WATER of The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In, Part VII of X

In the legends of ancient times running water was proof against all sorcery and witchcraft:

No spell could stay the living tide
Or charm the rushing stream.

There was much truth as well as beauty in this idea.

Flowing waters, moreover, have not only power to wash out material stains, but they also clear away the cobwebs of the brain the results of over incessant work and restore us to health and strength.

Snowfields and glaciers, mountain torrents, sparkling brooks, and stately rivers, meres and lakes, and last, not least, the great ocean itself, all alike possess this magic power.

“When I would beget content,” says Izaak Walton, “and increase confidence in the power and wisdom and providence of Almighty God, I will walk the meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that take no care, and those very many other little living creatures that are not only created, but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in Him;” and in his quaint old language he craves a special blessing on all those “that are true lovers of virtue, and dare trust in His Providence, and be quiet, and go a angling.”

At the water’s edge flowers are especially varied and luxuriant, so that the banks of a river are a long natural garden of tall and graceful grasses and sedges, the Meadow Sweet, the Flowering Rush, the sweet Flag, the Bull Rush, Purple Loosestrife, Hemp Agrimony, Dewberry, Forget-me-not, and a hundred more, backed by Willows, Alders, Poplars, and other trees.

The Animal world, if less conspicuous to the eye, is quite as fascinating to the imagination. Here and there a speckled Trout may be detected (rather by the shadow than the substance) suspended in the clear water, or darting across a shallow; if we are quiet we may see Water Hens or Wild Ducks swimming among the lilies, a Kingfisher sitting on a branch or flashing away like a gleam of light; a solemn Heron stands maybe at the water’s edge, or slowly rises flapping his great wings; Water Rats, neat and clean little creatures, very different from their coarse brown namesakes of the land, are abundant everywhere; nor need we even yet quite despair of seeing the Otter himself.

Insects of course are gay, lively, and innumerable; but after all the richest fauna is that visible only with a microscope.

“To gaze,” says Dr. Hudson, “into that wonderful world which lies in a drop of water, crossed by some stems of green weed, to see transparent living mechanism at work, and to gain some idea of its modes of action, to watch a tiny speck that can sail through the prick of a needle’s point; to see its crystal armour flashing with ever varying tint, its head glorious with the halo of its quivering cilia; to see it gliding through the emerald stems, hunting for its food, snatching at its prey, fleeing from its enemy, chasing its mate (the fiercest of our passions blazing in an invisible speck); to see it whirling in a mad dance, to the sound of its own music, the music of its happiness, the exquisite happiness of living can any one, who has once enjoyed this sight, ever turn from it to mere books and drawings, without the sense that he has left all Fairyland behind him?”

The study of Natural History has indeed the special advantage of carrying us into the country and the open air.

Lakes are even more restful than rivers or the sea. Rivers are always flowing, though it may be but slowly; the sea may rest awhile, now and then, but is generally full of action and energy; while lakes seem to sleep and dream. Lakes in a beautiful country are like silver ornaments on a lovely dress, like liquid gems in a beautiful setting, or bright eyes in a lovely face. Indeed as we gaze down on a lake from some hill or cliff it almost looks solid, like some great blue crystal.

It is not merely for purposes of commerce or convenience that men love to live near rivers.

Let me live harmlessly, and near the brink
Of Trent or Avon have my dwelling-place;
Where I may see my quill, or cork, down sink,
With eager bite of pike, or bleak, or dace;
And on the world and my Creator think:
While some men strive ill-gotten goods t’ embrace:
And others spend their time in base excess
Of wine; or worse, in war, or wantonness.

Let them that will, these pastimes still pursue,
And on such pleasing fancies feed their fill:
So I the fields and meadows green may view
And daily by fresh rivers walk at will,
Among the daisies and the violets blue,
Red hyacinth and yellow daffodil.

It is interesting and delightful to trace a river from its source to the sea.

