On the Formation of Coal

The Contemporary Review (1870)

Collected Essays VIII

[137] The lumps of coal in a coal-scuttle very often have a roughly cubical form. If one of them be picked out and examined with a little care, it will be found that its six sides are not exactly alike. Two opposite sides are comparatively smooth and shining, while the other four are much rougher, and are marked by lines which run parallel with the smooth sides. The coal readily splits along these lines, and the split surfaces thus formed are parallel with the smooth faces. In other words, there is a sort of rough and incomplete stratification in the lump of coal, as if it were a book, the leaves of which had stuck together very closely.

Sometimes the faces along which the coal splits are not smooth, but exhibit a thin layer of dull, charred-looking substance, which is known as "mineral charcoal."

[138] Occasionally one of the faces of a lump of coal will present impressions, which are obviously those of the stem, or leaves, of a plant; but though hard mineral masses of pyrites, and even fine mud, may occur here and there, neither sand nor pebbles are met with.

When the coal burns, the chief ultimate products of its combustion are carbonic acid, water, and ammoniacal products, which escape up the chimney; and a greater or less amount of residual earthy salts, which take the form of ash. These products are, to a great extent, such as would result from the burning of so much wood.

These properties of coal may be made out without any very refined appliances, but the microscope reveals something more. Black and opaque as ordinary coal is, slices of it become transparent if they are cemented in Canada balsam, and rubbed down very thin, in the ordinary way of making thin sections of nontransparent bodies. But as the thin slices, made in this way, are very apt to crack and break into fragments, it is better to employ marine glue as the cementing material. By the use of this substance, slices of considerable size and of extreme thinness and transparency may be obtained.1

[139] Now let us suppose two such slices to be prepared from our lump of coal–one parallel with the bedding, the other perpendicular to it; and let us call the one the horizontal, and the other the vertical, section. The horizontal section will present more or less rounded yellow patches and streaks, scattered irregularly through the dark brown, or blackish, ground substance; while the vertical section will exhibit mere elongated bars and granules of the same yellow materials, disposed in lines which correspond, roughly, with the general direction of the bedding of the coal.

This is the microscopic structure of an ordinary piece of coal. But if a great series of coals, from different localities and seams, or even from different parts of the same seam, be examined, this structure will be found to vary in two directions. In the anthracitic, or stone-coals, which burn like coke, the yellow matter diminishes, and the ground substance becomes more predominant, blacker, and more opaque, until it becomes impossible to grind a section thin enough to be translucent; while, on the other hand, in such as the "Better-Bed" coal of the neighbourhood of Bradford, which burns with much flame, the coal is of a far lighter colour, and transparent sections are very easily obtained. In the browner parts of this coal, sharp eyes will readily detect multitudes of curious little coin-shaped bodies, of a yellowish brown colour, embedded in the dark brown ground substance. On the average, these little brown bodies may have a diameter of about one-twentieth of an inch. They lie with their flat surfaces nearly parallel with the two smooth faces of the block in which they are contained; and, on one side of each, there may be discerned a figure, consisting of three straight linear marks, which radiate from the centre of the disk, but do not quite reach its circumference. In the horizontal section these disks are often converted into more or less complete rings; while in the vertical sections they appear like thick hoops, the sides of which have been pressed together. The disks are, therefore, flattened bags; and favourable sections show that the three-rayed marking is the expression of three clefts, which penetrate one wall of the bag.

The sides of the bags are sometimes closely approximated; but, when the bags are less flattened, their cavities are, usually, filled with numerous, irregularly rounded, hollow bodies, having the same kind of wall as the large ones, but not more than one seven-hundredth of an inch in diameter.

In favourable specimens, again, almost the whole ground substance appears to be made up of similar bodies–more or less carbonized or blackened–and, in these, there can be no doubt that, with the exception of patches of mineral charcoal, here and there, the whole mass of the [141] coal is made up of an accumulation of the larger and of the smaller sacs.

