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Good Words 1860
Sketches in Natural History - Thoughts on a Coal-Fire


The fireside is peculiarly a British institution, as the people of this country are peculiarly a home-loving and domestic people. When our countrymen travel abroad, they uniformly miss the cheerful fireside of their English home, and feel that the stove, however efficient as a heating apparatus, is a sorry substitue for the enlivening blaze of a coal-fire, even with the occasional drawback of a smoky chimney. To an Englishman, the fireside is the emblem of home comfort. As for our French neighbours, having neither fireside nor home habits, there is no equivalent term in their language to the English word comfort. Cowper was the poet of domestic life, and there is nothing finer in our literature than his tribute to fireside happiness, at the opening of the "Winter Evening" in "The Task;" and the most charming thing about it is the homeliness and truthfulness of the picture, which belongs exclusively to no grade of society, but may, in its essential element, be realised every winter night in the year, in every well-conditioned workman's family in the land. Thomas Campbell expressed his admiration for Cowper's verses in words which render it unnecessary to quote them here, since the reader can find no stronger inducement to turn up "The Task," and peruse, or re-peruse, the passage, than the commendation of one of the last and best of the British poets. "Of all the verses," says he, "that have ever been devoted to the subject of domestic happiness, those in his 'Winter Evening,' at the opening of the fourth book of 'The Task,' are perhaps the most beautiful. In perusing that scene of 'intimate delights,' 'fireside enjoyments,' and 'home-born happiness,' we seem to recover a part of the forgotten value of existence, when we recognise the means of its blessedness so widely diffused, and so cheaply attainable; and find them susceptible of description, at once so enchanting and so faithful."

As we sit absorbed in a brown study, looking into the parlour fire, and perhaps, like Harley in the tale, trying to find a body for a Turk's head we have detected amongst the fantastic shapes of the glowing embers, how rarely does it occur to us to reflect on the far-seeing wisdom and goodness evinced in preparing the vast deposits of coal, iron, and other minerals, which minister in such a remarkable manner to the necessities and comforts of mankind! It was a striking observation of Playfair's, when speaking of the teachings of Hut-ton, the founder of the modern geology, that "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time; and while we listened," said he, "with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much further reason may sometimes go, than imagination can venture to follow." And surely it is fitted to exalt our conceptions of Divine benevolence to reflect that, throughout the inconceivably remote and prolonged ages which preceded the appearance of man upon the earth, and amidst all the amazing vicissitudes and perturbations which have left their traces upon its surface, creative wisdom was contemplating a prospective arrangement, so manifestly designed and fitted to promote the physical prosperity and social progress of the future race of intelligent beings, as that which has yielded to the successive families of mankind "the chief things of the ancient mountains, and the precious things of the lasting hills." If men could perceive these evidences of the goodness of God and be silent, "the stones would cry out."

The vegetable origin of coal is no longer a matter of doubt. In the massive deposits of the carboniferous system are laid up, as in the leaves of a book, the remains of plants peculiar to the period, many of them unrepresented by any vegetable forms in the existing flora of the world, although some of them appear to have resembled the stately tree-ferns of tropical and extra-tropical countries of the present day. The coal plants flourished in widely-extended forests of the primeval world, and gradually, as they fell and decayed, left their remains imbedded in sandstone and shales, accumulating in lakes and the deltas and estuaries of rivers, to become altered in the lapse of ages by the united influences of heat and pressure. The crystalline structure resulting from this combined agency was unfavourable to the preservation of vegetable tissues; but in selected specimens prepared for the microscope, the cells and vessels of plants are distinctly discernible, some of them exhibiting a punctuated or spotted aspect, proving their affinity to our coniferous woods, such as the modern araucaria; but ferns are the only plants of the carboniferous era whose decided relationship to existing members of the same family is clearly recognisable. No production of the coal-fields is so abundant in the debris thrown out of the mines, or is met with so frequently in sandstone quarries in the same system of rocks, as the fossil named stigmaria. This was long described as a distinct plant, but it is now known to be the root or creeping stem of sigillaria, so named from the seal-like impressions left upon its longitudinally-fluted stem, marking where the leaves were inserted. The sigillaria, with its creeping stem, from its occurring profusely in all our coal-fields, and from its universal diffusion in coal-shales throughout the world, is regarded as the most important plant in the coal formation, as to it we probably owe the largest proportion of the crystalline mineral. The lepidodendron represents another genus of coal plants, recognised by the diamond-shaped scars succeeding each other in a spiral arrangement round the stem. These scaly like marks point out the position of the lanceolate leaves of the tree, and hence, also, its name. The effect produced by these spiral scars is highly sculpturesque and beautiful in some species. Various other vegetable forms occur, but our space only permits a passing reference to one more, namely, the calamite, usually found compressed, and resembling, with its furrowed and jointed stem, the equisetum, or horsetail, of our ponds and ditches. The beds of shale and sandstone which are intermixed with the seams of coal often exhibit alternatives of marine and fresh-water fossils, shewing that the land where the coal plants grew, or the deltas and lakes where their remains were imbedded, must have repeatedly been submerged beneath the waters of an estuary or sea, and again elevated to their former level. From the state of integrity in which many of the plants are preserved, there is reason to believe that they perished, and were silted up in mud and sand upon, or near to, the spots where they grew. The strata of the formation attain a prodigious depth in some coalfields. In South Wales the beds, according to actual measurement, are of the depth of 12,000 feet. One acre of coal, three feet in thickness, is estimated to be equal to the produce of 1940 acres of forest; and in the Scottish coal-fields there are seams of workable coal, giving an aggregate of 100 to 200 feet in thickness. When we reflect on the slow and imperceptible process of the deposition of the rocks from the floating sediment of estuaries and seas, and take into account the intermediate periods occupied in the growth and destruction of entire forests of trees, many of them of great magnitude, the mind is overpowered by the attempt to grasp the idea of the time occupied in the production of this geological system. Yet the age of plants had been preceded by two life-periods altogether different, and of a duration not less prolonged. One era had witnessed the primeval ocean swarming with zoophytes, crustaceans, molluscs, and vertebrates, whose fossil remains characterise the Cumbrian and Silurian systems; these had died and disappeared to give place to the Devonian age, the reign of fishes, whose marvellous forms are restricted to the period. After the coal plants had covered immense tracts of the territory which we now recognise as parts of the old and the new world, an era opened with corals and crinoids (stone-lilies), occupying the depths of the sea, huge, frog-like animals crawling on the shore, and coniferous plants reappearing on the land. The age of reptiles succeeded, and the huge ichthyosaurus and pleiosaurus swarmed in the Liassic and Oolitic ocean, while the cycas took its place beside the conifer on the earth. Another revolution, and the fresh-water of the Wealden period prevailed, with terrestrial and aquatic reptiles frequenting the rivers and deltas, and new forms of vegetable life fringing their banks. Then followed the age of the Chalk, with its profusion of foraminifera, echinoderins, molluscs, fishes, and reptiles. Nor was it till yet another epoch had come and gone, and another chapter of the earth's history, recording the annals of the reign of mammalians, had been written as with a pea of iron on the rocks, that man at length appeared on the scene, and found a dwelling prepared for him, provided with every blessing and benefit suited to his physical condition and moral destiny. But the incalculable ages of geological time, so overwhelming to the finite minds of the children of a day, are, in the estimate of the Eternal, but landmarks in the evolution of the plan of creation and providence. To Him "one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."

