Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/Geographical Evolution II
THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE LAND. Let us now proceed to consider how these materials, sedimentary and crystalline, have been put together, so as to constitute the solid land of the globe. It requires but a cursory examination to observe that the sedimentary masses have not been huddled together at random; that, on the contrary, they have been laid down in sheets one over the other. An arrangement of this kind at once betokens a chronological sequence. The rocks can not all have been formed simultaneously. Those at the bottom must have been laid down before those at the top. A truism of this kind seems hardly to require formal statement. Yet it lies at the very foundation of any attempt to trace the geological history of a country. Did the rocks everywhere lie undisturbed one above another as they were originally laid down, their clear order of succession would carry with it its own evident interpretation. But such have been the changes that have arisen, partly from the operation of forces from below, partly from that of forces acting on the surface, that the true order of a series of rocks is not always so easily determined. By starting, however, from where the succession is normal and unbroken, the geologist can advance with confidence into regions where it has been completely interrupted — where the rocks have been shattered, crumpled, and even inverted.
The clew which guides us through these labyrinths is a very simple one. It is afforded by the remains of once living plants and animals which have been preserved in the rocky framework of the land. Each well-marked series of sedimentary accumulations contains its own characteristic plants, corals, crustaceans, shells, fishes, or other organic remains. By these it can be identified and traced from country to country across a whole continent. When, therefore, the true order of superposition of the rocks has been ascertained by observing how they lie upon each other, the succession of their fossils is at the same time fixed. In this way the sedimentary part of the earth's crust has been classified into different formations, each characterized by its distinct assemblage of organic remains. In the most recent formations, most of these remains are identical with still living species of plants and animals; but as we descend in the series and come into progressively older deposits, the proportion of existing species diminishes until at last all the species of fossils are found to be extinct. Still older and lower rocks reveal types and assemblages of organisms which depart further and further from the existing order.
By noting the fossil contents of a formation, therefore, even in a district where the rocks have been so disturbed that their sequence is otherwise untraceable, the geologist can confidently assign their relative position to each of the fractured masses. He knows, for instance (using for our present purpose the letters of the alphabet to denote the sequence of the formations), that a mass of limestone containing fossils typical of the formation B must be younger than another mass of rock containing the fossils of A. A series of strata full of the fossils of H resting immediately on others charged with those of C, must evidently be separated from these by a great gap, elsewhere filled in by the intervening formations D, E, F, G. Nay, should the rocks in the upper part of a mountain be replete with the fossils proper to D, while those in the lower slopes showed only the fossils of E, F, and G, it could be demonstrated that the materials of the mountain had actually been turned upside down, for, as proved by its organic remains, the oldest and therefore lowest formation had come to lie at the top, and the youngest, and therefore highest, at the bottom.
Of absolute chronology in such questions science can as yet give no measure. How many millions of years each formation may have required for its production, and how far back in time may be the era of any given group of fossils, are problems to which no answer, other than a mere guess, can be returned. But this is a matter of far less moment than the relative chronology, which can usually be accurately fixed for each country, and on which all attempts to trace back the history of the land must be based.
While, then, it is true that most of the materials of the solid land have been laid down at successive periods under the sea, and that the relative dates of their deposition can be determined, it is no less certain that the formation of these materials has not proceeded uninterruptedly, and that they have not finally been raised into land by a single movement. The mere fact that they are of marine origin shows, of course, that the land owes its origin to some kind of terrestrial disturbance. But, when the sedimentary formations are examined in detail, they present a most wonderful chronicle of long-continued, oft-repeated, and exceedingly complex movements of the crust of the globe. They show that the history of every country has been long and eventful; that, in short, hardly any portion of the land has reached its present condition, save after a protracted series of geological revolutions.
One of the most obvious and not the least striking features in the architecture of the land is the frequency with which the rocks, though originally horizontal, or approximately so, have been tilted up at various angles, or even placed on end. At first it might be supposed that these disturbed positions have been assumed at random, according to the capricious operations of subterranean forces. They seem to follow no order, and to defy any attempt to reduce them to system. Yet a closer scrutiny serves to establish a real connection among them. They are found, for the most part, to belong to great though fractured curves, into which the crust of the earth has been folded. In low countries far removed from any great mountain-range, the rocks often present scarcely a trace of disturbance, or, if they have been affected, it is chiefly by having been thrown into gentle undulations. As we approach the higher grounds, however, they manifest increasing signs of commotion. Their undulations become more frequent and steeper, until, entering within the mountain-region, we find the rocks curved, crumpled, fractured, inverted, tossed over each other into yawning gulf and towering crest, like billows arrested at the height of a furious storm.