But, in one and the same slice, every transition can be observed from this structure to that which has been described as characteristic of ordinary coal. The latter appears to rise out of the former, by the breaking-up and increasing carbonization of the larger and the smaller sacs. And, in the anthracitic coals, this process appears to have gone to such a length, as to destroy the original structure altogether, and to replace it by a completely carbonized substance.

Thus coal may be said, speaking broadly, to be composed of two constituents: firstly, mineral charcoal; and, secondly, coal proper. The nature of the mineral charcoal has long since been determined. Its structure shows it to consist of the remains of the stems and leaves of plants, reduced a little more than their carbon. Again, some of the coal is made up of the crushed and flattened bark, or outer coat, of the stems of plants, the inner wood of which has completely decayed away. But what I may term the "saccular matter" of the coal, which, either in its primary or in its degraded form, constitutes by far the greater part of all the bituminous coals I have examined, is certainly not mineral charcoal; nor is its structure that of any stem or leaf. Hence its real nature is, at first, by no means apparent, and has been the subject of much discussion.

[142] The first person who threw any light upon the problem, as far as I have been able to discover, was the well-known geologist, Professor Morris. It is now thirty-four years since he carefully described and figured the coin-shaped bodies, or larger sacs, as I have called them, in a note appended to the famous paper "On the Coalbrookdale Coal-Field," published at that time, by the present President of the Geological Society, Mr. Prestwich. With much sagacity, Professor Morris divined the real nature of these bodies, and boldly affirmed them to be the spore-cases of a plant allied to the living club-mosses.

But discovery sometimes makes a long halt; and it is only a few years since Mr. Carruthers determined the plant (or rather one of the plants) which produces these spore-cases, by finding the discoidal sacs still adherent to the leaves of the fossilized cone which produced them. He gave the name of Flemingites gracilis to the plant of which the cones form a part. The branches and stem of this plant are not yet certainly known, but there is no sort of doubt that it was closely allied to the Lepidodendron, the remains of which abound in the coal formation. The Lepidodendra were shrubs and trees which put one more in mind of an Araucaria than of any other familiar plant; and the ends of the fruiting branches were terminated by cones, or catkins, somewhat like the bodies so named in a fir, or a [143] willow. These conical fruits, however, did not produce seeds; but the leaves of which they were composed bore upon their surfaces sacs full of spores or sporangia, such as those one sees on the under surface of a bracken leaf. Now, it is these sporangia of the Lepidodendroid plant Flemingites which were identified by Mr. Carruthers with the free sporangia described by Professor Morris, which are the same as the large sacs of which I have spoken. And, more than this, there is no doubt that the small sacs are the spores, which were originally contained in the sporangia.

The living club-mosses are, for the most part, insignificant and creeping herbs, which, superficially, very closely resemble true mosses, and none of them reach more than two or three feet in height. But, in their essential structure, they very closely resemble the earliest Lepidodendroid trees of the coal: their stems and leaves are similar; so are their cones; and no less like are the sporangia and spores; while even in their size, the spores of the Lepidodendron and those of the existing Lycopodium, or club-moss, very closely approach one another.

Thus, the singular conclusion is forced upon us, that the greater and the smaller sacs of the "Better-Bed" and other coals, in which the primitive structure is well preserved, are simply the sporangia and spores of certain plants, many [144] of which were closely allied to the existing club-mosses. And if, as I believe, it can be demonstrated that ordinary coal is nothing but "saccular" coal which has undergone a certain amount of that alteration which, if continued, would convert it into anthracite; then, the conclusion is obvious, that the great mass of the coal we burn is the result of the accumulation of the spores and spore-cases of plants, other parts of which have furnished the carbonized stems and the mineral charcoal, or have left their impressions on the surfaces of the layer.

Of the multitudinous speculations which, at various times, have been entertained respecting the origin and mode of formation of coal, several appear to be negatived, and put out of court, by the structural facts the significance of which I have endeavoured to explain. These facts, for example, do not permit us to suppose that coal is an accumulation of peaty matter, as some have held.