“Beginning at the hill-tops,” says Geikie, “we first meet with the spring or ‘well-eye,’ from which the river takes its rise. A patch of bright green, mottling the brown heathy slope, shows where the water comes to the surface, a treacherous covering of verdure often concealing a deep pool beneath. From this source the rivulet trickles along the grass and heath, which it soon cuts through, reaching the black, peaty layer below, and running in it for a short way as in a gutter. Excavating its channel in the peat, it comes down to the soil, often a stony earth bleached white by the peat. Deepening and widening the channel as it gathers force with the increasing slope, the water digs into the coating of drift or loose decomposed rock that covers the hillside. In favourable localities a narrow precipitous gully, twenty or thirty feet deep, may thus be scooped out in the course of a few years.”

If, however, we trace one of the Swiss rivers to its source we shall generally find that it begins in a snow field or neve nestled in a shoulder of some great mountain.

Below the neve lies a glacier, on, in, and under which the water runs in a thousand little streams, eventually emerging at the end, in some cases forming a beautiful blue cavern, though in others the end of the glacier is encumbered and concealed by earth and stones.

The uppermost Alpine valleys are perhaps generally, though by no means always, a little desolate and severe, as, for instance, that of St. Gotthard. The sides are clothed with rough pasture, which is flowery indeed, though of course the flowers are not visible at a distance, interspersed with live rock and fallen masses, while along the bottom rushes a white torrent. The snowy peaks are generally more or less hidden by the shoulders of the hills.

The valleys further down widen and become more varied and picturesque. The snowy peaks and slopes are more often visible, the “alps” or pastures to which the cows are taken in summer, are greener and dotted with the huts or chalets of the cow-herds, while the tinkling of the cowbells comes to one from time to time, softened by distance, and suggestive of mountain rambles. Below the alps there is generally a steeper part clothed with Firs or with Larches and Pines, some of which seem as if they were scaling the mountains in regiments, preceded by a certain number of skirmishers. Below the fir woods again are Beeches, Chestnuts, and other deciduous trees, while the central cultivated portion of the valley is partly arable, partly pasture, the latter differing from our meadows in containing a greater variety of flowers Campánulas, Wild Geraniums, Chervil, Ragged Robin, Narcissus, etc. Here and there is a brown village, while more or less in the centre hurries along, with a delightful rushing sound, the mountain torrent, to which the depth, if not the very existence of the valley, is mainly due. The meadows are often carefully irrigated, and the water power is also used for mills, the streams seeming to rush on, as Ruskin says, “eager for their work at the mill, or their ministry to the meadows.”

Apart from the action of running water, snow and frost are continually disintegrating the rocks, and at the base of almost any steep cliff may be seen a slope of debris. This stands at a regular angle the angle of repose and unless it is continually removed by a stream at the base, gradually creeps up higher and higher, until at last the cliff entirely disappears.

Sometimes the two sides of the valley approach so near that there is not even room for the river and the road: in that case Nature claims the supremacy, and the road has to be carried in a cutting, or perhaps in a tunnel through the rock. In other cases Nature is not at one with herself. In many places the debris from the rocks above would reach right across the valley and dam up the stream. Then arises a struggle between rock and river, but the river is always victorious in the end; even if dammed back for a while, it concentrates its forces, rises up the rampart of rock, rushes over triumphantly, resumes its original course, and gradually carries the enemy away.

Another prominent feature in many valleys is afforded by the old river, or lake, terraces, which were formed at a time when the river ran at a level far above its present bed.

Thus many a mountain valley gives some such section as the following.

First, a face of rock, very steep, and in some places almost perpendicular; secondly, a regular talus of fallen rocks, stones, etc., as shown in the view of the Rhone Valley, which takes what is known as the slope of repose, at an angle which depends on the character of the material. As a rule for loose rock fragments it may be taken roughly to be an angle of about 45 deg.. Then an irregular slope followed in many places by one or more terraces, and lastly the present bed of the river.

