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MADAM HOW AND LADY WHY (chapter5)

2006-09-07 20:48

    CHAPTER V

    ——THE ICE-PLOUGH

    You want to know why I am so fond of that little bit of limestone, no bigger than my hand, which lies upon the shelf; why I ponder over it so often, and show it to all sensible people who come to see me?

    I do so, not only for the sake of the person who gave it to me, but because there is written on it a letter out of Madam How's alphabet, which has taken wise men many a year to decipher. I could not decipher that letter when first I saw the stone. More shame for me, for I had seen it often before, and understood it well enough, in many another page of Madam How's great book. Take the stone, and see if you can find out anything strange about it.

    Well, it is only a bit of marble as big as my hand, that looks as if it had been, and really has been, broken off by a hammer. But when you look again, you see there is a smooth scraped part on one edge, that seems to have been rubbed against a stone.

    Now look at that rubbed part, and tell me how it was done.

    You have seen men often polish one stone on another, or scour floors with a Bath brick, and you will guess at first that this was polished so: but if it had been, then the rubbed place would have been flat: but if you put your fingers over it, you will find that it is not flat. It is rolled, fluted, channelled, so that the thing or things which rubbed it must have been somewhat round. And it is covered, too, with very fine and smooth scratches or grooves, all running over the whole in the same line. Now what could have done that?

    Of course a man could have done it, if he had taken a large round stone in his hand, and worked the large channellings with that, and then had taken fine sand and gravel upon the points of his fingers, and worked the small scratches with that. But this stone came from a place where man had, perhaps, never stood before,——ay, which, perhaps, had never seen the light of day before since the world was made; and as I happen to know that no man made the marks upon that stone, we must set to work and think again for some tool of Madam How's which may have made them.

    And now I think you must give up guessing, and I must tell you the answer to the riddle. Those marks were made by a hand which is strong and yet gentle, tough and yet yielding, like the hand of a man; a hand which handles and uses in a grip stronger than a giant's its own carving tools, from the great boulder stone as large as this whole room to the finest grain of sand. And that is ICE.

    That piece of stone came from the side of the Rosenlaui glacier in Switzerland, and it was polished by the glacier ice. The glacier melted and shrank this last hot summer farther back than it had done for many years, and left bare sheets of rock, which it had been scraping at for ages, with all the marks fresh upon them. And that bit was broken off and brought to me, who never saw a glacier myself, to show me how the marks which the ice makes in Switzerland are exactly the same as those which the ice has made in Snowdon and in the Highlands, and many another place where I have traced them, and written a little, too, about them in years gone by. And so I treasure this, as a sign that Madam How's ways do not change nor her laws become broken; that, as that great philosopher Sir Charles Lyell will tell you, when you read his books, Madam How is making and unmaking the surface of the earth now, by exactly the same means as she was making and unmaking ages and ages since; and that what is going on slowly and surely in the Alps in Switzerland was going on once here where we stand.

    It is very difficult, I know, for a little boy like you to understand how ice, and much more how soft snow, should have such strength that it can grind this little stone, much more such strength as to grind whole mountains into plains. You have never seen ice and snow do harm. You cannot even recollect the Crimean Winter, as it was called then; and well for you you cannot, considering all the misery it brought at home and abroad. You cannot, I say, recollect the Crimean Winter, when the Thames was frozen over above the bridges, and the ice piled in little bergs ten to fifteen feet high, which lay, some of them, stranded on the shores, about London itself, and did not melt, if I recollect, until the end of May. You never stood, as I stood, in the great winter of - on Battersea Bridge, to see the ice break up with the tide, and saw the great slabs and blocks leaping and piling upon each other's backs, and felt the bridge tremble with their shocks, and listened to their horrible grind and roar, till one got some little picture in one's mind of what must be the breaking up of an ice-floe in the Arctic regions, and what must be the danger of a ship nipped in the ice and lifted up on high, like those in the pictures of Arctic voyages which you are so fond of looking through. You cannot recollect how that winter even in our little Blackwater Brook the alder stems were all peeled white, and scarred, as if they had been gnawed by hares and deer, simply by the rushing and scraping of the ice,——a sight which gave me again a little picture of the destruction which the ice makes of quays, and stages, and houses along the shore upon the coasts of North America, when suddenly setting in with wind and tide, it jams and piles up high inland, as you may read for yourself some day in a delightful book called Frost and Fire. You recollect none of these things. Ice and snow are to you mere playthings; and you long for winter, that you may make snowballs and play hockey and skate upon the ponds, and eat ice like a foolish boy till you make your stomach ache. And I dare say you have said, like many another boy, on a bright cheery ringing frosty day, "Oh, that it would be always winter!" You little knew for what you asked. You little thought what the earth would soon be like, if it were always winter,——if one sheet of ice on the pond glued itself on to the bottom of the last sheet, till the whole pond was a solid mass,——if one snow-fall lay upon the top of another snow-fall till the moor was covered many feet deep and the snow began sliding slowly down the glen from Coombs's, burying the green fields, tearing the trees up by their roots, burying gradually house, church, and village, and making this place for a few thousand years what it was many thousand years ago. Good-bye then, after a very few winters, to bees, and butterflies, and singing-birds, and flowers; and good-bye to all vegetables, and fruit, and bread; good-bye to cotton and woollen clothes. You would have, if you were left alive, to dress in skins, and eat fish and seals, if any came near enough to be caught. You would have to live in a word, if you could live at all, as Esquimaux live now in Arctic regions, and as people had to live in England ages since, in the times when it was always winter, and icebergs floated between here and Finchampstead. Oh no, my child: thank Heaven that it is not always winter; and remember that winter ice and snow, though it is a very good tool with which to make the land, must leave the land year by year if that land is to be fit to live in.