Again, the late Professor Quekett was one of the first observers who gave a correct description of what I have termed the "saccular" structure of coal; and, rightly perceiving that this structure was something quite different from that of any known plant, he imagined that it proceeded from some extinct vegetable organism which was peculiarly abundant amongst the coal-forming plants. But this explanation is at once shown to [145] be untenable when the smaller and the larger sacs are proved to be spores or sporangia.

Some, once more, have imagined that coal was of submarine origin; and though the notion is amply and easily refuted by other considerations, it may be worth while to remark, that it is impossible to comprehend how a mass of light and resinous spores should have reached the bottom of the sea, or should have stopped in that position if they had got there.

At the same time, it is proper to remark that I do not presume to suggest that all coal must needs have the same structure; or that there may not be coals in which the proportions of wood and spores, or spore-cases, are very different from those which I have examined. All I repeat is, that none of the coals which have come under my notice have enabled me to observe such a difference. But, according to Principal Dawson, who has so sedulously examined the fossil remains of plants in North America, it is otherwise with the vast accumulations of coal in that country.

The true coal," says Dr. Dawson, "consists principally of the flattened bark of Sigillaroid and other trees, intermixed with leaves of Ferns and Cordaites, and other herbaceous débris, and with fragments of decayed wood, constituting 'mineral charcoal,' all these materials having manifestly alike grown and accumulated where we find them."2

[146] When I had the pleasure of seeing Principal Dawson in London last summer, I showed him my sections of coal, and begged him to re-examine some of the American coals on his return to Canada, with an eye to the presence of spores and sporangia, such as I was able to show him in our English and Scotch coals. He has been good enough to do so; and in a letter dated September 26th, 1870, he informs me that–

Indications of spore-cases are rare, except in certain coarse shaly coals and portions of coals, and in the roofs of the seams. The most marked case I have yet met with is the shaly coal referred to as containing Sporangites in my paper on the conditions of accumulation of coal ("Journal of the Geological Society," vol. xxii. pp. 115,139, and 165). The purer coals certainly consist principally of cubical tissues with some true woody matter, and the spore cases, &c., are chiefly in the coarse and shaly layers. This is my old doctrine in my two papers in the "Journal of the Geological Society," and I see nothing to modify it. Your observations, however, make it probable that the frequent clear spots in the cannels are spore-cases."

Dr. Dawson's results are the more remarkable, as the numerous specimens of British coal, from various localities, which I have examined, tell one tale as to the predominance of the spore and sporangium element in their composition; and as it is exactly in the finest and purest coals, such as the "Better-Bed" coal of Lowmoor, that the spores and sporangia obviously constitute almost the entire mass of the deposit.

Coal, such as that which has been described, is [147] always found in sheets, or "seams," varying from a fraction of an inch to many feet in thickness, enclosed in the substance of the earth at very various depths, between beds of rock of different kinds. As a rule, every seam of coal rests upon a thicker, or thinner, bed of clay, which is known as "under-clay." These alternations of beds of coal, clay, and rock may be repeated many times, and are known as the "coal-measures"; and in some regions, as in South Wales and in Nova Scotia, the coal-measures attain a thickness of twelve or fourteen thousand feet, and enclose eighty or a hundred seams of coal, each with its under-clay, and separated from those above and below by beds of sandstone and shale.

The position of the beds which constitute the coal-measures is infinitely diverse. Sometimes they are tilted up vertically, sometimes they are horizontal, sometimes curved into great basins; sometimes they come to the surface, sometimes they are covered up by thousands of feet of rock. But, whatever their present position, there is abundant and conclusive evidence that every under-clay was once a surface soil. Not only do carbonized root-fibres frequently abound in these under-clays; but the stools of trees, the trunks of which are broken off and confounded with the bed of coal, have been repeatedly found passing into radiating roots, still embedded in the under-clay. On many parts of the coast of England, what are [148] commonly known as "submarine forests" are to be seen at low water. They consist, for the most part, of short stools of oak, beech, and fir-trees, still fixed by their long roots in the bed of blue clay in which they originally grew. If one of these submarine forest beds should be gradually depressed and covered up by new deposits, it would present just the same characters as an under-clay of the coal, if the Sigillaria and Lepidodendron of the ancient world were substituted for the oak, or the beech, of our own times.

