On poor pasture-land, which has never been rolled and has not been much trampled on by animals, the whole surface is sometimes dotted with little pimples, through and on which grass grows; and these pimples consist of old worm- castings.

In all the many observed cases of soft castings blown to leeward, this had been effected by strong winds accompanied by rain. As such winds in England generally blow from the south and south-west, earth must on the whole tend to travel over our fields in a north and north-east direction. This fact is interesting, because it might be thought that none could be removed from a level, grass- covered surface by any means. In thick and level woods, protected from the wind, castings will never be removed as long as the wood lasts; and mould will here tend to accumulate to the depth at which worms can work. I tried to procure evidence as to how much mould is blown, whilst in the state of castings, by our wet southern gales to the north-east, over open and flat land, by looking to the level of the surface on opposite sides of old trees and hedge-rows; but I failed owing to the unequal growth of the roots of trees and to most pasture-land having been formerly ploughed.

On an open plain near Stonehenge, there exist shallow circular trenches, with a low embankment outside, surrounding level spaces 50 yards in diameter. These rings appear very ancient, and are believed to be contemporaneous with the Druidical stones. Castings ejected within these circular spaces, if blown to the north-east by south-west winds would form a layer of mould within the trench, thicker on the north-eastern than on any other side. But the site was not favourable for the action of worms, for the mould over the surrounding Chalk formation with flints, was only 3.37 inches in thickness, from a mean of six observations made at a distance of 10 yards outside the embankment. The thickness of the mould within two of the circular trenches was measured every 5 yards all round, on the inner sides near the bottom. My son Horace protracted these measurements on paper; and though the curved line representing the thickness of the mould was extremely irregular, yet in both diagrams it could be seen to be thicker on the north-eastern side than elsewhere. When a mean of all the measurements in both the trenches was laid down and the line smoothed, it was obvious that the mould was thickest in the quarter of the circle between north- west and north-east; and thinnest in the quarter between south-east and south-west, especially at this latter point. Besides the foregoing measurements, six others were taken near together in one of the circular trenches, on the north-east side; and the mould here had a mean thickness of 2.29 inches; while the mean of six other measurements on the south-west side was only 1.46 inches. These observations indicate that the castings had been blown by the south-west winds from the circular enclosed space into the trench on the north-east side; but many more measurements in other analogous cases would be requisite for a trustworthy result.

The amount of fine earth brought to the surface under the form of castings, and afterwards transported by the winds accompanied by rain, or that which flows and rolls down an inclined surface, no doubt is small in the course of a few scores of years; for otherwise all the inequalities in our pasture fields would be smoothed within a much shorter period than appears to be the case. But the amount which is thus transported in the course of thousands of years cannot fail to be considerable and deserves attention. E. de Beaumont looks at the vegetable mould which everywhere covers the land as a fixed line, from which the amount of denudation may be measured. {79} He ignores the continued formation of fresh mould by the disintegration of the underlying rocks and fragments of rock; and it is curious to find how much more philosophical were the views maintained long ago, by Playfair, who, in 1802, wrote, "In the permanence of a coat of vegetable mould on the surface of the earth, we have a demonstrative proof of the continued destruction of the rocks." {80}

Ancient encampments and tumuli.--E. de Beaumont adduces the present state of many ancient encampments and tumuli and of old ploughed fields, as evidence that the surface of the land undergoes hardly any degradation. But it does not appear that he ever examined the thickness of the mould over different parts of such old remains. He relies chiefly on indirect, but apparently trustworthy, evidence that the slopes of the old embankments are the same as they originally were; and it is obvious that he could know nothing about their original heights. In Knole Park a mound had been thrown up behind the rifle-targets, which appeared to have been formed of earth originally supported by square blocks of turf. The sides sloped, as nearly as I could estimate them, at an angle of 45 degrees or 50 degrees with the horizon, and they were covered, especially on the northern side, with long coarse grass, beneath which many worm-castings were found.

The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms Page 61

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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