Yet even in the midst of such apparent chaos it is not impossible to trace the fundamental law and order by which it is underlaid. The prime fact to be noted is the universal plication and crumpling of rocks which were at first nearly horizontal. From the gentle undulations of the strata beneath the plains to their violent contortion and inversion among the mountains, there is that insensible gradation which connects the whole of these disturbances as parts of one common process. They can not be accounted for by any mere local movements, though such movements no doubt took place abundantly. The existence of a mountain-chain is not to be explained by a special upheaval or series of upheavals caused by an expansive force acting from below. . Manifestly the elevation is only one phase of a vast terrestrial movement which has extended over whole continents, and has affected plains as well as high grounds.
The only cause which, so far as our present knowledge goes, could have produced such wide-spread changes is a general contraction of the earth's mass. There can be no doubt that at one time our planet existed in a gaseous, then in a liquid condition. Since these early periods it has continued to lose heat, and consequently to contract and to grow more and more solid, until, as the physicists insist, it has now become practically as rigid as a globe of glass or of steel. But in the course of the contraction, after the solid external crust was formed, the inner hot nucleus has lost heat more rapidly than the crust, and has tended to shrink inward from it. As a consequence of this internal movement, the outer solid shell has been obliged to sink down upon the retreating nucleus. In so doing, it has of course had to accommodate itself to a diminished area, and this it could only accomplish by undergoing plication and crumpling. Though the analogy is not n very exact one, we may liken our globe to a shriveled apple. The skin of the apple does not contract equally. As the internal moisture passes off, and the bulk of the fruit is reduced, the once smooth exterior becomes here and there corrugated and dimpled.
Without entering into this difficult problem in physical geology, it may suffice if we carry with us the idea that our globe must once have had a greater diameter than it now possesses, and that the crumpling of its outer layers, whether due to mere contraction or, as has been suggested, to the escape also of subterranean vapors, affords evidence of this diminution. A little reflection suffices to show us that, even without any knowledge of the actual history of the contraction, we might anticipate that the effects would neither be continuous nor everywhere uniform. The solid crust would not, we may be sure, subside as fast as the mass inside. It would, for a time at least, cohere and support itself, until at last, gravitation proving too much for its strength, it would sink down. And the areas and amount of descent would be greatly regulated by the varying thickness and structure of the crust. Subsidence would not take place everywhere; for, as a consequence of the narrower space into which the crust sank, some regions would necessarily be pushed up. These conditions appear to have been fulfilled in the past history of the earth. There is evidence that the terrestrial disturbance has been renewed again and again, after long pauses, and that, while the ocean-basins have on the whole been the great areas of depression, the continents have been the lines of uprise or relief, where the rocks were crumpled and pushed out of the way. Paradoxical, therefore, as the statement may appear, it is nevertheless strictly true that the solid land, considered with reference to the earth's surface as a whole, is the consequence of subsidence rather than of upheaval.
Grasping, then, this conception of the real character of the movements to which the earth owes its present surface configuration, we are furnished with fresh light for exploring the ancient history and growth of the solid land. The great continental ridges seem to lie nearly on the site of the earliest lines of relief from the strain of contraction. They were forced up between the subsiding oceanic basins at a very early period of geological history. In each succeeding epoch of movement they were naturally used over again, and received an additional push upward. Hence we see the meaning of the evidence supplied by the sedimentary rocks as to shallow seas and proximity of land. These rocks could not have been otherwise produced. They were derived from the waste of the land, and were deposited near the land. For it must be borne in mind that every mass of land, as soon as it appeared above water, was at once attacked by the ceaseless erosion of moving water and atmospheric influences, and immediately began to furnish materials for the construction of future lands, to be afterward raised out of the sea.
