Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/173

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
163
THE PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY OF THE LANDS.

work, that McGee would gather all land forms under a classification determined by their drainage systems.[1] Others have preferred a classification based, first on peculiarities of structure as determined by accumulation and deformation; and, secondly, on the progress of erosion; but in either scheme, the erosive work of rivers is so important that a sketch of the progress of the physical geography of the lands towards a systematic classification of its items may well follow the order in which valleys have been explained, branching off, as occasion may require, from the leading theme of rivers that flow under a normal humid climate to special conditions of erosion under an arid or a frigid climate. The progress which has made the physical geography of the lands what it is to-day is more the work of geologists than of geographers; and the chief reason for this is the indifference of many geographers to the physical side of their subject; an indifference that was undoubtedly favored by the cultivation of historical geography in continental Europe, and by the acceptance of the traveler or explorer as a full-fledged geographer in Great Britain. In the United States, it is only in the latter part of the century that the physical geography of the lands has gained a scientific standing, and the advantages that it now enjoys are geographical grafts upon a geological stock.

The emancipation of geology from the doctrine of catastrophism was a necessary step before progress could be made towards an understanding of the lands. The slow movements of elevation and depression of certain coasts in historic time were of great importance in this connection. Studies of geological structures at last overcame the belief in the sudden and violent upheaval of mountain chains, which, under the able and authoritative advocacy of Elie de Beaumont, held a place even into the second half of the century. But even when it came to be understood that mountains and plateaus have been slowly upheaved, it still remained to be proved that the valleys and canyons by which they are drained were produced by erosion, and not by fractures and unequal movements of elevation. Advance was here made on two lines. Along one, a better understanding was gained of the forms producible by deformation alone; along the other, sea currents, floods and earthquake waves, to which the earlier observers trusted as a means of modifying the forms of uplift, were gradually replaced by the slow action of weather and water. Processes of deformation were found to act in a large way, producing massive forms without detail—broad plains and plateaus, extensive domes, straight cliffs and rolling corrugations; and thus it was learned that the varied and detailed forms of lofty mountain ranges and dissected plateaus must be ascribed almost entirely to the processes of erosion. But it should be noted that in


  1. ↑ Nat. Geogr. Magazine, i. 1889, 27-36.