, seeing that the sack itself had contained, not flour, but quick-lime. In memory of which comi-tragedy, that creek is called to this day, "Flour-bag Creek."

Now I take for granted that you are all more learned than these black fellows, and know quick-lime from flour. But still you are not bound to know what quick-lime is. Let me explain it to you.

Lime, properly speaking, is a metal, which goes among chemists by the name of calcium. But it is formed, as you all know, in the earth, not as a metal, but as a stone, as chalk or limestone, which is a carbonate of lime; that is, calcium combined with oxygen and carbonic-acid gases.

In that state it will make, if it is crystalline and hard, excellent building stone. The finest white marble, like that of Carrara in Italy, of which the most delicate statues are carved, is carbonate of lime altered and hardened by volcanic heat. But to make mortar of it, it must be softened and then brought into a state in which it can be hardened again; and ages since, some man or other, who deserves to rank as one of the great inventors, one of the great benefactors of his race, discovered the art of making lime soft and hard again; in fact of making mortar. The discovery was probably very ancient; and made, probably like most of the old discoveries, in the East, spreading Westward gradually. The earlier Greek buildings are cyclopean, that is, of stone fitted together without mortar. The earlier Egyptian buildings, though the stones are exquisitely squared and polished, are put together likewise without mortar. So, long ages after, were the earlier Roman buildings, and even some of the later. The famous aqueduct of the Pont du Gard, near Nismes, in the south of France, has, if I recollect right, no mortar whatever in it. The stones of its noble double tier of circular arches have been dropped into their places upon the wooden centres, and stand unmoved to this day, simply by the jamming of their own weight; a miracle of art. But the fact is puzzling; for these Romans were the best mortar makers of the world. We cannot, I believe, surpass them in the art even now; and in some of their old castles, the mortar is actually to this day harder and tougher than the stones which it holds together. And they had plenty of lime at hand if they had chosen to make mortar. The Pont du Gard crosses a limestone ravine, and is itself built of limestone. But I presume the cunning Romans would not trust mortar made from that coarse Nummulite limestone, filled with gritty sand, and preferred, with their usual carefulness, no mortar at all to bad.

But I must return, and tell my readers, in a few words, the chemical history of mortar. If limestone be burnt, or rather roasted, in a kiln, the carbonic acid is given off--as you may discover by your own nose; as many a poor tramp has discovered too late, when, on a cold winter night, he has lain down by the side of the burning kiln to keep himself warm, and woke in the other world, stifled to death by the poisonous fumes.

The lime then gives off its carbonic acid, and also its water of crystallisation, that is, water which it holds (as do many rocks) locked up in it unseen, and only to be discovered by chemical analysis. It is then anhydrous--that is, waterless--oxide of lime, what we call quick-lime; that which figured in the comi-tragedy of "Flour-bag Creek;" and then, as you may find if you get it under your nails or into your eyes, will burn and blister like an acid.

This has to be turned again into a hard and tough artificial limestone, in plain words, into mortar; and the first step is to slack it--that is, to give it back the water which it has lost, and for which it is as it were thirsting. So it is slacked with water, which it drinks in, heating itself and the water till it steams and swells in bulk, because it takes the substance of the water into its own substance. Slacked lime, as we all know, is not visibly wetter than quick-lime; it crumbles to a dry white powder in spite of all the water which it contains.

Then it must be made to set, that is, to return to limestone, to carbonate of lime, by drinking in the carbonic acid from water and air, which some sorts of lime will do instantly, setting at once, and being therefore used as cements. But the lime usually employed must be mixed with more or less sand to make it set hard: a mysterious process, of which it will be enough to tell the reader that the sand and lime are said to unite gradually, not only mechanically, that is, by sticking together; but also in part chemically--that is, by forming out of themselves a new substance, which is called silicate of lime.

Be that as it may, the mortar paste has now to do two things; first to dry, and next to take up carbonic acid from the air and water, enough to harden it again into limestone: and that it will take some time in doing. A thick wall, I am informed, requires several years before it is set throughout, and has acquired its full hardness, or rather toughness; and good mortar, as is well known, will acquire extreme hardness with age, probably from the very same cause that it did when it was limestone in the earth. For, as a general rule, the more ancient the strata is in which the limestone is found, the harder the limestone is; except in cases where volcanic action and earthquake pressure have hardened limestone in more recent strata, as in the case of the white marbles of Carrara in Italy, which are of the age of our Oolites, that is, of the freestone of Bath, etc., hardened by the heat of intruded volcanic rocks.

