Amazing articles on just about every subject...

What Is Geology?

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE main features of the dry land on which we live seem to remain unchanged from year to year. The valleys and plains familiar to our forefathers are still familiar to us, bearing the same meadows and woodlands, the same hamlets and villages, though generation after generation of men has meanwhile passed away. The hills and mountains now rise along the sky-line as they did long centuries ago, catching as of old the fresh rains of heaven and gathering them into the brooks and rivers which, through unknown ages, have never ceased to flow seawards. So steadfast do these features appear to stand, and so strong a contrast do they offer to the shortness and changeableness of human life, that they have become typical in our minds of all that is ancient and durable. We speak of the firm earth, of the everlasting hills, of the imperishable mountains, as if, where all else is fleeting and mutable, these forms at least remain unchanged.

And yet attentive observation of what takes place from day to day around us shows that the surface of a country is not now exactly as it used to be. We notice various changes of its topography going on now, which have doubtless been in progress for a long time, and the accumulated effect of which may ultimately transform altogether the character of a landscape. A strong gale, for instance, will level thousands of trees in its pathway, turning a tract of forest or woodland into a bare space, which may become a quaking morass, until perhaps changed into arable ground by the farmer. A flooded river will in a few hours cut away large slices from its banks, and spreading over fields and meadows, will bury many acres of fertile land under a covering of barren sand and shingle. A long-continued, heavy rain, by loosening masses of earth or rock on steep slopes, causes destructive landslips. A hard frost splinters the naked fronts of crags and cliffs, and breaks up bare soil. In short, every shower of rain and gust of wind, if we could only watch them narrowly enough, would be found to have done something towards modifying the surface of the land. Along the sea margin, too, how ceaseless is the progress. of change. In most places, the waves are cutting away the land, sometimes even at so fast a rate as two or three feet in a year. Here and there, on the other hand, they cast sand and silt ashore so as to increase the breadth of the dry land.

These are ordinary everyday causes of alteration, and though singly insignificant enough, their united effect after long centuries cannot but be great. From time to time, however, other less frequent but more powerful influences come into play. In most large regions of the globe, the ground is often convulsed by earthquakes, many of which leave permanent scars upon the surface of the land. Volcanoes, too, in many countries pour forth streams of molten rock and showers of dust and cinders that bury the surrounding districts and greatly alter their appearance.

Turning to the pages of human history, we find there the records of similar changes in bygone times. Lakes, on which our rude forefathers paddled their canoes and built their wattled island-dwellings, have wholly disappeared. Bogs, over whose treacherous surface these early hunters could not follow the chase of red deer or Irish elk, have become meadows and fields. Forests, where they hunted the wild boar, have been turned into grassy pastures. Cities have been entirely destroyed by earthquakes or have been entombed under the piles of ashes discharged from a burning mountain. So great have been the inroads of the sea that, in some instances, the sites of what a few hundred years ago were farms and hamlets, now lie under the sea half a mile or more from the modern shore. Elsewhere the land has gained upon the sea, and the harbors of an earlier time are now several miles distant from the coast-line.

But man has naturally kept note only of the more impressive changes ; in other words, of those which had most influence upon his own doings. We may be certain, however, that there have been innumerable minor alterations of the surface of the land within human history, of which no chronicler has made mention, either because they seemed too trivial, or because they took place so imperceptibly as never to be noticed. Fortunately, in many cases, these mutations of the land have written their own memorials, which can be as satisfactorily interpreted as the ancient manuscripts from which our early national history is compiled.

In illustration of the character of these natural chronicles, let us for a moment consider the subsoil beneath cities that have been inhabited for many centuries. In London, for example, when excavations are made for drainage, building, or other purposes, there are some-times found, many feet below the level of the present streets, mosaic pavements and foundations together with earthen vessels, bronze implements, ornaments, coins, and other relics of Roman time. Now, if we knew nothing, from actual authentic history, of the existence of such a people as the Romans, or of their former presence in England, these discoveries, deep beneath the surface of modern London, would prove that long before the present streets were built, the site of the city was occupied by a civilized race which employed bronze and iron for the useful purposes of life, had a metal coinage, and showed not a little artistic skill in its pottery, glass, and sculpture. But down beneath the rubbish wherein the Roman remains are embedded, lie gravels and sands from which rudely-fashioned human implements of flint have been obtained. Whence we further learn that, before the civilized metal-using people appeared, an earlier race had been there, which employed weapons and instruments of roughly chipped flint.