Each great period of contraction elevated anew the much-worn land, and, at the same time, brought the consolidated marine sediments above water as parts of a new terrestrial surface. Again a long interval would ensue, marked perhaps by a slow subsidence both of the land and sea-bottom. Meanwhile the surface of the land was channeled and lowered, and its detritus was spread over the sea-floor, until another era of disturbance raised it once more with a portion of the surrounding ocean-bed. These successive upward and downward movements explain why the sedimentary formations do not occur as a continuous series, but often lie each upon the upturned and worn edge of its predecessors.
Returning now to the chronological sequence indicated by the organic remains preserved among the sedimentary rocks, we see how it may be possible to determine the relative order of the successive upheavals of a continent. If, for example, a group of rocks, which, as before, may be called A, were found to have been upturned and covered over by undisturbed beds C, the disturbance could be affirmed to have occurred at some part of the epoch represented elsewhere by the missing series B. If, again, the group C were observed to have been subsequently tilted, and to pass under gently-inclined or horizontal strata E, a second period of disturbance would be proved to have occurred between the time of C and E.
I have referred to the unceasing destruction of its surface which the land undergoes from the time when it emerges out of the sea. As a rule, our conceptions of the rate of this degradation are exceedingly vague. Yet they may easily be made more definite by a consideration of present changes on the surface of the land. Every river carries yearly to the sea an immense amount of sand and mud. But this amount is capable of measurement. It represents, of course, the extent to which the general level of the surface of the river's drainage basin is annually lowered. According to such measurements and computations as have been already made, it appears that somewhere about g-^g-o of a foot is every year removed from the surface of its drainage basin by a large river. This seems a small fraction, yet by the power of mere addition it soon mounts up to a large total. Taking the mean level of Europe to be 600 feet, its surface, if everywhere worn away at what seems to be the present mean normal rate, would be entirely reduced to the sea-level in little more than three and a half millions of years.
But of course the waste is not uniform over the whole surface. It is greatest on the slopes and valleys, least on the more level grounds. A few years ago, in making some of the estimates of the ratios between the rates of waste on these areas, I assumed that the tracts of more rapid erosion occupy only one ninth of the whole surface affected, and that in these the rate of destruction is nine times greater than on the more level spaces. Taking these proportions, and granting that 6000 of a foot is the actual ascertained amount of loss from the whole surface, we ascertain by a simple arithmetical process that 12 of an inch is carried away from the plains and table-lands in seventy-five years, while the same amount is worn out of the valleys in eight and a half years. One foot must be removed from the former in 10,800 years, and from the latter in 1,200 years. Hence we learn that at the present rate of erosion a valley 1,000 feet deep may be excavated in 1,200,000 years—by no means a very long period in the conceptions of most geologists.
I do not offer these figures as more than tentative results. They are based, however, not on mere guesses, but on data which, though they may be corrected by subsequent inquiry, are the best at present available, and are probably not far from the truth. They are of value in enabling us more vividly to realize how the prodigious waste of the land, proved by the existence of such enormous masses of sedimentary rock, went quietly on age after age, until results were achieved which seem at first scarcely possible to so slow and gentle an agency.
It is during this quiet process of decay and removal that all the distinctive minor features of the land are wrought out. When first elevated from the sea, the land doubtless presents on the whole a featureless surface. It may be likened to a block of marble raised out of the quarry—rough and rude in outline, massive in solidity and strength, but giving no indication of the grace into which it will grow under the hand of the sculptor. What art effects upon the marble block, Nature accomplishes upon the surface of the land. Her tools are many and varied—air, frost, rain, springs, torrents, rivers, avalanches, glaciers, and the sea—each producing its own characteristic traces in the sculpture. With these implements, out of the huge bulk of the land she cuts the valleys and ravines, scoops the lake-basins, hews with bold, free hand the colossal outline of the mountains, carves out peak and crag, crest and cliff, chisels the courses of the torrents, splinters the sides of the precipices, and leaves her impress upon every lineament of the land. Patiently and unceasingly has this great earth-sculptor sat at her task since the land first rose above the sea, washing down into the ocean the débris of her labor, to form the materials for the framework of future countries; and there will she remain at work, so long as mountains stand, and rain falls, and rivers flow.