But now: what is the limestone? and how did it get where it is--not into the mortar, I mean, but into the limestone quarry? Let me tell you, or rather, help you to tell yourselves, by leading you, as before, from the known to the unknown. Let me lead you to places unknown indeed to most; but there may be sailors or soldiers among my readers who know them far better than I do. Let me lead you, in fancy, to some island in the Tropic seas. After all, I am not leading you as far away as you fancy by several thousand miles, as you will see, I trust, ere I have done.

Let me take you to some island: what shall it be like? Shall it be a high island, with cliff piled on cliff, and peak on peak, all rich with mighty forests, like a furred mantle of green velvet, mounting up and up till it is lost among white clouds above? Or shall it be a mere low reef, which you do not see till you are close upon it; on which nothing rises above the water, but here and there a knot of cocoa-nut palms or a block of stone, or a few bushes, swarming with innumerable sea-fowl and their eggs? Let it be which you will: both are strange enough; both beautiful; both will tell us a story.

The ship will have to lie-to, and anchor if she can; it may be a mile, it may be only a few yards, from the land. For between it and the land will be a line of breakers, raging in before the warm trade- wind. And this, you will be told, marks the edge of the coral reef.

You will have to go ashore in a boat, over a sea which looks unfathomable, and which may be a mile or more in depth, and search for an opening in the reef, through which the boat can pass without being knocked to pieces.

You find one: and in a moment, what a change! The deep has suddenly become shallow; the blue white, from the gleam of the white coral at the bottom. But the coral is not all white, only indeed a little of it; for as you look down through the clear water, you find that the coral is starred with innumerable live flowers, blue, crimson, grey, every conceivable hue; and that these are the coral polypes, each with its ring of arms thrust out of its cell, who are building up their common habitations of lime. If you want to understand, by a rough but correct description, what a coral polype is: all who have been to the sea-side know, or at least have heard of, sea-anemones. Now coral polypes are sea-anemones, which make each a shell of lime, growing with its growth. As for their shapes, the variety of them, the beauty of them, no tongue can describe them. If you want to see them, go to the Coral Rooms of the British or Liverpool Museums, and judge for yourselves. Only remember that you must re-clothe each of those exquisite forms with a coating of live jelly of some delicate hue, and put back into every one of the thousand cells its living flower; and into the beds, or rather banks, of the salt-water flower garden, the gaudiest of shell-less sea-anemones, such as we have on our coasts, rooted in the cracks, and live shells and sea-slugs, as gaudy as they, crawling about, with fifty other forms of fantastic and exuberant life. You must not overlook, too, the fish, especially the parrot-fish, some of them of the gaudiest colours, who spend their lives in browsing on the live coral, with strong clipping and grinding teeth, just as a cow browses the grass, keeping the animal matter, and throwing away the lime in the form of an impalpable white mud, which fills up the interstices in the coral beds.

The bottom, just outside the reef, is covered with that mud, mixed with more lime-mud, which the surge wears off the reef; and if you have, as you should have, a dredge on board, and try a haul of that mud as you row home, you may find, but not always, animal forms rooted in it, which will delight the soul of a scientific man. One, I hope, would be some sort of Terebratula, or shell akin to it. You would probably think it a cockle: but you would be wrong. The animal which dwells in it has about the same relationship to a cockle as a dog has to a bird. It is a Brachiopod; a family with which the ancient seas once swarmed, but which is rare now, all over the world, having been supplanted and driven out of the seas by newer and stronger forms of shelled animals. The nearest spot at which you are likely to dredge a live Brachiopod will be in the deep water of Loch Fyne, in Argyleshire, where two species still linger, fastened, strangely enough, to the smooth pebbles of a submerged glacier, formed in the open air during the age of ice, but sunk now to a depth of eighty fathoms. The first time I saw those shells come up in the dredge out of the dark and motionless abyss, I could sympathise with the feelings of mingled delight and awe which, so my companion told me, the great Professor Owen had in the same spot first beheld the same lingering remnants of a primaeval world.

The other might be (but I cannot promise you even a chance of dredging that, unless you were off the coast of Portugal, or the windward side of some of the West India Islands) a live Crinoid; an exquisite starfish, with long and branching arms, but rooted in the mud by a long stalk, and that stalk throwing out barren side branches; the whole a living plant of stone. You may see in museums specimens of this family, now so rare, all but extinct. And yet fifty or a hundred different forms of the same type swarmed in the ancient seas: whole masses of limestone are made up of little else but the fragments of such animals.

