Characteristics of river deposits. The examples just cited teach clearly the characteristic features of extensive river deposits. These deposits consist of broad, flat-lying sheets of clay and fine sand left by the overflow at time of flood, and traversed here and there by long, narrow strips of coarse, cross-bedded sands and gravels thrown down by the swifter currents of the shifting channels. Occasional beds of muck mark the sites of shallow lakelets or fresh-water swamps. The various strata also contain some remains of the countless myriads of animals and plants which live upon the surface of the plain as it is in process of building. River shells such as the mussel, land shells such as those of snails, the bones of fishes and of such land animals as suffer drowning at times of flood or are mired in swampy places, logs of wood, and the stems and leaves of plants are examples of the variety of the remains of land and fresh-water organisms which are entombed in river deposits and sealed away as a record of the life of the time, and as proof that the deposits were laid by streams and not beneath the sea.
Deposits in dry basins. On desert areas without outlet to the sea, as on the Great Basin of the United States and the deserts of central Asia, stream-swept waste accumulates indefinitely. The rivers of the surrounding mountains, fed by the rains and melting snows of these comparatively moist elevations, dry and soak away as they come down upon the arid plains. They are compelled to lay aside their entire load of waste eroded from the mountain valleys, in fans which grow to enormous size, reaching in some instances thousands of feet in thickness.
The monotonous levels of Turkestan include vast alluvial tracts now in process of building by the floods of the frequently shifting channels of the Oxus and other rivers of the region. For about seven hundred miles from its mouth in Aral Lake the Oxus receives no tributaries, since even the larger branches of its system are lost in a network of distributaries and choked with desert sands before they reach their master stream. These aggrading rivers, which have channels but no valleys, spread their muddy floods—which in the case of the Oxus sometimes equal the average volume of the Mississippi—far and wide over the plain, washing the bases of the desert dunes.
Playas. In arid interior basins the central depressions may be occupied by playas,—plains of fine mud washed forward from the margins. In the wet season the playa is covered with a thin sheet of muddy water, a playa lake, supplied usually by some stream at flood. In the dry season the lake evaporates, the river which fed it retreats, and there is left to view a hard, smooth, level floor of sun-baked and sun-cracked yellow clay utterly devoid of vegetation.