In a tropical forest, at the present day, the trunks of fallen trees, and the stools of such trees as may have been broken by the violence of storms, remain entire for but a short time. Contrary to what might be expected, the dense wood of the tree decays, and suffers from the ravages of insects, more swiftly than the bark. And the traveller, setting his foot on a prostrate trunk finds that it is a mere shell, which breaks under his weight, and lands his foot amidst the insects, or the reptiles, which have sought food or refuge within.

The trees of the coal forests present parallel conditions. When the fallen trunks which have entered into the composition of the bed of coal are identifiable, they are mere double shells of bark, flattened together in consequence of the destruction of the woody core; and Sir Charles [149] Lyell and Principal Dawson discovered, in the hollow stools of coal trees of Nova Scotia, the remains of snails, millipedes, and salamander-like creatures, embedded in a deposit of a different character from that which surrounded the exterior of the trees. Thus, in endeavouring to comprehend the formation of a seam of coal, we must try to picture to ourselves a thick forest, formed for the most part of trees like gigantic club-mosses, mares'-tails, and tree-ferns, with here and there some that had more resemblance to our existing yews and fir-trees. We must suppose that, as the seasons rolled by, the plants grew and developed their spores and seeds; that they shed these in enormous quantities, which accumulated on the ground beneath; and that, every now and then, they added a dead frond or leaf; or, at longer intervals, a rotten branch, or a dead trunk, to the mass.

A certain proportion of the spores and seeds no doubt fulfilled their obvious function, and, carried by the wind to unoccupied regions, extended the limits of the forest; many might be washed away by rain into streams, and be lost; but a large portion must have remained, to accumulate like beech-mast, or acorns, beneath the trees of a modern forest.

But, in this case, it may be asked, why does not our English coal consist of stems and leaves to a much greater extent than it does? What is [150] the reason of the predominance of the spores and spore-cases in it?

A ready answer to this question is afforded by the study of a living full-grown club-moss. Shake it upon a piece of paper, and it emits a cloud of fine dust, which falls over the paper, and is the well-known Lycopodium powder. Now this powder used to be, and I believe still is, employed for two objects which seem, at first sight, to have no particular connection with one another. It is, or was, employed in making lightning, and in making pills. The coats of the spores contain so much resinous matter, that a pinch of Lycopodium powder, thrown through the flame of a candle, burns with an instantaneous flash, which has long done duty for lightning on the stage. And the same character makes it a capital coating for pills; for the resinous powder prevents the drug from being wetted by the saliva, and thus bars the nauseous flavour from the sensitive papilæ of the tongue.

But this resinous matter, which lies in the walls of the spores and sporangia, is a substance not easily altered by air and water, and hence tends to preserve these bodies, just as the bituminized cerecloth preserves an Egyptian mummy; while, on the other hand, the merely woody stem and leaves tend to rot, as fast as the wood of the mummy's coffin has rotted. Thus the mixed heap of spores, leaves, and stems in the coal-forest would be persistently searched by the long-continued [151] action of air and rain; the leaves and stems would gradually be reduced to little but their carbon, or, in other words, to the condition of mineral charcoal in which we find them; while the spores and sporangia remained as a comparatively unaltered and compact residuum.

There is, indeed, tolerably clear evidence that the coal must, under some circumstances, have been converted into a substance hard enough to be rolled into pebbles, while it yet lay at the surface of the earth; for in some seams of coal, the courses of rivulets, which must have been living water, while the stratum in which their remains are found was still at the surface, have been observed to contain rolled pebbles of the very coal through which the stream has cut its way.

