“Who Filled the Coal Hole?” (from Parley’s Magazine, February 1843; pp. 67-70)
Amelia. I have got a curiosity. Who can tell me where it came from—from air, or earth, or sea?
Tom. Let me see it. O! I know it came from the bottom of the sea.
Amelia. That it did not, master Tom. With all your knowing, you are wrong this time;—it came out of the fire, last night.
Ella. I know it did, for I heard a great noise in the fire, and this piece flew out.
Tom. I still say it came from the bottom of the sea.
Amelia. Father, will you look at this piece of something, that Ella has picked up, and tell us where it came from?
Mr W. About sixty thousand years ago—it might be more or less—this little fragment was carried by fresh water into the salt sea, or inland lake.
Tom. Sixty thousand years! Why, father! the earth is but six thousand years old.
Mr W. Prove that, my learned Theban.
Tom. Were not Adam and Eve created six thousand years since?
Mr W. The Bible tells us so, and I believe it.
Tom. Well then, five days before that event, the earth was formed, with all its birds, and beasts, and fishes.
Mr W. No one has a greater reverence for that sacred book than I have; and until Cuvier, and Sedgewick, and Buckland, published their books, I believed, as you do, that the earth was but six thousand years old. God could have created it in a second; but I think, that an examination of the different strata, as they are called, proves that he did not. So much for the age of your curiosity, Amelia. Let us see what we can make of it. The outer portion of it is a sort of white cinder—the centre, unburnt coal. It is about an inch thick. Examine the edges closely, and tell me what you see.
Ella. It looks like the leaves of a little book.
Tom. May I try if it will split with my pen-knife?
Mr W. Certainly. But do it carefully.
Tom. It splits beautifully. I can divide it into thin scales, as thin as writing-paper.
Mr W. What does that prove?
Tom. That it was slowly deposited.
Mr W. What makes you think so?
Tom. Last year, when we dug our turf, I saw this very thing, and you told me that it was owing to the vegetable matter being slowly deposited.
Mr W. Before we proceed, fetch up a piece of the said turf: there are some in the cellar, wet—they will show it best.
Tom. Here is one.
Mr W. Now, you all know that this was dug out of the earth.
Ella. We saw it.
Mr W. And you know this turf is composed of twigs, and leaves, and flags, and branches of trees.
Ella. O yes: I have seen them a thousand times.
Mr W. Now, Tom, try to split this turf this way.
Tom. It will not split.
Mr W. Then try the other way.
Tom. I can pull it into thin plates, and with my knife I can divide it into very thin shees.
Mr W. Now, Amelia’s ‘curiosity’ is composed of vegetables, similar to this piece of fen-turf.
Tom. Then all coal is vegetable.
Mr W. Not all. Bring me the microscope. Let us examine a layer. O! how very beautiful! I can distinctly trace the veins of a leaf.
Ella. O! let me see!—do let me see! I can see little twigs.
Mr W. Having proved it to be partly vegetable, the next question is, how it was carried to its bed? Kenneth, what carried my turf into the Isle of Ely?
Kenneth. Nobody—it grew there.
Mr W. Not much of it. Some reeds and flags grew through it, but the great bulk was carried there. Guess again.
Ken. Was it water?
Mr W. It was. Time was, when England was one vast forest. Every leaf and twig that fell was floated by the mountain torrent, to the nearest sea or lake. The Isle of Ely, being low, had large quantities of these dead vegetables brought to it every winter. There are certain parts of England, called Fens, or Lowlands. What do you understand by Fen?
Tom. The low part of a country, through which water from the higher land runs.
Mr W. Your definition is good, but not very good. ‘A low part through which water runs from the higher lands,’ is a better definition of a large river than a fen. Try again.
Tom. A fen is the natural channel for the overflowings of rivers, or, in other words, for floods.
Mr W. That will do. Now, when the autumnal frosts have killed the leaves, and the winds have blown down the rotten twigs, the coal begins to run down the hills by a thousand little streamlets.
Amelia. O! what nonsense!
Mr W. Thank you, miss: it is not the first time my sense has been called nonsense. I repeat it—when the leaves fall, and the rains come down in torrents, then the full and brimming river runs over, and the coal begins its travels.
Ella. Then the coal does not grow in the coal-pits?
Mr W. No, Ella. This piece of coal grew on a tree.
Kenneth. Coal grow on a tree!
Mr W. Yes, grew on a tree—at least, a good part of it: and this piece of turf also grew on trees: but, as our coal has commenced its travels, we must sail down with it. Where do you think the greatest supply of coal came from—from the mountain or the valley?
Amelia. From the valley.
Ella. From the mountain.
Mr W. Ella is right: it is almost wholly from the mountain-forests. Tom, tell me why?
Tom. Because the leaves of the trees in the valley remain where they fall, sheltered from the roaring wind, and untouched by the mountain cataract.
Mr W. Very true, but rather fine. It requires a strong and rapid current to carry twigs, and branches, and leaves; and, as the streams of a valley are sluggish, they are left to die where they fall, to form the future soil.
Tom. The greatest coal-beds ought, therefore, to be found in the vicinity of mountains.
Mr W. And so they are. Cumberland and Wales are not very flat countries. But we must still pursue our coal. When the rivers, laden with mountain-twigs and leaves, have overflowed their banks, they deluge the adjacent country, and the waters becoming stagnant, the leaves and twigs are left upon the land, as the waters subside and enrich it.
Tom. Do they become fens?—and can turf be dug there?
Mr W. No. a fen, like the Isle of
Ely, is a large flat slope, where the waters ran so slowly, that the twigs and leaves rested there in large quantities.
Tom. Then our turf would have been at the bottom of the sea, in the state of coal?
Mr W. It would have been at the bottom of the sea, certainly; but I presume it requires many thousand years to convert it into coal. It requires the pressure of many millions of tons of water per square yard. How many glutinous sea-weeds must die, and how many dead fish may mingle with the mass, ere it becomes coal, I know not; but when it is actually coal, the past tells us that there are mighty heavings underneath, and the setting free of some imprisoned matter, and the breaking asunder of coal-seams, yards thick; and this is all that man may enjoy the luxury of warmth.
Tom. Do not animals require it?
Mr W. Never, except they are brought by man from their natural climate. ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’—none other could. Of all the objects in nature, that tell us how God cared for man, there are none more vast, more astonishing, than the coal-fields. We look upon the forest, and love it for its beauty; autumn throws an increased loveliness over the landscape; winter brings down the withered leaf, the frail emblem of human life, and we sigh over the shortness of its duration; it is borne away by the torrents, and is, by us, forgotten. But it is not forgotten. It has gladdened our eye, and nourished its parent stem; it now becomes subservient to the wants of millions yet unborn; and, for aught we know, of millions born after the lapse of millions of years. Astronomy has nothing more wonderful than this.