These great trees, the Lepidodendrons, the Sigillarias, and the Calamites, together with large tree-ferns, are the chief plants that we know of in the coal-forests. It seems very strange at first that they should have been so large when their descendants are now so small, but if you look at our chief plants and trees now, you will find that nearly all of them bear flowers, and this is a great advantage to them, because it tempts the insects to bring them the pollen-dust, as we saw in the last lecture.
Now the Lipidodendrons and their companions had no true flowers, but only these seed-cases which we have mentioned; but as there were no flowering plants in their time, and they had the ground all to themselves, they grew fine and large. By-and-by, however, when the flowering plants came in, these began to crowd out the old giants of the coal-forests, so that they dwindled and dwindled from century to century till their great-great-grandchildren, thousands of generations after, only lift up their tiny heads in marshes and on heaths, and tell us that they were big once upon a time.
And indeed they must have been magnificent in those olden days, when they grew thick and tall in the lonely marshes where plants and trees were the chief inhabitants. We find no traces in the clay-beds of the coal to lead us to suppose that men lived in those days, nor lions, nor tigers, nor even birds to fly among the trees; but these grand forests were almost silent, except when a huge animal something like a gigantic newt or frog went croaking through the marsh, or a kind of grasshopper chirruped on the land. But these forms of life were few and far between, compared to the huge trees and tangled masses of ferns and reeds which covered the whole ground, or were reflected in the bosom of the large pools and lakes round about which they grew.
And now, if you have some idea of the plants and trees of the coal, it is time to ask how these plants became buried in the earth and made pure coal, instead of decaying away and leaving behind only a mixture of earth and leaves?
To answer this question, I must ask you to take another journey with me across the Atlantic to the shores of America, and to land at Norfolk in Virginia, because there we can see a state of things something like the marshes of the coal-forests. All round about Norfolk the land is low, flat, and marshy, and to the south of the town, stretching far away into North Carolina, is a large, desolate swamp, no less than forty miles long and twenty-five broad. The whole place is one enormous quagmire, overgrown with water-plants and trees. The soil is as black as ink from the old, dead leaves, grasses, roots, and stems which lie in it; and so soft, that everything would sink into it, if it were not for the matted roots of the mosses, ferns, and other plants which bind it together. You may dig down for ten or fifteen feet, and find nothing but peat made of the remains of plants which have lived and died there in succession for ages and ages, while the black trunks of the fallen trees lie here and there, gradually being covered up by the dead plants.