The Growth of the European Continent.—Passing now from the general principles with which we have hitherto been dealing, we may seek an illustration of their application to the actual history of a large mass of land. For this purpose, let me ask your attention to some of the more salient features in the gradual growth of Europe. This continent has not the simplicity of structure elsewhere recognizable; but, without entering into detail or following a continuous sequence of events, our present purpose will be served by a few broad outlines of the condition of the European area at successive geological periods.
It is the fate of continents, no less than of the human communities that inhabit them, to have their first origin shrouded in obscurity. When the curtain of darkness begins to rise from our primeval Europe, it reveals to us a scene marvelously unlike that of the existing continent. The land then lay chiefly to the north and northwest, probably extending as far as the edge of the great submarine plateau by which the European ridge is prolonged under the Atlantic for 230 miles to the west of Ireland. Worn fragments of that land exist in Finland, Scandinavia, and the northwest of Scotland, and there are traces of what seem to have been some detached islands in Central Europe, notably in Bohemia and Bavaria. Its original height and extent can of course never be known; but some idea of them may be formed by considering the bulk of solid rock which was formed out of the waste of that land. I find that if we take merely one portion of the detritus washed from its surface and laid down in the sea, viz., that which is comprised in what is termed the Silurian system, and if we assume that it spreads over 60,000 square miles of Britain with an average thickness of 16,000 feet, or three miles, which is probably under the truth, then we obtain the enormous mass of 180,000 cubic miles. The magnitude of this pile of material may be better realized if we reflect that it would form a mountain-ridge three times as long as the Alps, or from the North Cape to Marseilles (1,800 miles), with a breadth of more than thirty-three miles, and an average height of 16,000 feet, that is, higher than the summit of Mont Blanc. All this vast pile of sedimentary rock was worn from the slopes and shores of the primeval northern land. Yet it represents but a small fraction of the material so removed, for the sea of that 'ancient time spread over nearly the whole of Europe eastward into Asia, and everywhere received a tribute of sand and mud from the adjoining shores.
There is perhaps no mass of rock so striking in its general aspect as that of which this northern embryo of Europe consisted. It lacks the variety of composition, structure, color, and form, which distinguishes rocks of more modern growth. But* in dignity of massive strength it stands altogether unrivaled. From the headlands of the Hebrides to the far fiords of Arctic Norway it rises up grim and defiant of the elements. Its veins of quartz, feldspar, and hornblende project from every boss and crag like the twisted and knotted sinews of a magnificent torso. Well does the old gneiss of the north deserve to have been made the foundation-stone of a continent.
Whether vegetation clothed this earliest prototype of Europe, and, if so, what were its characters, are questions to which at present no answer is possible. We know, however, that the shallow sea which spread from the Atlantic southward and eastward over most of Europe was tenanted by an abundant and characteristic series of invertebrate animals—trilobites, graptolites, cystideans, brachiopods, and cephalopods, strangely unlike on the whole to anything living in our waters now, but which then migrated freely along the shores of the Arctic land between what are now America and Europe.
The floor of this shallow sea continued to sink until over Britain at least it had gone down several miles. Yet the water remained shallow because the amount of sediment constantly poured into it from the northwest filled it up about as fast as the bottom subsided. This slow subterranean movement was varied by uprisings here and there, notably by the outburst at successive periods of a great group of active submarine volcanoes over Wales, the Lake District, and the south of Ireland. But at the close of the Silurian period a vast series of disturbances took place, as the consequence of which the first rough outlines of the European Continent were blocked out. The floor of the sea was raised into long ridges of land, among which were some on the site of the Alps, the Spanish Peninsula, and the hills of the west and north of Britain. The thick mass of marine sediment was crumpled up, and here and there even converted into hard crystalline rock. Large inclosed basins, gradually cut off from the sea, like the modern Caspian and the Sea of Aral, extended from beyond the west of Ireland across to Scandinavia and even into the west of Russia. These lakes abounded in bone-covered fishes of strange and now long extinct types, while the land around was clothed with a club-moss and reed-like vegetation—Psilophyton, Sigillaria, Calamite,—etc. the oldest terrestrial flora yet known in Europe. The sea, dotted with numerous islands, appears to have covered most of the heart of the continent.