But we have not landed yet on the dry part of the reef. Let us make for it, taking care meanwhile that we do not get our feet cut by the coral, or stung as by nettles by the coral insects. We shall see that the dry land is made up entirely of coral, ground and broken by the waves, and hurled inland by the storm, sometimes in huge boulders, mostly as fine mud; and that, under the influence of the sun and of the rain, which filters through it, charged with lime from the rotting coral, the whole is setting, as cement sets, into rock. And what is this? A long bank of stone standing up as a low cliff, ten or twelve feet above high-water mark. It is full of fragments of shell, of fragments of coral, of all sorts of animal remains; and the lower part of it is quite hard rock. Moreover, it is bedded in regular layers, just such as you see in a quarry. But how did it get there? It must have been formed at the sea-level, some of it, indeed, under the sea; for here are great masses of madrepore and limestone corals imbedded just as they grew. What lifted it up? Your companions, if you have any who know the island, have no difficulty in telling you. It was hove up, they say, in the earthquake in such and such a year; and they will tell you, perhaps, that if you will go on shore to the main island which rises inside the reef, you may see dead coral beds just like these lying on the old rocks, and sloping up along the flanks of the mountains to several hundred feet above the sea. I have seen such many a time.

Thus you find the coral being converted gradually into a limestone rock, either fine and homogeneous, composed of coral grown into pulp, or filled with corals and shells, or with angular fragments of older coral rock. Did you never see that last? No? Yes, you have a hundred times. You have but to look at the marbles commonly used about these islands, with angular fragments imbedded in the mass, and here and there a shell, the whole cemented together by water holding in solution carbonate of lime, and there see the very same phenomenon perpetuated to this day.

Thus, I think, we have got first from the known to the unknown; from a tropic coral island back here to the limestone hills of Great Britain; and I did not speak at random when I said that I was not leading you away as far as you fancied by several thousand miles.

Examine any average limestone quarry from Bristol to Berwick, and you will see there all that I have been describing; that is, all of it which is not soft animal matter, certain to decay. You will see the lime-mud hardened into rock beds; you will see the shells embedded in it; you will see the corals in every stage of destruction; you will see whole layers made up of innumerable fragments of Crinoids--no wonder they are innumerable, for, it has been calculated, there are in a single animal of some of the species 140,000 joints--140,000 bits of lime to fall apart when its soft parts decay. But is it not all there? And why should it not have got there by the same process by which similar old coral beds get up the mountain sides in the West Indies and elsewhere; namely, by the upheaving force of earthquakes? When you see similar effects, you have a right to presume similar causes. If you see a man fall off a house here, and break his neck; and some years after, in London or New York, or anywhere else, find another man lying at the foot of another house, with his neck broken in the same way, is it not a very fair presumption that he has fallen off a house likewise?

You may be wrong. He may have come to his end by a dozen other means: but you must have proof of that. You will have a full right, in science and in common sense, to say--That man fell off the house, till some one proves to you that he did not.

In fact, there is nothing which you see in the limestones of these isles--save and except the difference in every shell and coral--which you would not see in the coral-beds of the West Indies, if such earthquakes as that famous one at St. Thomas's, in 1866, became common and periodic, upheaving the land (they needs upheave it a very little, only two hundred and fifty feet), till St. Thomas's, and all the Virgin Isles, and the mighty mountain of Porto Rico, which looms up dim and purple to the west, were all joined into dry land once more, and the lonely coral-shoal of Anegada were raised, as it would be raised then, into a limestone table-land, like that of Central Ireland, of Galway, or of County Clare.

But you must clearly understand, that however much these coralline limestones have been upheaved since they were formed, yet the sea- bottom, while they were being formed, was sinking and not rising. This is a fact which was first pointed out by Mr. Darwin, from the observations which he made in the world-famous Voyage of the Beagle; and the observations of subsequent great naturalists have all gone to corroborate his theory.

It was supposed at first, you must understand, that when a coral island rose steeply to the surface of the sea out of blue water, perhaps a thousand fathoms or more, that fact was plain proof that the little coral polypes had begun at the bottom of the sea, and, in the course of ages, built up the whole island an enormous depth.

