Of Mountains, Springs, Rivers, and the Sea.

WE come now, says the Philosopher, to the consideration of things with which we are more intimately acquainted, but which are not, on that account, the less wonderful. How was that Mountain lifted up to the sky? How came this crystal Spring to bubble on its lofty brow, or that large River to flow from its massy side? But above all, how came this mighty <63> body of water, the Sea, so collected together; and why and how was it impregnated with salt, seeing the fish and other animals taken out of it are perfectly fresh? These are questions not to be answered even by the Sages in science. Here the Philosopher, at the end of his judgment, and lost in admiration, can only say with the Psalmist, They that go down into the Sea, and occupy their business in the great waters, these men see the greatness of God, and his wonders in the deep. Wonderful are the works, O Lord, in judgment hast thou made them all! — The earth is full of thy greatness!

It is the business of philosophy, however, to enquire into these things, tho' our enquiries are sometimes in vain; we shall, therefore, in this Lecture give the best account we can of the Mountains, Springs, Rivers, and the Sea.

The ancients supposed that Mountains were originally occasioned by the Deluge, before which time they imagined that the earth was a perfect level; and a certain Abbot was taken into custody and punished for asserting that the earth was round; tho' there is so great a necessity for its being so, that according to the properties <64> with which the Almighty has endowed the substances that compose the world, it could not conveniently subsist in any other form; for, not to mention the formation of rivers, which are generally occasioned by the mists that fall on the mountains, if the earth was not round it would be for ever covered in water; for it is, I think, supposed, that there is full as much water as earth, and as water is specifically lighter than earth, that would be always uppermost, and we should have no dry land.

I protest, says Lady Caroline, I think you carry this argument too far, and seem to question the power of the Creator. How can you tell that the earth and water thus disposed would have that effect? From daily experience, Madam, says the Philosopher. Throw this stone into the moat and you will see it sink, or this clot of dirt, and it will fall to the bottom. But, says she, this is not always the case, for when I water my flowers the water sinks into the ground and disappears. That is because there is abundantly more earth than water, Madam, says he; and the earth being porous, or hollow, the water runs into the cavities and fills them; <65> but was you to keep pouring out of the water-pot till all these crevices were full, you would find the water flow at top, and the garden-mould, or earth, would remain at the bottom; for if you take a pint pot of earth, and another of water, and mix them ever so well together, the earth will in a little time subside or fall to the bottom, and the water will be seen at the top. This is to me a demonstration, Madam; and it is so far from calling in question the wisdom of God, that it is vindicating his wisdom in the works of Creation. So that you may perceive from hence, as well as from the motion of the heavenly bodies, that the earth is round, and that the ancients were in an error.

And with regard to Mountains, tho' the Deluge might throw up many, and much alter the face of the earth, yet from the great use mountains are of in collecting the waters of the atmosphere into springs and rivers, it is reasonable to suppose there were mountains even in the first age of the world.

If I am not mistaken, says Lady Twylight, it has been supposed, even by men of learning, that this irregularity of the earth's surface was occasioned by some <66> Comets striking against it; and this opinion, I know, put Lady Lucy and many others in great pain when the late Comet was expected. What say you to this, young Gentleman?

I am unable to answer for all the extravagant conceipts and ridiculous follies of the human race, Madam, says, he, and your Ladyship might as well expect me to give a reason for the poor Soldier's prophesying an earthquake some time ago, and of the terrors of the people on that occasion, as to account for this. That the Earth has undergone amazing changes since its first formation, is, I think, evident from the contents of some mountains even in our own country, in which we find not only petrefactions in abundance, but the shells of sea fish, and even the bones of animals that were never inhabitants of this climate. At Reading in Berkshire, which is above forty miles from the sea, there is a stratum of oyster-shells which appear like real oysters, and are spread through a hill of considerable extent; they lie upon a chalky rock in a bed of sand, much resembling that of the sea, and the upper part of the hill, which is loamy soil, is thirty or forty feet perpendicular above the; and at <67> Burton, near Petworth in Sussex, was dug out of a pit, the bones or skeleton of an elephant. Numberless curiosities of this kind have been discovered here, (some of which I shall take particular notice of in my next course of Lectures) but I think there are few but what may be accounted for from the effects of the deluge, earthquakes, and subterraneous fires. Earthquakes at the bottom of the sea, for instance, have sometimes thrown up mountains or little islands, with the fish upon them, which have been covered by the sandy or loose earth giving way and falling over them. It is not long since an island was raised in this manner, in the Archipelago, of ten miles circumference, the hills of which abound with oysters not yet petrified, and which are much larger than those taken on the coast, when we may conclude, that they were thrown up from the deepest part of the sea. Sea-fish have been also found in other mountains, some of which have been petrified, while others have been found with the flesh only browned or mummied.