A curious fact deserves to be noticed here. During the convulsions by which the sediments of the Silurian sea-floor were crumpled up, crystallized, and elevated into land, the area of Russia seems to have remained nearly unaffected. Not only so, but the same immunity from violent disturbance has prevailed over that vast territory during all subsequent geological periods. The Ural Mountains on the east have again and again served as lines of relief, and have been from time to time ridged up anew. The German domains on the west have likewise suffered extreme convulsion. But the wide intervening plateau of Russia has apparently always maintained its flatness either as sea-bottom or as terrestrial plains.
By the time of the coal-growths, the aspect of the European area had still further changed. It then consisted of a series of low ridges or islands in the midst of a shallow sea or of wide salt-water lagoons. A group of islands occupied the site of some of the existing high grounds of Britain. A long, irregular ridge ran across what is now France from Brittany to the Mediterranean. The Spanish Peninsula stood as a detached island. The future Alps rose as a long, low ridge, to the north of the eastern edge of which lay another insular place, where now we find the high grounds of Bavaria and Bohemia. The shallow waters which wound among these scattered patches of land were gradually silted up. Many of them became marshes, crowded with a most luxuriant cryptogamic vegetation, specially of lycopods and ferns, while the dry grounds waved green with coniferous trees. By a slow intermittent subsidence, islet after islet sank beneath the verdant swamps. Each fresh depression submerged the rank jungles and buried them under sand and mud, where they were eventually compressed into coal. To this united cooperation of dense vegetable growth, accumulation of sediment, and slow subterranean movement, Europe owes her coal-fields.
All this time the chief area of high ground in Europe appears still to have lain to the north and northwest. The old gnarled gneiss of that region, though constantly worn down and furnishing materials toward each new formation, yet rose up as land. It no doubt received successive elevations, during the periods of disturbance, which more or less compensated for the constant loss from its surface.
The next scene we may contemplate brings before us a series of salt lakes, covering the center of the continent from the north of Ireland to the heart of Poland. These basins were formed by the gradual cutting off of portions of the sea which had spread over the region. Their waters were red and bitter, and singularly unfavorable to life. On the low intervening ridges a coniferous and cycadaceous vegetation grew, sometimes in quantity sufficient to supply materials for the formation of coal-seams. The largest of these salt lakes stretched from the edge of the old plateau of Central France along the base of the Alpine ridge to the high grounds of Bohemia, and included the basin of the Rhine from Basel down to the ridge beyond Mayence, which has been subsequently cut through by the river into the picturesque gorges between Bingen and the Siebengebirge. This lake was filled up with red sand and mud, limestone, and beds of rock-salt. Where the eastern Alps now rise, the inclosed water-basins were the scene of a long-continued growth of dolomite, out of which in later ages the famous dolomite mountains of the Tyrol were carved.
These salt lakes of the Triassic period seem to have been everywhere quietly effaced by a wide-spread depression, which allowed the water of the main ocean once more to overspread the greater part of Europe. This slow subsidence went on so long as to admit of the accumulation of masses of limestone, shale, and sandstone, several thousand feet in thickness, and probably to bring most of the insular tracts of Central Europe under water. To this period, termed by geologists the Jurassic, we can trace back the origin Of a large part of the rock now forming the surface of the continent, from the low plains of Central England up to the crests of the northern Alps, while in the Mediterranean basin, rocks of the same age cover a large area of the plateau of Spain, and form the central mass of the chain of the Apennines. It is interesting to know that the northwest of Britain continued still to rise as land in spite of all the geographical changes which had taken place to the south and east. We can trace even yet the shores of the Jurassic sea along the skirts of the mountains of Skye and Ross-shire.
The next long era, termed the Cretaceous, was likewise more remarkable for slow accumulation of rock under the sea than for the formation of new land. During that time the Atlantic sent its waters across the whole of Europe and into Asia. But they were probably nowhere more than a few hundred feet deep over the site of our continent, even at their deepest part. Upon their bottom there gathered a vast mass of calcareous mud, composed in great part of foraminif era, corals, echinoderms, and mollusks. Our English chalk which ranges across the north of France, Belgium, Denmark, and the north of Germany, represents a portion of the deposits of that sea-floor. Some of the island spaces which had remained for a vast period above water, and had by their degradation supplied materials for the sediment of successive geological formations, now went down beneath the Cretaceous sea. The ancient high-grounds of Bohemia, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Spanish table-land, were either entirely submerged, or at least had their area very considerably reduced. The submergence likewise affected the northwest of Britain; the western Highlands of Scotland lay more than one thousand feet below their present level.