That this was the order of appearance of the successive peoples that have inhabited the site of London is, of course, obvious. But let us ask ourselves why it is obvious. We observe that there are, broadly speaking, three layers or deposits from which the evidence is derived. The upper layer is that which contains the foundations and rubbish of modern London. Next comes that which encloses the relics of the Roman occupation.* At the bottom lies the layer that preserves the scanty traces of the early flint-folk. The upper deposit is necessarily the newest, for it could not be laid down until after the accumulation of those below it, which must, of course, be progressively older, as they are traced deeper from the surface. By the mere fact that the layers lie one above another, we are furnished with a simple clue which enables us to determine their relative time of formation. We may know nothing whatever as to how old they are measured by years or centuries. But we can be absolutely certain of what is termed their "order of super-position, " or chronological sequence ; in other words, we can be confident that the bottom layer came first and the top layer last.

This kind of observation and reasoning will enable us to detect almost everywhere proofs that the surface of the land has not always been what it is to-day. In some districts, for example, when the dark layer of vegetable soil is turned up which supports the plants that keep the land so green, there may be found below it sand and gravel, full of smooth well-rounded stones. Such materials are to be seen in the course of formation where water keeps them moving to and fro, as on the beds of rivers, the margins of lakes, or the shores of the sea. Wherever smoothed rolled pebbles occur, they point to the influence of moving water; so that we conclude, even though the site is now dry land, that the sand and gravel underneath it prove it to have been formerly under water. Again, below the soil in other regions, lie layers of oyster and other sea-shells. These remains, spread out like similar. shells on the beach or bed of the sea at the present day, enable us to infer that where they lie the sea once rolled.

Pits, quarries, or other excavations that lay open still deeper layers of material, bring before us interesting and impressive testimony regarding the ancient mutations of the land. Suppose, by way of further illustration, that underneath a bed of sand full of oyster-shells, there lies a dark brown band of peat. This substance, composed of mosses and other water-loving plants, is formed in boggy places by the growth of marshy vegetation.Below the peat there might occur a layer of soft white marl full of lake-shells, such as may be observed on the bottoms of many lakes at the present time. These three layers-oyster-bed, peat, and marl—would present a perfectly clear and intelligible record of a curious series of changes in the site of the locality. The bottom layer of white marl with its peculiar shells would show that at one time the place was occupied by a lake. The next layer of peat would indicate that, by the growth of marshy vegetation, the lake was gradually changed into a morass. The upper layer of oyster-shells would prove that the ground was then submerged beneath the sea. The present condition of the ground shows that subsequently the sea retired and the locality passed into dry land as it is to-day.

It is evident that by this method of examination information may be gathered regarding early conditions of the earth's surface, long before the authentic dates of human history. Such inquiries form the subject of Geology, which is the science that investigates the History of the Earth. The records in which this history is chronicled are the soils and rocks under our feet. It is the task of the geologist so to arrange and interpret these records as to show through what successive changes the globe has passed, and how the dry land has come to wear the aspect which it presents at the present time.

Just as the historian would be wholly unable to decipher the inscriptions of an ancient race of people unless he had first discovered a key to the language in which they are written, so the geologist would find himself baffled in his efforts to trace backward the history of the earth if he were not provided with a clue to the interpretation of the records in which that history is contained. Such a clue is furnished to him by a study of the operations of nature now in progress upon the earth's surface. Only in so far as he makes himself acquainted with these modern changes, can he hope to follow intelligently and successfully the story of earlier phases in the earth's progress. It will be seen that this truth has already been illustrated in the instances above given of the evidence that the surface of the land has not been always as it is now. The beds of sand and gravel, of oyster-shells, of peat and of marl, would have told us nothing as to ancient geography had we not been able to ascertain their origin and history by finding corresponding materials now in course of accumulation. To one ignorant of the peculiarities of fresh-water shells, the layer of marl would have conveyed no intelligible meaning. But knowing and recognizing these peculiarities, we feel sure that the marl marks the site of a former lake. Thus the study of the Present supplies a key that unlocks the secrets of the Past.

In order, therefore, to trace back the history of the Earth, the geologist must begin by carefully watching the changes that now take place, and by observing how nature elaborates the materials that preserve more or less completely the record of these changes.

If the labors of the geologist were concerned merely with the former mutations of the earth's surface,—how sea and land have changed places, how rivers have altered their courses, how lakes have been filled up, how valleys have been excavated, how mountains, peaks, and precipices have been carved, how plains have been spread out, and how the story of these revolutions has been written in enduring characters upon the very framework of the land,-he would feel the want of one of the great sources of interest in the study of the present face of nature. We naturally connect all modern changes of the earth's surface with the life of the plants and animals that flourish there, and more especially with their influence on the progress of Man himself. If there were no similar connection of the ancient changes with once living things—if the history of the earth were merely one of dead inert matter it would lose much of its interest for us. But happily that history includes the records of successive generations of plants and animals which, from early times, have peopled land and sea. The remains of these organisms have been preserved in the deposits of different ages, and can be compared and contrasted with those of the modern world.