And from the amazing quantity of fire contained in the earth, and of the subterranean air rarified thereby, great altera <68> tions must have been made in its surface, in the course of so many years.

Very well, says Lady Caroline, and so you are going to turn the earth into a hotbed, and I suppose we, who are its inhabitants, are by and by to be complimented with the title of mushrooms and cucumbers, or perhaps pumpkins. This is fine philosophy, indeed. Have patience, my dear, says the Marchioness. Patience, Ma'am, returned Lady Caroline, why I hope your Ladyship would not have me believe, that we have a furnace of fire under us? I don't know, Madam, whether it be immediately under us or not, replied the little Philosopher; but that there are a number of those furnaces in the earth is beyond dispute, and is evidently proved by the great number of burning mountains, which are continually sending up flames, attended with large stones and metallic substances. I am sorry his Grace of Galaxy is gone, Madam, for he would have set you right in this particular, which, pardon me, I shall not attempt, since I and my veracity is so much questioned. The company all laughed at the Philosopher in a {pet}; but the Marchioness took up the matter, and soon put an end to the dis <69> pute. She blamed Lady Caroline for offering to decide upon a point which she did not understand; and then turning to the young Gentleman, told him, that patience ought to be a principal ingredient in the character of a Philosopher: upon which Lady Caroline and he composed their difference with a mutual smile, and after asking the Marchioness pardon for betraying too much warmth, even in the cause of truth, he told Lady Caroline, she should have some account of these mountains from the best authority, when taking a book out of his pocket, he read as follows:

"The most famous of these mountains is Ætna in Sicily, whose eruptions of flame and smoke are discovered at a great distance, by those that sail on the Mediterranean, even as far as the harbour of Mal{i}a, which is forty German miles from the shore of Sicily. Tho' fire and smoke are continually vomiting up by it, yet at some particular times it rages with greater violence. In the year 1536 it shook all Sicily, from the first to the twelfth of May; after that, there was heard a most horrible bellowing and cracking, as if great guns had been fired; there were a great many houses <70> overthrown throughout the whole island. When this storm had continued about eleven days, the ground opened in several places, and dreadful gapings appeared here and there, from which issued forth fire and flame with great violence, which in four days consumed and burnt up all that were within five leagues of Ætna. A little after the funnel, which is on the top of the mountain, disgorged a great quantity of hot embers and ashes, for three whole days together, which were not only dispersed throughout the whole island, but also carried beyond sea to Italy; and several ships that were sailing to Venice, at two hundred leagues distance, suffered damage. Facellus hath given us an historical account of the eruptions of this mountain, and says, that the bottom of it is one hundred leagues in circuit.

Hecla, a mountain in Iceland, rages sometimes with as great violence as Ætna, and casts out great stones. The imprisoned fire often, by want of vent, causes horrible sounds, like lamentations and howlings, which make some credulous people think it is the place of Hell, where the souls of the wicked are tormented.


Vesuvius in Campania, not far from the town of Naples, tho' it be planted with most fruitful vines, and at other times yieldeth the best Muscadel wine; yet it is very often annoyed with violent eruptions. {Dion} Cassius relates, that in the reign of Vespasian, there was such a dreadful eruption of impetuous flames, that great quantities of ashes and sulphureous smoke were not only carried to Rome by the wind, but also beyond the Mediterranean, into Africa, and even into Egypt. Moreover, birds were suffocated in the air, and fell down dead upon the ground, and fishes perished in the neighbouring waters, which were made hot and infected by it. There happened another eruption in Martial's time, which he elegantly describes in one of his Epigrams, and laments the sad change of the mountain, which he saw first in its verdure, and immediately after black with ashes and embers. When the burning ceased, the rain and dew watered the surface of the mountain, and made these sulphureous ashes and embers fruitful, so that they produced a large increase of excellent wine; but when the mountain began to burn again, and to disgorge fire an smoke afresh, (which sometimes hap <72> pened within a few years) then were the neighbouring fields burnt up, and the highways made dangerous to travellers.