When we turn to the succeeding geological period, that of the Eocene, the proofs of wide-spread submergence are still more striking. A large part of the Old World seems to have sunk down; for we find that one wide stretch of sea extended across the whole of Central Europe and Asia. It was at the close of this period of extreme depression that those subterranean movements began to which the present configuration of Europe is mainly due. The Pyrenees, Alps, Apennines, Carpathians, the Caucasus, and the heights of Asia Minor mark as it were the crests of the vast earth-waves into which the solid framework of Europe was then thrown. So enormous was the contortion that, as may be seen along the northern Alps, the rocks for thousands of feet were completely inverted, this inversion being accompanied by the most colossal folding and twisting. The massive sedimentary formations were crumpled up, and doubled over each other, as we might fold a pile of cloth. In the midst of these commotions the west of Europe remained undisturbed. It is strange to reflect that the soft clays and sands under London are as old as some of the hardened rocks which have been upheaved into such picturesque peaks along the northern flanks of the Alps.
After the completion of these vast terrestrial disturbances, the outlines of Europe began distinctly to shape themselves into their present form. The Alps rose as a great mountain-range, flanked on the north by a vast lake which covered all the present lowlands of Switzerland, and stretched northward across a part of the Jura Mountains, and eastward into Germany. The size of this fresh-water basin may be inferred from the fact that one portion only of the sand and gravel that accumulated in it even now measures six thousand feet in thickness. The surrounding land was densely clothed with a vegetation indicative of a much warmer climate than Europe now can boast. Palms of American types, as well as date-palms, huge Californian pines (Sequoia), laurels, cypresses, and evergreen oaks, with many other evergreen trees, gave a distinctive character to the vegetation. Among the trees too were planes, poplars, maples, willows, oaks, and other ancestors of our living woods and forests; numerous ferns grew in the underwood, while clematis and vine wound themselves among the branches. The waters were haunted by huge pachyderms, such as the dinotherium and hippopotamus; while the rhinoceros and mastodon roamed through the woodlands.
A marked feature of this period in Europe was the abundance and activity of the volcanoes. In Hungary, Rhineland, and Central France, numerous vents opened and poured out their streams of lava and showers of ashes. From the south of Antrim, also, another great line of active orifices ran up the west coast of Scotland and by the Faroe Islands to Iceland, whence it extended even far into Arctic Greenland.
The mild climate indicated by the vegetation in the deposits of the Swiss lake, prevailed even into polar latitudes, for the remains of numerous evergreen shrubs, oaks, maples, walnuts, hazels, and many other trees, have been found under the sheets of lava in the far north of Greenland. The sea still occupied much of the lowlands of Europe. Thus it ran as a strait between the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean, cutting off the Pyrenees and Spain from the rest of the continent. It swept round the north of France, covering the rich fields of Touraine and the wide flats of the Netherlands. It rolled far up the plains of the Danube and stretched thence eastward across the south of Russia into Asia.
By this time not a few of the species of shells which still people the European seas had appeared. So long have they been natives of our area that they have witnessed the rise of a great part of the continent. Some of the most stupendous changes which they have seen have taken place in the basin of the Mediterranean, where, at a comparatively recent geological period, parts of the sea-floor have been upheaved to a height of three thousand feet. It was then that the breadth of the Italian Peninsula was increased by the belt of lower hills that flanks the range of the Apennines. Then, too, Vesuvius and Etna began their eruptions. Among these later geographical events also we must place the gradual isolation of the Sea of Aral, the Caspian, and the Black Sea from the rest of the ocean, which once spread from the Arctic regions down the west of Asia, along the base of the Ural Mountains into the southeast of Europe.