The width or narrowness of the valley in relation to its depth depends greatly on the condition of the rocks, the harder and tougher they are the narrower as a rule being the valley.

From time to time a side stream enters the main valley. This is itself composed of many smaller rivulets. If the lateral valleys are steep, the streams bring with them, especially after rains, large quantities of earth and stones. When, however, they reach the main valley, the rapidity of the current being less, their power of transport also diminishes, and they spread out the material which they carry down in a depressed cone.

A side stream with its terminal cone, when seen from the opposite side of the valley, or, if we are looking down the valley, the river being often driven to one side of the main valley, as, for instance, is the case in the Valais, near Sion, where the Rhone is driven out of its course by, and forms a curve round, the cone brought down by the torrent of the Borgne.

Sometimes two lateral valleys come down nearly opposite one another, so that the cones meet, as, for instance, some little way below Vernayaz, and, indeed, in several other places in the Valais. Or more permanent lakes may be due to a ridge of rock running across the valley, as, for instance, just below St. Maurice in the Valais.

Almost all river valleys contain, or have contained, in their course one or more lakes, and where a river falls into a lake a cone like those just described is formed, and projects into the lake. Thus on the Lake of Geneva, between Vevey and Villeneuve, there are several such promontories, each marking the place where a stream falls into the lake.

The Rhone itself has not only filled up what was once the upper end of the lake, but has built out a strip of land into the water.

That the lake formerly extended some distance up the Valais no one can doubt who looks at the flat ground about Villeneuve. The Plate opposite, from a photograph taken above Vevey, shows this clearly. It is quite evident that the lake must formerly have extended further up the valley, and that it has been filled up by material brought down by the Rhone, a process which is still continuing.

At the other end of the lake the river rushes out 15 feet deep of not flowing, but flying water; not water neither melted glacier matter, one should call it; the force of the ice is in it, and the wreathing of the clouds, the gladness of the sky, and the countenance of time.”

In flat countries the habits of rivers are very different. For instance, in parts of Norfolk there are many small lakes or “broads” in a network of rivers the Bure, the Yare, the Ant, the Waveney, etc. which do not rush on with the haste of some rivers, or the stately flow of others which are steadily set to reach the sea, but rather seem like rivers wandering in the meadows on a holiday. They have often no natural banks, but are bounded by dense growths of tall grasses, Bulrushes, Reeds, and Sedges, interspersed with the spires of the purple Loosestrife, Willow Herb, Hemp Agrimony, and other flowers, while the fields are very low and protected by dykes, so that the red cattle appear to be browsing below the level of the water; and as the rivers take most unexpected turns, the sailing boats often seem as if they were in the middle of the fields.

At present these rivers are restrained in their courses by banks; when left free they are continually changing their beds. Their courses at first sight seem to follow no rule, but, as it is termed, from a celebrated river of Asia Minor, to “meander” along without aim or object, though in fact they follow very definite laws.

Finally, when the river at length reaches the sea, it in many cases spreads out in the form of a fan, forming a very flat cone or “delta,” as it is called, from the Greek capital [Greek: Delta], a name first applied to that of the Nile, and afterwards extended to other rivers. This is due to the same cause, and resembles, except in size, the comparatively minute cones of mountain streams.

 Perhaps the most remarkable case is that of the Mississippi, the mouths of which project into the sea like a hand, or like the petals of a flower. For miles the mud is too soft to support trees, but is covered by sedges (Miegea); the banks of mud gradually become too soft and mobile even for them. The pilots who navigate ships up the river live in frail houses resting on planks, and kept in place by anchors. Still further, and the banks of the Mississippi, if banks they can be called, are mere strips of reddish mud, intersected from time to time by transverse streams of water, which gradually separate them into patches. These become more and more liquid, until the land, river, and sea merge imperceptibly into one another. The river is so muddy that it might almost be called land, and the mud so saturated by water that it might well be called sea, so that one can hardly say whether a given spot is on the continent, in the river, or on the open ocean.

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