    I said that if the snow piled high enough upon the moor, it would come down the glen in a few years through Coombs's Wood; and I said then you would have a small glacier here——such a glacier (to compare small things with great) as now comes down so many valleys in the Alps, or has come down all the valleys of Greenland and Spitzbergen till they reach the sea, and there end as cliffs of ice, from which great icebergs snap off continually, and fall and float away, wandering southward into the Atlantic for many a hundred miles. You have seen drawings of such glaciers in Captain Cook's Voyages; and you may see photographs of Swiss glaciers in any good London print-shop; and therefore you have seen almost as much about them as I have seen, and may judge for yourself how you would like to live where it is always winter.

    Now you must not ask me to tell you what a glacier is like, for I have never seen one; at least, those which I have seen were more than fifty miles away, looking like white clouds hanging on the gray mountain sides. And it would be an impertinence——that means a meddling with things which I have no business——to picture to you glaciers which have been pictured so well and often by gentlemen who escape every year from their hard work in town to find among the glaciers of the Alps health and refreshment, and sound knowledge, and that most wholesome and strengthening of all medicines, toil.

    So you must read of them in such books as Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers, and Mr. Willes's Wanderings in the High Alps, and Professor Tyndall's different works; or you must look at them (as I just now said) in photographs or in pictures. But when you do that, or when you see a glacier for yourself, you must bear in mind what a glacier means——that it is a river of ice, fed by a lake of snow. The lake from which it springs is the eternal snow- field which stretches for miles and miles along the mountain tops, fed continually by fresh snow-storms falling from the sky. That snow slides off into the valleys hour by hour, and as it rushes down is ground and pounded, and thawed and frozen again into a sticky paste of ice, which flows slowly but surely till it reaches the warm valley at the mountain foot, and there melts bit by bit. The long black lines which you see winding along the white and green ice of the glacier are the stones which have fallen from the cliffs above. They will be dropped at the end of the glacier, and mixed with silt and sand and other stones which have come down inside the glacier itself, and piled up in the field in great mounds, which are called moraines, such as you may see and walk on in Scotland many a time, though you might never guess what they are.

    The river which runs out at the glacier foot is, you must remember, all foul and milky with the finest mud; and that mud is the grinding of the rocks over which the glacier has been crawling down, and scraping them as it scraped my bit of stone with pebbles and with sand. And this is the alphabet, which, if you learn by heart, you will learn to understand how Madam How uses her great ice-plough to plough down her old mountains, and spread the stuff of them about the valleys to make rich straths of fertile soil. Nay, so immensely strong, because immensely heavy, is the share of this her great ice-plough, that some will tell you (and it is not for me to say that they are wrong) that with it she has ploughed out all the mountain lakes in Europe and in North America; that such lakes, for instance, as Ullswater or Windermere have been scooped clean out of the solid rock by ice which came down these glaciers in old times. And be sure of this, that next to Madam How's steam-pump and her rain-spade, her great ice-plough has had, and has still, the most to do with making the ground on which we live.

    Do I mean that there were ever glaciers here? No, I do not. There have been glaciers in Scotland in plenty. And if any Scotch boy shall read this book, it will tell him presently how to find the marks of them far and wide over his native land. But as you, my child, care most about this country in which you live, I will show you in any gravel-pit, or hollow lane upon the moor, the marks, not of a glacier, which is an ice-river, but of a whole sea of ice.

