CHAPTER V--THE ACTION OF WORMS IN THE DENUDATION OF THE LAND.

Evidence of the amount of denudation which the land has undergone-- Sub-aerial denudation--The deposition of dust--Vegetable mould, its dark colour and fine texture largely due to the action of worms-- The disintegration of rocks by the humus-acids --Similar acids apparently generated within the bodies of worms--The action of these acids facilitated by the continued movement of the particles of earth--A thick bed of mould checks the disintegration of the underlying soil and rocks. Particles of stone worn or triturated in the gizzards of worms--Swallowed stones serve as mill-stones-- The levigated state of the castings--Fragments of brick in the castings over ancient buildings well rounded. The triturating power of worms not quite insignificant under a geological point of view.

No one doubts that our world at one time consisted of crystalline rocks, and that it is to their disintegration through the action of air, water, changes of temperature, rivers, waves of the sea, earthquakes and volcanic outbursts, that we owe our sedimentary formations. These after being consolidated and sometimes recrystallized, have often been again disintegrated. Denudation means the removal of such disintegrated matter to a lower level. Of the many striking results due to the modern progress of geology there are hardly any more striking than those which relate to denudation. It was long ago seen that there must have been an immense amount of denudation; but until the successive formations were carefully mapped and measured, no one fully realised how great was the amount. One of the first and most remarkable memoirs ever published on this subject was that by Ramsay, {57} who in 1846 showed that in Wales from 9000 to 11,000 feet in thickness of solid rock had been stripped off large tracks of country. Perhaps the plainest evidence of great denudation is afforded by faults or cracks, which extend for many miles across certain districts, with the strata on one side raised even ten thousand feet above the corresponding strata on the opposite side; and yet there is not a vestige of this gigantic displacement visible on the surface of the land. A huge pile of rock has been planed away on one side and not a remnant left.

Until the last twenty or thirty years, most geologists thought that the waves of the sea were the chief agents in the work of denudation; but we may now feel sure that air and rain, aided by streams and rivers, are much more powerful agents,--that is if we consider the whole area of the land. The long lines of escarpment which stretch across several parts of England were formerly considered to be undoubtedly ancient coast-lines; but we now know that they stand up above the general surface merely from resisting air, rain and frost better than the adjoining formations. It has rarely been the good fortune of a geologist to bring conviction to the minds of his fellow-workers on a disputed point by a single memoir; but Mr. Whitaker, of the Geological Survey of England, was so fortunate when, in 1867, he published his paper "On sub-aerial Denudation, and on Cliffs and Escarpments of the Chalk." {58} Before this paper appeared, Mr. A. Tylor had adduced important evidence on sub-aerial denudation, by showing that the amount of matter brought down by rivers must infallibly lower the level of their drainage basins by many feet in no immense lapse of time. This line of argument has since been followed up in the most interesting manner by Archibald Geikie, Croll and others, in a series of valuable memoirs. {59} For the sake of those who have never attended to this subject, a single instance may be here given, namely, that of the Mississippi, which is chosen because the amount of sediment brought down by this great river has been investigated with especial care by order of the United States Government. The result is, as Mr. Croll shows, that the mean level of its enormous area of drainage must be lowered 1/4566 of a foot annually, or 1 foot in 4566 years. Consequently, taking the best estimate of the mean height of the North American continent, viz. 748 feet, and looking to the future, the whole of the great Mississippi basin will be washed away, and "brought down to the sea-level in less than 4,500,000 years, if no elevation of the land takes place." Some rivers carry down much more sediment relatively to their size, and some much less than the Mississippi.

Disintegrated matter is carried away by the wind as well as by running water. During volcanic outbursts much rock is triturated and is thus widely dispersed; and in all arid countries the wind plays an important part in the removal of such matter. Wind-driven sand also wears down the hardest rocks. I have shown {60} that during four months of the year a large quantity of dust is blown from the north-western shores of Africa, and falls on the Atlantic over a space of 1600 miles in latitude, and for a distance of from 300 to 600 miles from the coast.

The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms Page 49

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Charles Darwin

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