A mountain in Java, not far from the town of Panacura, in the year 1586, was shattered to pieces by a violent eruption of glowing sulphur (tho' it had never burnt before) whereby (as it was reported) 10,000 people perished in the under-land fields: It threw up large stones and cast them as far as {Paneras}, and continued for three days to throw out so much black smoke, mixed with flame and hot embers, that it darkened the face of the Sun, and made the day appear as dark as night."

There are a great number of other mountains, or (as your Ladyship is pleased to call them) furnaces in the known world, which I shall take some notice of in my next course of Lectures.

We come now to the consideration of Springs, which are occasioned principally, we may suppose, by the water exhaled from the sea, rivers, lakes, and marshy places, and, forming clouds, are dispersed by the winds. These clouds, when they are so collected together as to become too heavy to be supported by the air, fall down in rain to water the herbs and plants, <73> but those that are lighter, being driven aloft in the air, dash against the mountains, and to them give up their contents in small particles; whence entering the crevices, they descend till they meet together, and form Springs; and this is the reason why we have such plenty of Springs in mountainous countries, and few or none in those that are flat. And you may observe, that it frequently rains in hilly countries, when it is clear and fine in the valleys beneath; for the air in the valleys is dense enough to support the clouds and keep them suspended; but being driven up among the mountains, where, in consequence of their height, the air is so much lighter, they descend in mists or such small drops of rain that will not run off, as is the case in a heavy rain, but sink into the crevices of the earth in the manner already mentioned. Now that a great part of this water is exhaled from the sea, may be known by the extraordinary rains and great dews that fall upon islands that are surrounded by the sea: But some Springs, it is reasonable to suppose, have their source from the ocean, since those which we meet near the sea, are generally somewhat salt or brackish.

These springs thus formed by the mists <74> on mountains, and the rain meeting together, form little rivulets or brooks, and those again uniting, compose large rivers, which empty themselves into the sea, and in this manner the water, exhaled from the sea by the sun, is returned to it again; for Providence has established such wise laws or regulations for the world, that no part of the elements can be annihilated. But the very large rivers must have some other source besides the springs formed by the mists, dews, and rains, since these seem insufficient to support their prodigious discharge; it is therefore no improbable conjecture to suppose that they have some communication with the sea, and that the salt water is purified and rendered sweet by passing through the sand, gravel, and crevices of the earth. And this I shall endeavour to prove in my next Course of Lectures.

Lakes are collections of water contained in the cavities of the surface of the earth, some of which are said to be stagnant, and made up of the waste water that flows, after rain or snow, from the adjacent countries, and these must be {unwholesome}. Other Lakes are supplied by rivers, the contents of which they receive and convey under ground, to form other srings and rivers; others, again, are <75> fed by springs which arise in the Lake itself, and some (as that of Haerlem, and other salt Lakes) have a communication, it is supposed, with the sea, whence they receive their waters, and afterwards discharge them by subterranean streams.

The Sea is a great collection of waters in the deep valleys of the earth; I say, in the deep valleys; for if there were not prodigious cavities in the earth to contain this amazing quantity of water, thus collected together, the whole surface of the globe would be overflowed; for the water being lighter than the earth, would be above the earth, as the air is above the water.

Now you speak of the Sea, says the Marchioness, I wish you would tell me, why the Sea water is always salt. Madam, replied he, I wish I could, but it is beyond the reach of my Philosophy; and, indeed, I believe, of any Philosophy whatever. You might as well ask me, why there is water, as why there is salt in the water, which indeed seems almost as much an element as that: And I have often thought, from the prodigious quantity of salt distributed in the earth and water, that it must have qualities that we know not of, and answer purposes in the <76> scale of Being with which we are unacquainted.

The most remarkable quality in the Sea, next to its saltness, is that motion or rising and falling of the water, which we call tides, and which is occasioned by the attraction of the Moon; for that part of the water in the great ocean, which is nearest the Moon, being strongly attracted, is raised higher than the rest; and the part opposite to it, on the contrary side, being least attracted, is also higher than the rest: and these two opposite sides of the surface of the water, in the great ocean, following the motion of the Moon from East to West, and striking against the large costs of the Continent, from thence rebound back again, and so make floods and ebbs, in narrow seas and rivers, at a distance from the great ocean. This also accounts for the periodical times of the tides, and for their constantly following the course of the Moon.

© 2017 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

Privacy Statement

  • University of Oxford
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • JISC