    Let us come up to the pit upon the top of the hill, and look carefully at what we see there. The lower part of the pit of course is a solid rock of sand. On the top of that is a cap of gravel, five, six, ten feet thick. Now the sand was laid down there by water at the bottom of an old sea; and therefore the top of it would naturally be flat and smooth, as the sands at Hunstanton or at Bournemouth are; and the gravel, if it was laid down by water, would naturally lie flat on it again: but it does not. See how the top of the sand is dug out into deep waves and pits, filled up with gravel. And see, too, how over some of the gravel you get sand again, and then gravel again, and then sand again, till you cannot tell where one fairly begins and the other ends. Why, here are little dots of gravel, six or eight feet down, in what looks the solid sand rock, yet the sand must have been opened somehow to put the gravel in.

    You say you have seen that before. You have seen the same curious twisting of the gravel and sand into each other on the top of Farley Hill, and in the new cutting on Minley Hill; and, best of all, in the railway cutting between Ascot and Sunningdale, where upon the top the white sand and gravel is arranged in red and brown waves, and festoons, and curlicues, almost like Prince of Wales's feathers. Yes, that last is a beautiful section of ice- work; so beautiful, that I hope to have it photographed some day.

    Now, how did ice do this?

    Well, I was many a year before I found out that, and I dare say I never should have found it out for myself. A gentleman named Trimmer, who, alas! is now dead, was, I believe, the first to find it out. He knew that along the coast of Labrador, and other cold parts of North America, and on the shores, too, of the great river St. Lawrence, the stranded icebergs, and the ice-foot, as it is called, which is continually forming along the freezing shores, grub and plough every tide into the mud and sand, and shove up before them, like a ploughshare, heaps of dirt; and that, too, the ice itself is full of dirt, of sand and stones, which it may have brought from hundreds of miles away; and that, as this ploughshare of dirty ice grubs onward, the nose of the plough is continually being broken off, and left underneath the mud; and that, when summer comes, and the ice melts, the mud falls back into the place where the ice had been, and covers up the gravel which was in the ice. So, what between the grubbing of the ice-plough into the mud, and the dirt which it leaves behind when it melts, the stones, and sand, and mud upon the shore are jumbled up into curious curved and twisted layers, exactly like those which Mr. Trimmer saw in certain gravel-pits. And when I first read about that, I said, "And exactly like what I have been seeing in every gravel-pit round here, and trying to guess how they could have been made by currents of water, and yet never could make any guess which would do." But after that it was all explained to me; and I said, "Honour to the man who has let Madam How teach him what she had been trying to teach me for fifteen years, while I was too stupid to learn it. Now I am certain, as certain as I can be of any earthly thing, that the whole of these Windsor Forest Flats were ages ago ploughed and harrowed over and over again, by ice- floes and icebergs drifting and stranding in a shallow sea."

    And if you say, my dear child, as some people will say, that it is like building a large house upon a single brick to be sure that there was an iceberg sea here, just because I see a few curlicues in the gravel and sand-then I must tell you that there are sometimes——not often, but sometimes-pages in Madam How's book in which one single letter tells you as much as a whole chapter; in which if you find one little fact, and know what it really means, it makes you certain that a thousand other great facts have happened. You may be astonished: but you cannot deny your own eyes, and your own common sense. You feel like Robinson Crusoe when, walking along the shore of his desert island, he saw for the first time the print of a man's foot in the sand. How it could have got there without a miracle he could not dream. But there it was. One footprint was as good as the footprints of a whole army would have been. A man had been there; and more men might come. And in fear of the savages——and if you have read Robinson Crusoe you know how just his fears were——he went home trembling and loaded his muskets, and barricaded his cave, and passed sleepless nights watching for the savages who might come, and who came after all.

    And so there are certain footprints in geology which there is no mistaking; and the prints of the ice-plough are among them. For instance:- When they were trenching the new plantation close to Wellington College station, the men turned up out of the ground a great many Sarsden stones; that is, pieces of hard sugary sand, such as Stonehenge is made of. And when I saw these I said, "I suspect these were brought here by icebergs:" but I was not sure, and waited. As the men dug on, they dug up a great many large flints, with bottle-green coats. "Now," I said, "I am sure. For I know where these flints must have come from." And for reasons which would be too long to tell you here, I said, "Some time or other, icebergs have been floating northward from the Hog's Back over Aldershot and Farnborough, and have been trying to get into the Vale of Thames by the slope at Wellington College station; and they have stranded, and dropped these flints." And I am so sure of that, that if I found myself out wrong after all I should be at my wit's end; for I should know that I was wrong about a hundred things besides.

