CHAPTER VI--THE DENUDATION OF THE LAND--continued.

Denudation aided by recently ejected castings flowing down inclined grass-covered surfaces--The amount of earth which annually flows downwards--The effect of tropical rain on worm castings--The finest particles of earth washed completely away from castings--The disintegration of dried castings into pellets, and their rolling down inclined surfaces--The formation of little ledges on hill- sides, in part due to the accumulation of disintegrated castings-- Castings blown to leeward over level land--An attempt to estimate the amount thus blown--The degradation of ancient encampments and tumuli--The preservation of the crowns and furrows on land anciently ploughed--The formation and amount of mould over the Chalk formation.

We are now prepared to consider the more direct part which worms take in the denudation of the land. When reflecting on sub-aerial denudation, it formerly appeared to me, as it has to others, that a nearly level or very gently inclined surface, covered with turf, could suffer no loss during even a long lapse of time. It may, however, be urged that at long intervals, debacles of rain or water-spouts would remove all the mould from a very gentle slope; but when examining the steep, turf-covered slopes in Glen Roy, I was struck with the fact how rarely any such event could have happened since the Glacial period, as was plain from the well- preserved state of the three successive "roads" or lake-margins. But the difficulty in believing that earth in any appreciable quantity can be removed from a gently inclined surface, covered with vegetation and matted with roots, is removed through the agency of worms. For the many castings which are thrown up during rain, and those thrown up some little time before heavy rain, flow for a short distance down an inclined surface. Moreover much of the finest levigated earth is washed completely away from the castings. During dry weather castings often disintegrate into small rounded pellets, and these from their weight often roll down any slope. This is more especially apt to occur when they are started by the wind, and probably when started by the touch of an animal, however small. We shall also see that a strong wind blows all the castings, even on a level field, to leeward, whilst they are soft; and in like manner the pellets when they are dry. If the wind blows in nearly the direction of an inclined surface, the flowing down of the castings is much aided.

The observations on which these several statements are founded must now be given in some detail. Castings when first ejected are viscid and soft; during rain, at which time worms apparently prefer to eject them, they are still softer; so that I have sometimes thought that worms must swallow much water at such times. However this may be, rain, even when not very heavy, if long continued, renders recently-ejected castings semi-fluid; and on level ground they then spread out into thin, circular, flat discs, exactly as would so much honey or very soft mortar, with all traces of their vermiform structure lost. This latter fact was sometimes made evident, when a worm had subsequently bored through a flat circular disc of this kind, and heaped up a fresh vermiform mass in the centre. These flat subsided discs have been repeatedly seen by me after heavy rain, in many places on land of all kinds.

On the flowing of wet castings, and the rolling of dry disintegrated castings down inclined surfaces.--When castings are ejected on an inclined surface during or shortly before heavy rain, they cannot fail to flow a little down the slope. Thus, on some steep slopes in Knole Park, which were covered with coarse grass and had apparently existed in this state from time immemorial, I found (Oct. 22, 1872) after several wet days that almost all the many castings were considerably elongated in the line of the slope; and that they now consisted of smooth, only slightly conical masses. Whenever the mouths of the burrows could be found from which the earth had been ejected, there was more earth below than above them. After some heavy storms of rain (Jan. 25, 1872) two rather steeply inclined fields near Down, which had formerly been ploughed and were now rather sparsely clothed with poor grass, were visited, and many castings extended down the slopes for a length of 5 inches, which was twice or thrice the usual diameter of the castings thrown up on the level parts of these same fields. On some fine grassy slopes in Holwood Park, inclined at angles between 8 degrees and 11 degrees 30 seconds with the horizon, where the surface apparently had never been disturbed by the hand of man, castings abounded in extraordinary numbers: and a space 16 inches in length transversely to the slope and 6 inches in the line of the slope, was completely coated, between the blades of grass, with a uniform sheet of confluent and subsided castings. Here also in many places the castings had flowed down the slope, and now formed smooth narrow patches of earth, 6, 7, and 7.5 inches in length. Some of these consisted of two castings, one above the other, which had become so completely confluent that they could hardly be distinguished.

The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms Page 55

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book