The structural facts are such as to leave no alternative but to adopt the view of the origin of such coal as I have described, which has just been stated; but, happily, the process is not without analogy at the present day. I possess a specimen of what is called "white coal" from Australia. It is an inflammable material, burning with a bright flame, and having much the consistence and appearance of oat-cake, which, I am informed, covers a considerable area. It consists, almost entirely, of a compacted mass of spores and spore-cases. But the fine particles of blown sand which are scattered through it, show that it must [152] have accumulated, subaërially, upon the surface of a soil covered by a forest of cryptogamous plants, probably tree-ferns.

As regards this important point of the subaërial region of coal, I am glad to find myself in entire accordance with Principal Dawson, who bases his conclusions upon other, but no less forcible, considerations. In a passage, which is the continuation of that already cited, he writes:–

(3) The microscopical structure and chemical composition of the beds of cannel coal and earthly bitumen, and of the more highly bituminous and carbonaceous shale, show them to have been of the nature of the fine vegetable mud which accumulates in the ponds and shallow lakes of modern swamps. When such fine vegetable sediment is mixed, as is often the case, with clay, it becomes similar to the bituminous limestone and calcareo-bituminous shales of the coal-measures. (4) A few of the underclays, which support beds of coal, are of the nature of the vegetable mud above referred to; but the greater part are argillo-arenaceous in composition, with little vegetable matter, and bleached by the drainage from them of water containing the products of vegetable decay. They are, in short, loamy or clay soils, and must have been sufficiently above water to admit of drainage. The absence of sulphurets, and the occurrence of carbonate of lime in connection with them, prove that, when they existed as soils, rain-water, and not sea-water, percolated them. (5) The coal and the fossil forests present many evidences of subaërial conditions. Most of the erect and prostrate trees had become hollow shells of bark before they were finally embedded, and their wood had broken into cubical pieces of mineral charcoal. Land-snails and galley-worms (Xylobius) crept into them, and they became dens, or traps, for reptiles. Large quantities of mineral charcoal occur on the surface of all the large beds of coal. None of these appearances could have been produced by subaqueous action. (6) Though the roots of [153] the Sigillaria bear more resemblance to the rhizomes of certain aquatic plants; yet, structurally, they are absolutely identical with the roots of Cycads, which the stems also resemble. Further, the Sigillariæ grew on the same soils which supported Conifers, Cordaites, and Ferns–plants which could not have grown in water. Again, with the exception perhaps of some Pinnulariæ and Asterophyllites, there is a remarkable absence from the coal measures of any form of properly aquatic vegetation. (7) The occurrence of marine, or brackish water animals, in the roofs of coal beds, or even in the coal itself, affords no evidence of subaqueous accumulation, since the same thing occurs in the case of modern submarine forests. For these and other reasons, some of which are more fully stated in the papers already referred to, while I admit that the areas of coal accumulation were frequently submerged, I must maintain that the true coal is a subaërial accumulation by vegetable growth on soils, wet and swampy it is true, but not submerged."

I am almost disposed to doubt whether it is necessary to make the concession of "wet and swampy"; otherwise, there is nothing that I know of to be said against this excellent conspectus of the reasons for believing in the subaërial origin of coal.

But the coal accumulated upon the area covered by one of the great forests of the carboniferous epoch would, in course of time, have been wasted away by the small, but constant, wear and tear of rain and streams, had the land which supported it remained at the same level, or been gradually raised to a greater elevation. And, no doubt, as much coal as now exists has been destroyed, after its formation, in this way. What are now known [154] as coal districts owe their importance to the fact that they were areas of slow depression, during a greater or less portion of the carboniferous epoch; and that, in virtue of this circumstance, Mother Earth was enabled to cover up her vegetable treasures, and preserve them from destruction.

Wherever a coal-field now exists, there must formerly have been free access for a great river, or for a shallow sea, bearing sediment in the shape of sand and mud. When the coal-forest area became slowly depressed, the waters must have spread over it, and have deposited their burden upon the surface of the bed of coal, in the form of layers, which are now converted into shale, or sandstone. Then followed a period of rest, in which the superincumbent shallow waters became completely filled up, and finally replaced, by fine mud, which settled down into a new under-clay, and furnished the soil for a fresh forest growth. This flourished, and heaped up its spores and wood into coal, until the stage of slow depression recommenced. And, in some localities, as I have mentioned, the process was repeated until the first of the alternating beds had sunk to near three miles below its original level at the surface of the earth.