The black belts and patches on a coloured geological map of Great Britain at once indicate the distribution of the coal-measures and the seats of manufacturing industry. The silurian hills of the north and the chalk downs of the south of England; the extensive tracts of gneiss and schistose rocks in the north, and the Silurians of the south of Scotland, are incapable of affording employment and subsistence to a numerous population. These districts are either occupied as the scenes of agricultural labours, or surrendered to sheep and deer. On the contrary, the central counties of England and Scotland are also the busy centres of the population. From its proximity to a mere patch of the English coal-measures, a detached portion, not exceeding the area of one of the larger Scottish lakes, Birmingham has risen to the rank of the first iron-manufacturing town in the world. Manchester and Glasgow have equally derived their manufacturing and commercial importance from their being placed in the centre of a great coal basin. The economical and industrial importance of the union of coal and iron in this island cannot be over-estimated. To their abundance and accessibility in the deposits of the coal-formation, we owe the growth of our manufactures, the increase and support of our population, our wide-spread mercantile enterprise, our rapid intercourse with all parts of the world, our boundless territories abroad, our opulence and influence at home. Who can sum up the benefits we derive from coal? It warms and lights our dwellings, cooks our food, illuminates our streets. Coal develops and sustains the force which propels the locomotive along the railway and the ship across the sea; works the printing-press, wields the hammer, lifts the weight, draws the load, moves the machinery, drives the plough, grinds the corn, spins the cotton, weaves the cloth, pumps the mine, deepens the river, covers the land with a network of railways, forges the electric wire, and, submerging the ocean telegraph, "will throw a girdle round the earth in forty minutes." Who shall set bounds to the power of coal, iron, and steam? Miss Martineau lamented, in her journal of Eastern travel, that the skill which reared the Pyramids of Egypt was amongst the lost arts. Presently, a civil engineer wrote a letter to the Times newspaper, offering to accept a commission to build a pyramid equal to the largest, the loftiest, and the most enduring in the desert of Grand Cairo. His confidence was in the united power of coal, steam, and iron.

The trees which grew in the swamps and forests of the coal-period derived their carbonaceous substance from carbonic acid gas and water, existing in the soil, and floating in invisible currents in the atmosphere. They imbibed the gas by their fronds, leaves, and roots; and, separating the solid carbon from the oxgygen gas, with which it wa3 combined, they appropriated the former for the purposes of their nourishment and growth, and restored the latter to the atmosphere. But the plant can only decompose carbonic acid and water with the aid of the light and heat of the sun; the process ceases in the dark. In helping the plant to appropriate and deposit carbon in its tissues, the sun parted with so much of its light and heat, which became latent in the vegetable. This long-dormant light and heat are set free by the process of combustion. When the Yule log is laid on the blazing hearth of the baron's hall, and the faggots are piled on the peasant's fire, they shed upon the radiant faces of the festive circle light and heat which were borrowed from the sun, and became latent in the plant, while the seed sprang into the sapling, and at length became a goodly tree a century or two old. But the coal glowing in the cheerful fires of our town dwellings, and diffusing light through the gas-pipes of our streets, is composed of the relics of vegetables, in which are stored up light and heat derived from the sunshine of distant ages. In the grate, we liberate this ancient heat for our comfort; in the gasometer, we take advantage of the light for our convenience; in our boilers and engines, we convert the latent heat into mechanical force. And so says a philosopher of our day, young in years, but mature in thought and observation (Professor William Thomson): "Wood fires give us heat and light which have been got from the sun a few years ago. Our coal fires and gas lamps bring out, for our present comfort, heat and light of the primeval sun, which have lain dormant as potential energy beneath seas and mountains for countless ages."


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