Six and a half years subsequently this field was re-examined, and the fragments were now found at from 4 to 5 inches beneath the surface. So that in this interval of 6.5 years, about 1.5 inch of mould had been added to the superficial layer. I am surprised that a greater quantity had not been brought up during the whole 21.5 years, for in the closely underlying black, peaty soil there were many worms. It is, however, probable that formerly, whilst the land remained poor, worms were scanty; and the mould would then have accumulated slowly. The average annual increase of thickness for the whole period is 0.19 of an inch.

Two other cases are worth recording. In the spring of 1835, a field, which had long existed as poor pasture and was so swampy that it trembled slightly when stamped on, was thickly covered with red sand so that the whole surface appeared at first bright red. When holes were dug in this field after an interval of about 2.5 years, the sand formed a layer at a depth of 0.75 in. beneath the surface. In 1842 (i.e., 7 years after the sand had been laid on) fresh holes were dug, and now the red sand formed a distinct layer, 2 inches beneath the surface, or 1.5 inch beneath the turf; so that on an average, 0.21 inch of mould had been annually brought to the surface. Immediately beneath the layer of red sand, the original substratum of black sandy peat extended.

A grass field, likewise not far from Maer Hall, had formerly been thickly covered with marl, and was then left for several years as pasture; it was afterwards ploughed. A friend had three trenches dug in this field 28 years after the application of the marl, {42} and a layer of the marl fragments could be traced at a depth, carefully measured, of 12 inches in some parts, and of 14 inches in other parts. This difference in depth depended on the layer being horizontal, whilst the surface consisted of ridges and furrows from the field having been ploughed. The tenant assured me that it had never been turned up to a greater depth than from 6 to 8 inches; and as the fragments formed an unbroken horizontal layer from 12 to 14 inches beneath the surface, these must have been buried by the worms whilst the land was in pasture before it was ploughed, for otherwise they would have been indiscriminately scattered by the plough throughout the whole thickness of the soil. Four-and-a-half years afterwards I had three holes dug in this field, in which potatoes had been lately planted, and the layer of marl-fragments was now found 13 inches beneath the bottoms of the furrows, and therefore probably 15 inches beneath the general level of the field. It should, however, be observed that the thickness of the blackish sandy soil, which had been thrown up by the worms above the marl-fragments in the course of 32.5 years, would have measured less than 15 inches, if the field had always remained as pasture, for the soil would in this case have been much more compact. The fragments of marl almost rested on an undisturbed substratum of white sand with quartz pebbles; and as this would be little attractive to worms, the mould would hereafter be very slowly increased by their action.

We will now give some cases of the action of worms, on land differing widely from the dry sandy or the swampy pastures just described. The chalk formation extends all round my house in Kent; and its surface, from having been exposed during an immense period to the dissolving action of rain-water, is extremely irregular, being abruptly festooned and penetrated by many deep well-like cavities. {43} During the dissolution of the chalk, the insoluble matter, including a vast number of unrolled flints of all sizes, has been left on the surface and forms a bed of stiff red clay, full of flints, and generally from 6 to 14 feet in thickness. Over the red clay, wherever the land has long remained as pasture, there is a layer a few inches in thickness, of dark-coloured vegetable mould.

A quantity of broken chalk was spread, on December 20, 1842, over a part of a field near my house, which had existed as pasture certainly for 30, probably for twice or thrice as many years. The chalk was laid on the land for the sake of observing at some future period to what depth it would become buried. At the end of November, 1871, that is after an interval of 29 years, a trench was dug across this part of the field; and a line of white nodules could be traced on both sides of the trench, at a depth of 7 inches from the surface. The mould, therefore, (excluding the turf) had here been thrown up at an average rate of 0.22 inch per year. Beneath the line of chalk nodules there was in parts hardly any fine earth free of flints, while in other parts there was a layer, 2.25 inches in thickness. In this latter case the mould was altogether 9.25 inches thick; and in one such spot a nodule of chalk and a smooth flint pebble, both of which must have been left at some former time on the surface, were found at this depth. At from 11 to 12 inches beneath the surface, the undisturbed reddish clay, full of flints, extended.

The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms Page 30

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book