    Or again, if you ever go up Deeside in Scotland, towards Balmoral, and turn up Glen Muick, towards Alt-na-guisach, of which you may see a picture in the Queen's last book, you will observe standing on your right hand, just above Birk Hall, three pretty rounded knolls, which they call the Coile Hills. You may easily know them by their being covered with beautiful green grass instead of heather. That is because they are made of serpentine or volcanic rock, which (as you have seen) often cuts into beautiful red and green marble; and which also carries a very rich soil because it is full of magnesia. If you go up those hills, you get a glorious view——the mountains sweeping round you where you stand, up to the top of Lochnagar, with its bleak walls a thousand feet perpendicular, and gullies into which the sun never shines, and round to the dark fir forests of the Ballochbuie. That is the arc of the bow; and the cord of the bow is the silver Dee, more than a thousand feet below you; and in the centre of the cord, where the arrow would be fitted in, stands Balmoral, with its Castle, and its Gardens, and its Park, and pleasant cottages and homesteads all around. And when you have looked at the beautiful amphitheatre of forest at your feet, and looked too at the great mountains to the westward, and Benaun, and Benna-buird and Benna- muicdhui, with their bright patches of eternal snow, I should advise you to look at the rock on which you stand, and see what you see there. And you will see that on the side of the Coiles towards Lochnagar, and between the knolls of them, are scattered streams, as it were, of great round boulder stones——which are not serpentine, but granite from the top of Lochnagar, five miles away. And you will see that the knolls of serpentine rock, or at least their backs and shoulders towards Lochnagar, are all smoothed and polished till they are as round as the backs of sheep, "roches moutonnees," as the French call ice-polished rocks; and then, if you understand what that means, you will say, as I said, "I am perfectly certain that this great basin between me and Lochnagar, which is now  feet deep of empty air was once filled up with ice to the height of the hills on which I stand—— about  feet high——and that that ice ran over into Glen Muick, between these pretty knolls, and covered the ground where Birk Hall now stands."

    And more:-When you see growing on those knolls of serpentine a few pretty little Alpine plants, which have no business down there so low, you will have a fair right to say, as I said, "The seeds of these plants were brought by the ice ages and ages since from off the mountain range of Lochnagar, and left here, nestling among the rocks, to found a fresh colony, far from their old mountain home."

    If I could take you with me up to Scotland,——take you, for instance, along the Tay, up the pass of Dunkeld, or up Strathmore towards Aberdeen, or up the Dee towards Braemar,——I could show you signs, which cannot be mistaken, of the time when Scotland was, just like Spitzbergen or like Greenland now, covered in one vast sheet of snow and ice from year's end to year's end; when glaciers were ploughing out its valleys, icebergs were breaking off the icy cliffs and floating out to sea; when not a bird, perhaps, was to be seen save sea-fowl, not a plant upon the rocks but a few lichens, and Alpine saxifrages, and such like——desolation and cold and lifeless everywhere. That ice-time went on for ages and for ages; and yet it did not go on in vain. Through it Madam How was ploughing down the mountains of Scotland to make all those rich farms which stretch from the north side of the Frith of Forth into Sutherlandshire. I could show you everywhere the green banks and knolls of earth, which Scotch people call "kames" and "tomans"—— perhaps brought down by ancient glaciers, or dropped by ancient icebergs——now so smooth and green through summer and through winter, among the wild heath and the rough peat-moss, that the old Scots fancied, and I dare say Scotch children fancy still, fairies dwelt inside. If you laid your ear against the mounds, you might hear the fairy music, sweet and faint, beneath the ground. If you watched the mound at night, you might see the fairies dancing the turf short and smooth, or riding out on fairy horses, with green silk clothes and jingling bells. But if you fell asleep upon the mounds, the fairy queen came out and carried you for seven years into Fairyland, till you awoke again in the same place, to find all changed around you, and yourself grown thin and old.

    These are all dreams and fancies——untrue, not because they are too strange and wonderful, but because they are not strange and wonderful enough: for more wonderful sure than any fairy tale it is, that Madam How should make a rich and pleasant land by the brute force of ice.

    And were there any men and women in that old age of ice? That is a long story, and a dark one too; we will talk of it next time.

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