In reflecting on the statement, thus briefly made, of the main facts connected with the origin of the coal formed during the carboniferous epoch, two or three considerations suggest themselves.

[155] In the first place, the great phantom of geological time rises before the student of this, as of all other, fragments of the history of our earth–springing irrepressibly out of the facts, like the Djin from the jar which the fishermen so incautiously opened; and like the Djin again, being vaporous, shifting, and indefinable, but unmistakably gigantic. However modest the bases of one's calculation may be, the minimum of time assignable to the coal period remains something stupendous.

Principal Dawson is the last person likely to be guilty of exaggeration in this matter, and it will be well to consider what he has to say about it:–

The rate of accumulation of coal vas very slow. The climate of the period, in the northern temperate zone, was of such a character that the true conifers show rings of growth, not larger, nor much less distinct; than those of many of their modern congeners. The Sigillariæ and Calamites were not, as often supposed, composed wholly, or even principally, of lax and soft tissues, or necessarily short-lived. The former had, it is true, a very thick inner bark; but their dense woody axis, their thick and nearly imperishable outer bark, and their scanty and rigid foliage, would indicate no very rapid growth or decay. In the case of the Sigillariæ, the variations in the leaf-scars in different parts of the trunk, the intercalation of new ridges at the surface representing that of new woody wedges in the axis, the transverse marks left by the stages of upward growth, all indicate that several years must have been required for the growth of stems of moderate size. The enormous roots of these trees, and the condition of the coal-swamps, must have exempted them from the danger of being overthrown by violence. They [156] probably fell in successive generations from natural decay; and making every allowance for other materials, we may safely assert that every foot of thickness of pure bituminous coal implies the quiet growth and fall of at least fifty generations of Sigillariæ, and therefore an undisturbed condition of forest growth enduring through many centuries. Further, there is evidence that an immense amount of loose parenchymatous tissue, and even of wood, perished by decay, and we do not know to what extent even the most durable tissues may have disappeared in this way; so that, in many coal-scams, we may have only a very small part of the vegetable matter produced."

Undoubtedly the force of these reflections is not diminished when the bituminous coal, as in Britain, consists of accumulated spores and spore-cases, rather than of stems. But, suppose we adopt Principal Dawson's assumption, that one foot of coal represents fifty generations of coal plants; and, further, make the moderate supposition that each generation of coal plants took ten years to come to maturity–then, each foot-thickness of coal represents five hundred years. The superimposed beds of coal in one coal-field may amount to a thickness of fifty or sixty feet, and therefore the coal alone, in that field, represents 500 x 50 = 25,000 years. But the actual coal is but an insignificant portion of the total deposit, which, as has been seen, may amount to between two and three miles of vertical thickness. Suppose it be 12,000 feet–which is 240 times the thickness of the actual coal–is there any reason why we should believe it may not have taken 240 times as long to form? I know of none. But, in this case, the [157] time which the coal-field represents would be 25,000 x 240 = 6,000,000 years. As affording a definite chronology, of course such calculations as these are of no value; but they have much use in fixing one's attention upon a possible minimum. A man may be puzzled if he is asked how long Rome took a-building; but he is proverbially safe if he affirms it not to have been built in a day; and our geological calculations are all, at present, pretty much on that footing.

A second consideration which the study of the coal brings prominently before the mind of any one who is familiar with palæontology is, that the coal Flora, viewed in relation to the enormous period of time which it lasted, and to the still vaster period which has elapsed since it flourished, underwent little change while it endured, and in its peculiar characters, differs strangely little from that which at present exist.