The last scene in this long history is one of the most unexpected of all. Europe, having nearly its present height and outlines, is swathed deep in snow and ice. Scandinavia and Finland are one vast sheet of ice, that creeps down from the watershed into the Atlantic on the one side, and into the basin of the Baltic on the other. All the high grounds of Britain are similarly buried. The bed of the North Sea as well as of the Baltic is in great measure choked with ice. The Alps, the Pyrenees, the Carpathians, and the Caucasus send down vast glaciers into the plains at their base. Northern plants find their way south even to the Pyrenees, while the reindeer, musk-ox, lemming, and their Arctic companions roam far and wide over France.
As a result of the prolonged passage of solid masses of ice over them, the rocks on the surface of the continent, when once more laid bare to the sun, present a worn, flowing outline. They have been hollowed into basins, ground smooth, and polished. Long mounds and wide sheets of clay, gravel, and sand have been left over the low grounds, and the hollows between them are filled with innumerable tarns and lakes. Crowds of bowlders have been perched on the sides of the hills and dropped over the plains. With the advent of a milder temperature the Arctic vegetation has gradually disappeared from the plains. Driven up step by step before the advancing flora from more genial climates, it retired into the mountains and there to this day continues to maintain itself. The present Alpine flora of the Pyrenees, the Alps, Britain, and Scandinavia, is thus a living record of the ice age. The reindeer and his friends have long since been forced to return to their northern homes.
After this long succession of physical revolutions, man appears as a denizen of the Europe thus prepared for him. The earliest records of his presence reveal him as a fisher and hunter, with rude flint-pointed spear and harpoon. And doubtless for many a dim century such was his condition. He made no more impress on external nature than one of the beasts which he chased. But in course of time, as civilization grew, he asserted his claim to be one of the geographical forces of the globe. Not content with gathering the fruits and capturing the animals which he found needful for his wants, he gradually entered on a contest with Nature to subdue the earth and to possess it. Nowhere has this warfare been fought out so vigorously as on the surface of Europe. On the one hand, wide dark regions of ancient forest have given place to smiling cornfields. Peat and moor have made way for pasture and tillage. On the other hand, by the clearance of woodlands the rainfall has been so diminished that drought and barrenness have spread where verdure and luxuriance once prevailed. Rivers have been straightened and made to keep their channels, the sea has been barred back from its former shores. For many generations the surface of the continent has been covered with roads, villages, and towns, bridges, aqueducts, and canals, to which this century has added a multitudinous network of railways, with their embankments and tunnels. In short, wherever man has lived, the ground beneath him bears witness to his presence. It is slowly covered with a stratum either wholly formed by him or due in great measure to his operations. The soil under old cities has been increased to a depth of many feet by the rubbish of his buildings; the level of the streets of modern Rome stands high above that of the pavement of the Caesars, and that again above the roadways of the early republic. Over cultivated fields his potsherds are turned up in abundance by the plow. The loam has risen within the walls of his graveyards as generation after generation has moldered into dust.
It must be owned that man, in most of his struggles with the world around him, has fought blindly for his own ultimate interests. His contest, successful for the moment, has too often led to sure and sad disaster. Stripping forests from hill and mountain, he has gained his immediate object in the possession of their abundant stores of timber; but he has laid open the slopes to be parched by drought, or to be swept bare by rain. Countries once rich in beauty, and plenteous in all that was needful for his support, are now burned and barren, or almost denuded of their soil. Gradually he has been taught by his own bitter experience, that while his aim still is to subdue the earth, he can attain it, not by setting Nature and her laws at defiance, but by enlisting them in his service. He has learned at last to be the minister and interpreter of Nature, and he finds in her a ready and unrepining slave.
In fine, looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress. So slow and measured has been their march, that even from the earliest times of human history they seem hardly to have advanced at all. But none the less are they surely and steadily transpiring around us. In the fall of rain and the flow of rivers, in the bubble of springs and the silence of frost, in the quiet creep of glaciers and the tumultuous rush of ocean-waves, in the tremor of the earthquake and the outburst of the volcano, we may recognize the same play of terrestrial forces by which the framework of the continents has been step by step evolved. In this light the familiar phenomena of our daily experience acquire an historical interest and dignity. Through them we are enabled to bring the remote past vividly before us, and to look forward hopefully to that great future in which, in the physical not less than in the moral world, man is to be a fellow worker with God.—Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society.