To realize how such preservation has been possible, and how far the forms so retained afford an adequate picture of the life of the time to which they belonged, we must turn once more to watch how nature deals with this matter at the present time. Of the millions of flowers, shrubs, and trees which year after year clothe the land with beauty, how many relies are preserved? Where are the successive generations of insect, bird, and beast which have appeared in this country since man first set foot upon its soil? They have utterly vanished. If all their living descendants could suddenly be swept away, how could we tell that such plants and animals ever lived at all? It must be confessed that the vast majority of them leave no trace behind. Nevertheless we should be able to recover relics of some of them by searching in the comparatively few places where, at the present day, dead plants and animals are entombed and preserved. From the alluvial terraces of rivers, from the silt of lake-bottoms, from the depths of peat-mosses, from the floors of subterranean caverns, from the incrustations left by springs, we might recover traces of some at least of the living things that people the land. And from these fragmentary and incomplete records we might conjecture what may have been the general character of the life of the time. By searching the similar records of earlier ages the geologist has brought to light many profoundly interesting vestiges of vegetation and of animal life be-longing to types that have long since passed away.

It must be evident, however, that were we to confine our inquiries merely to its surface, we should necessarily gain a most imperfect view of the general history of the Earth. Beneath that surface, as volcanoes show, there lies a hot interior, which must have profoundly influenced the changes of the outer parts or crust of the planet. The study of volcanoes enables us to penetrate, as it were, a little way into that interior, and to under-stand some of the processes in progress there. But our knowledge of the inside of the Earth can obviously be based only to a very limited extent on direct observation, for man cannot penetrate far below the surface. The deepest mines do not go deep enough to reach materials differing in any essential respect from those visible above ground. Nevertheless, by inference from such observations as can be made, and by repeated and varied experiments in laboratories, imitating as closely as can be devised what may be supposed to be the conditions that exist deep within the globe, some probable conclusions can be drawn even as to the changes that take place in those deeper recesses that lie forever concealed from our eyes.

I have compared the soils and rocks with which geology deals to the records out of which the historian writes the chronicles of a nation. We might vary the simile by likening them to the materials employed in the construction of a great building. It is of course interesting enough to know what kinds of marble, granite, mortar, wood, brass, or iron, have been chosen by an architect. But much more important is it to inquire how these various substances have been grouped together so as to form such a building. In like manner, besides the nature and mode of origin of the various rocks of which the visible and accessible part of the earth consists, we ought to know how these varied substances have been arranged so as to build up what we can see of the outer part or crust of our globe. In short, we should try to trace what may be called the architecture of the planet, noting how each variety of rock occupies its own characteristic place, and how they are all grouped and braced together in the solid framework of the land.

But in a great historical edifice, like one of the Gothic minsters of Europe, for example, there are often several different styles. A student of architecture can detect these distinctions, and by their means can show that a cathedral has not been completed in one age; that it may even have been partially destroyed and rebuilt during successive centuries, only finally taking its present form after many political vicissitudes and many changes of architectural taste. Each edifice has thus a separate history, which is recorded by the way the materials have been shaped and put together in the various parts of the masonry. So it is with the architecture of the Earth. We have evidence of many demolitions and rebuildings, and the story of their general progress can still be deciphered among the rocks. It is the business of Geology to trace out that story, to put all the scattered materials together, and to make known by what a long succession of changes the Earth has reached its present state.

Looking upon Geology as the study of the Earth's history, we need not at first concern ourselves with any details, save those that may be needed to enable us clearly to understand what the general character and progress of this history have been. In a science which embraces so vast a range as Geology, the multiplicity of facts to be examined and remembered may seem at first to be almost overwhelming. But a selection of the essential facts is sufficient to give the learner a clear view of the general principles and conclusions of the science, and to enable him to enter with intelligence and interest into more detailed treatises. In the second place, Geology is essentially a science of observation. The facts with which it deals should, as far as possible, be verified by our own personal examination. We should lose no opportunity of seeing with our own eyes the actual progress of the changes which it investigates, and the proofs which it adduces of similar changes in the far past. To do this will lead us into the fields and hills, to the banks of rivers and lakes, and to the shores of the sea. We can hardly take any country walk, indeed, in which with duly observant eye we may not detect either some geological operation in actual progress, or the evidence of one which was completed long ago. Having learnt what to look for and how to interpret it when seen, we are as it were gifted with a new sense. Every landscape comes to possess a fresh interest and charm, for we carry about with us everywhere an added power of enjoyment, whether the scenery has long been familiar or presents itself for the first time. I would therefore seek to impress the main object, to foster a habit of observation, rather than merely to relate what has been seen and determined by others. If they will so learn these lessons, I feel sure that they will never regret the time and labor they may spend over the task.

Home | More Articles | Email: