And the life of the plant? What is it, and why is this protoplasm always active and busy? I cannot tell you. Study as we may, the life of the tiny plant is as much a mystery as your life and mine. It came, like all things, from the bosom of the Great Father, but we cannot tell how it came nor what it is. We can see the active grains moving under the microscope, but we cannot see the power that moves them. We only know it is a power given to the plant, as to you and to me, to enable it to live its life, and to do its useful work in the world.
I have here a piece of coal (Fig. 45), which, though it has been cut with some care so as to have a smooth face, is really in no other way different from any ordinary lump which you can pick for yourself out of the coal-scuttle. Our work to-day is to relate the history of this black lump; to learn what it is, what it has been, and what it will be.
It looks uninteresting enough at first sight, and yet if we examine it closely we shall find some questions to ask even about its appearance. Look at the smooth face of this specimen and see if you can explain those fine lines which run across so close together as to look like the edges of the leaves of a book. Try to break a piece of coal, and you will find that it will split much more easily along those lines than across the other way of the lump; and if you wish to light a fire quickly you should always put this lined face downwards so that the heat can force its way up through these cracks and gradually split up the block. Then again if you break the coal carefully along one of these lines you will find a fine film of charcoal lying in the crack, and you will begin to suspect that this black coal must have been built up in very thin layers, with a kind of black dust between them.
The next thing you will call to mind is that this coal burns and gives flame and heat, and that this means that in some way sunbeams are imprisoned in it; lastly, this will lead you to think of plants, and how they work up the strength of the sunbeams into their leaves, and hide black carbon in even the purest and whitest substance they contain.
Is coal made of burnt plants, then? Not burnt ones, for if so it would not burn again; but you may have read how the makers of charcoal take wood and bake it without letting it burn, and then it turns black and will afterwards make a very good fire; and so you will see that it is probable that our piece of coal is made of plants which have been baked and altered, but which have still much sunbeam strength bottled up in them, which can be set free as they burn.
If you will take an imaginary journey with me to a coal-pit near Newcastle, which I visited many years ago, you will see that we have very good evidence that coal is made of plants, for in all coal-mines we find remains of them at every step we take.