But it soon came out that that theory was not correct; for the coral polypes cannot live and build save in shallow water--say in thirty to forty fathoms. Indeed, some of the strongest and largest species work best at the very surface, and in the cut of the fiercest surf. And so arose a puzzle as to how coral rock is often found of vast thickness, which Mr. Darwin explained. His theory was, and there is no doubt now that it is correct, that in these cases the sea-bottom is sinking; that as it sinks, carrying the coral beds down with it, the coral dies, and a fresh live crop of polypes builds on the top of the houses of their dead ancestors: so that, as the depression goes on, generation after generation builds upwards, the living on the dead, keeping the upper surface of the reef at the same level, while its base is sinking downward into the abyss.

Applying this theory to the coral reef of the Pacific Ocean, the following interesting facts were made out:

That where you find an Island rising out of deep water, with a ring of coral round it, a little way from the shore--or, as in Eastern Australia, a coast with a fringing reef (the Flinders reef of Australia is eleven thousand miles long)--that is a pretty sure sign that that shore, or mountain, is sinking slowly beneath the sea. That where you find, as you often do in the Pacific, a mere atoll, or circular reef of coral, with a shallow pond of smooth water in the centre, and deep sea round, that is a pretty sure sign that the mountain-top has sunk completely into the sea, and that the corals are going on building where its peak once was.

And more. On working out the geography of the South Sea Islands by the light of this theory of Mr. Darwin's, the following extraordinary fact has been discovered:

That over a great part of the Pacific Ocean sinking is going on, and has been going on for ages; and that the greater number of the beautiful and precious South Sea Islands are only the remnants of a vast continent or archipelago, which once stretched for thousands of miles between Australia and South America.

Now, applying the same theory to limestone beds, which are, as you know, only fossil coral reefs, we have a right to say, when we see in England, Scotland, Ireland, limestones several thousand feet thick, that while they were being laid down as coral reef, the sea-bottom, and probably the neighbouring land, must have been sinking to the amount of their thickness--to several thousand feet--before that later sinking which enabled several hundred feet of millstone grit to be laid down on the top of the limestone.

This millstone grit is a new and a very remarkable element in our strange story. From Derby to Northumberland it forms vast and lofty moors, capping, as at Whernside and Penygent, the highest limestone hills with its hard, rough, barren, and unfossiliferous strata. Wherever it is found, it lies on the top of the "mountain," or carboniferous limestone. Almost everywhere, where coal is found in England, it lies on the millstone grit. I speak roughly, for fear of confusing my readers with details. The three deposits pass more or less, in many places, into each other: but always in the order of mountain limestone below, millstone grit on it, and coal on that again.

Now what does its presence prove? What but this? That after the great coral reefs which spread over Somersetshire and South Wales, around the present estuary of the Severn,--and those, once perhaps joined to them, which spread from Derby to Berwick, with a western branch through North-east Wales,--were laid down--after all this, I say, some change took place in the sea-bottom, and brought down on the reefs of coral sheets of sand, which killed the corals and buried them in grit. Does any reader wish for proof of this? Let him examine the "cherty," or flinty, beds which so often appear where the bottom of the millstone grit is passing into the top of the mountain limestone--the beds, to give an instance, which are now quarried on the top of the Halkin Mountain in Flintshire, for chert, which is sent to Staffordshire to be ground down for the manufacture of china. He will find layers in those beds, of several feet in thickness, as hard as flint, but as porous as sponge. On examining their cavities he will find them to be simply hollow casts of innumerable joints of Crinoids, so exquisitely preserved, even to their most delicate markings, that it is plain they were never washed about upon a beach, but have grown where, or nearly where, they lie. What then, has happened to them? They have been killed by the sand. The soft parts of the animals have decayed, letting the 140,000 joints (more or less) belonging to each animal fall into a heap, and be imbedded in the growing sand-rock; and then, it may be long years after, water filtering through the porous sand has removed the lime of which the joints were made, and left their perfect casts behind.

So much for the millstone grits. How long the deposition of sand went on, how long after it that second deposition of sands took place, which goes by the name of the "gannister," or lower coal- measures, we cannot tell. But it is clear, at least, that parts of that ancient sea were filling up and becoming dry land. For coal, or fossilised vegetable matter, becomes more and more common as we ascend in the series of beds; till at last, in the upper coal- measures, the enormous wealth of vegetation which grew, much of it, where it is now found, prove the existence of some such sheets of fertile and forest-clad lowland as I described in my last paper.

Thousands of feet of rich coral reef; thousands of feet of barren sands; then thousands of feet of rich alluvial forest--and all these sliding into each other, if not in one place, then in another, without violent break or change; this is the story which the lime in the mortar and the coal on the fire, between the two, reveal.

Charles Kingsley

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