The same species of plants are to be met with throughout the whole thickness of a coal-field, and the youngest are not sensibly different from the oldest. But more than this. Notwithstanding that the carboniferous period is separated from us by more than the whole time represented by the secondary and tertiary formations, the great types of vegetation were as distinct then as now. The structure of the modern club-moss furnishes a complete explanation of the fossil remains of the Lepidodendra, and the fronds of some of the ancient [158] ferns are hard to distinguish from existing ones. At the same time, it must be remembered, that there is nowhere in the world, at present, any forest which bears more than a rough analogy with a coal-forest. The types may remain, but the details of their form, their relative proportions, their associates, are all altered. And the tree-fern forest of Tasmania, or New Zealand, gives one only a faint and remote image of the vegetation of the ancient world.

Once more, an invariably-recurring lesson of geological history, at whatever point its study is taken up: the lesson of the almost infinite slowness of the modification of living forms. The lines of the pedigrees of living things break off almost before they begin to converge.

Finally, yet another curious consideration. Let us suppose that one of the stupid, salamander-like Labyrinthodonts, which pottered, with much belly and little leg, like Falstaff in his old age, among the coal-forests, could have had thinking power enough in his small brain to reflect upon the showers of spores which kept on falling through years and centuries, while perhaps not one in ten million fulfilled its apparent purpose, and reproduced the organism which gave it birth: surely he might have been excused for moralizing upon the thoughtless and wanton extravagance which Nature displayed in her operations.

But we have the advantage over our shovel-[159]headed predecessor–or possibly ancestor–and can perceive that a certain vein of thrift runs through this apparent prodigality. Nature is never in a hurry, and seems to have had always before her eyes the adage, "Keep a thing long enough, and you will find a use for it." She has kept her beds of coal many millions of years without being able to find much use for them; she has sent them down beneath the sea, and the sea-beasts could make nothing of them; she has raised them up into dry land, and laid the black veins bare, and still, for ages and ages, there was no living thing on the face of the earth that could see any sort of value in them; and it was only the other day, so to speak, that she turned a new creature out of her workshop, who by degrees acquired sufficient wits to make a fire, and then to discover that the black rock would burn.

I suppose that nineteen hundred years ago, when Julius Cæsar was good enough to deal with Britain as we have dealt with New Zealand, the primæval Briton, blue with cold and woad, may have known that the strange black stone, of which he found lumps here and there in his wanderings, would burn, and so help to warm his body and cook his food. Saxon, Dane, and Norman swarmed into the land. The English people grew into a powerful nation, and Nature still waited for a full return of the capital she [160] had invested in the ancient club-mosses. The eighteenth century arrived, and with it James Watt. The brain of that man was the spore out of which was developed the modern steam-engine, and all the prodigious trees and branches of modern industry which have grown out of this. But coal is as much an essential condition of this growth and development as carbonic acid is for that of a club-moss. Wanting coal, we could not have smelted the iron needed to make our engines, nor have worked our engines when we had got them. But take away the engines, and the great towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire vanish like a dream. Manufactures give place to agriculture and pasture, and not ten men can live where now ten thousand are amply supported.

Thus, all this abundant wealth of money and of vivid life is Nature's interest upon her investment in club-mosses, and the like, so long ago. But what becomes of the coal which is burnt in yielding this interest? Heat comes out of it, light comes out of it; and if we could gather together all that goes up the chimney, and all that remains in the grate of a thoroughly-burnt coal-fire, we should find ourselves in possession of a quantity of carbonic acid, water, ammonia, and mineral matters, exactly equal in weight to the coal. But these are the very matters with which Nature supplied the club-mosses which made the coal.[161] She is paid back principal and interest at the same time; and she straightway invests the carbonic acid, the water, and the ammonia in new forms of life, feeding with them the plants that now live. Thrifty Nature! Surely no prodigal, but most notable of housekeepers!

1 My assistant in the Museum of Practical Geology, Mr. Newton, invented this excellent method of obtaining thin slices of coal.

2 Acadian Geology, 2nd edition, p. 138.

Preface and Table of Contents to Volume VII, Discourses: Biological & Geological, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

Next article: On the Border Territory between the Animal and the Vegetable Kingdoms [1876], pages 162-195.

Previous article: Yeast [1871], pages 112-138.



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Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden