The mountains on this eastern side are exceedingly abrupt; they rise out of a smooth, talus-like, very gentle, slope, from five to ten miles in width (as represented in Figure 13), entirely composed of perfectly rounded pebbles, often white-washed with an aluminous substance like decomposed feldspar. This sloping plain or talus blends into a perfectly flat space a few miles in width, composed of reddish impure clay, with small calcareous concretions as in the Pampean deposit,--of fine white sand with small pebbles in layers,--and of the above-mentioned white aluminous earth, all interstratified together. This flat space runs as far as Mendoza, thirty miles northward, and stands probably at about the same height, namely, 2,700 feet (Pentland and Miers) above the sea. To the east it is bounded by an escarpment, eighty feet in height, running for many miles north and south, and composed of perfectly round pebbles, and loose, white-washed, or embedded in the aluminous earth: behind this escarpment there is a second and similar one of gravel. Northward of Mendoza, these escarpments become broken and quite obliterated; and it does not appear that they ever enclosed a lake-like area: I conclude, therefore, that they were formed by the sea, when it reached the foot of the Cordillera, like the similar escarpments occurring at so many points on the coasts of Chile and Patagonia.

The talus-like plain slopes up with a smooth surface into the great dry valleys of the Cordillera. On each hand of the Portillo valley, the mountains are formed of red granite, mica-slate, and basalt, which all have suffered a truly astonishing amount of denudation; the gravel in the valley, as well as on the talus-like plain in front of it, is composed of these rocks; but at the mouth of the valley, in the middle (height probably about three thousand five hundred feet above the sea), a few small isolated hillocks of several varieties of porphyry project, round which, on all sides, smooth and often white-washed pebbles of these same porphyries, to the exclusion of all others, extend to a circumscribed distance. Now, it is difficult to conceive any other agency, except the quiet and long-continued action of the sea on these hillocks, which could have rounded and whitewashed the fragments of porphyry, and caused them to radiate from such small and quite insignificant centres, in the midst of that vast stream of stones which has descended from the main Cordillera.


(FIGURE 14. GROUND-PLAN OF A BIFURCATING VALLEY IN THE CORDILLERA, bordered by smooth, sloping gravel-fringes (AA), worn along the course of the river into cliffs.)

All the main valleys on both flanks of the Chilean Cordillera have formerly had, or still have, their bottoms filled up to a considerable thickness by a mass of rudely stratified shingle. In Central Chile the greater part of this mass has been removed by the torrents; cliff-bounded fringes, more or less continuous, being left at corresponding heights on both sides of the valleys. These fringes, or as they may be called terraces, have a smooth surface, and as the valleys rise, they gently rise with them: hence they are easily irrigated, and afford great facilities for the construction of the roads. From their uniformity, they give a remarkable character to the scenery of these grand, wild, broken valleys. In width, the fringes vary much, sometimes being only broad enough for the roads, and sometimes expanding into narrow plains. Their surfaces, besides gently rising up the valley, are slightly inclined towards its centre in such a manner as to show that the whole bottom must once have been filled up with a smooth and slightly concave mass, as still are the dry unfurrowed valleys of Northern Chile. Where two valleys unite into one, these terraces are particularly well exhibited, as is represented in Figure 14. The thickness of the gravel forming these fringes, on a rude average, may be said to vary from thirty to sixty or eighty feet; but near the mouths of the valleys it was in several places from two to three hundred feet.

South American Geology Page 53

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Charles Darwin

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