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"Great Level of the Fens" of the eastern coast of England, which is copied, (as is the paragraph at the head of this chapter,) from the Prize Essay of Mr. John Algernon Clarke, written for the Royal Agricultural Society in 1846.
The process is not, of course, always the same, nor are the exact influences, which made the English Fens, generally, operating in precisely the same manner here, but the main principle is the same, and the lesson taught by the improvement of the Fens is perfectly applicable in our case.
"This great level extends itself into the six counties of "Cambridge, Lincoln, Huntington, Northampton, Suffolk "and Norfolk, being bounded by the highlands of each. "It is about seventy miles in length, and varies from "twenty to forty miles in breadth, having an area of more "than 680,000 acres. Through this vast extent of flat "country, there flow six large rivers, with their tributary "streams; namely, the Ouse, the Cam, the Nene, the Wei"land, the Glen, and the Witham.
"These were, originally, natural channels for conveying "the upland waters to the sea, and whenever a heavier "downfall of rain than usual occurred, and the swollen "springs and rivulets caused the rivers to overflow, they "must necessarily have overflowed the land to a great ex"tent."
"This, however, was not the principal cause of the in"undation of the Fens: these rivers were not allowed a "free passage to the ocean, being thus made incapable of "carrying off even the ordinary amount of upland water "which, consequently, flowed over the land. The obstruoM tion was two-fold; first, the outfalls became blocked up
* by the deposits of silt from the sea waters, which accumulated to an amazing thickness. The well known
* instances of boats found in 1635 eight feet below the "Wisbeck River, and the smith's forge and tools found at "Skirbeck Shoals, near Boston, buried with silt sixteen feet "deep, show what an astonishing quantity of sediment formerly choked up the mouths of these great riven
"But the chief hindrance caused by the ocean, arose from "the tide rushing twice every day for a very great dis"tance up these channels, driving back the fresh waters, ** and overflowing with them, so that the whole level be"came deluged with deep water, and was, in ^aot, one "great bay."
"In considering the state of this region as it first at"tracted the enterprise of man to its improvement, we "are to conceive a vast, wild morass, with only small, de"tacbed portions of cultivated soil, or islands, raised above "the general inundation; a most desolate picture when "contrasted with its present state of matchless fertility."
Salt marshes are formed of the silty deposits of rivers and of the sea. The former bring down vegetable mould and fine earth from the uplands, and the latter contribute sea weeds and grasses, sand and shells, and millions of animalculfe which, born for life in salt water only, die, and are deposited with the other matters, at those points where, from admixture with the fresh flow of the rivers, the water ceases to be suitable for their support. It is estimated that these animalculae alone are a chief cause of the obstructions at the mouths of the rivers of Holland, which retard their flow, and cause them to spread over the flat country adjoining their banks. It is less important, however, for the purposes of this chapter, to consider the manner in which salt marshes are formed, than to discuss the means by which they may be reclaimed and made available for the uses of agriculture. The improvement may be conveniently considered under three heads: —
First—The exclusion of the sea water.
Second—The removal of the causes of inundation from the upland.
Third—The removal of the rain-fall and water of filtration,
The Exclusion of the Sea is of the first importance, l eoause not only does it saturate the land with water,—but this water, being salt, renders it unfertile for the plants of ordinary cultivation, and causes it to produce others which are of little, or no value.
The only means by which the sea may be kept out is, by building such dykes or embankments as shut out the highest tides, and, on shores which are exposed to the action of the waves, will resist their force. Ordinarily, the best, because the cheapest, material of which these embankments can be made, is the soil of the marsh itself This is rarely,—almost never,—a pure peat, such as is found in upland swamps; it contains a large proportion of sand, blue clay, muscle mud, or other earthy deposits, which give it great weight and tenacity, and render it excellent for forming the body of the dyke. On lands which are overflowed to a considerable extent at each high tide, (twice a day,) it will be necessary to adopt more expensive, and more effective measures, but on ordinary salt meadows, which are deeply covered only at the spring tides, (occurring every month,) the following plan will be found prao tical and economical.
Locating the line of the embankment far enough bad from the edge of the meadow to leave an ample flat outside of it to break the force of the waves, if on the open coast, or to resist the inroads of the current if on the bank of an estuary or a river,—say from ten to one hundred yards, according to the danger of encroachment,—set a row of stakes parallel to the general direction of the shore, to mark the outside line of the base of the dyke. Stake out the inside line at such distance as will give a pitch or inclination to the slopes of one and a half to one on the outside, and of one to one on the inside, and will allow the necessary width at the top, which should be at least two feet higher than the level of the highest tide that is known ever to have occurred at that place. The widtb of the top should never be less than four feet, and in ex posed localities it should be more. If a road will be needed around the land, it is best, if a heavy dyke is required, to make it wide enough to answer this purpose, with still wider places, at intervals, to allow vehicles to turn or to pass each other. Ordinarily, however, especially if there be c good stretch of flat meadow in front, the top of the dyke need not be more than four feet wide. Supposing such a dyke to be contemplated where the water has been known to rise two feet above the level of the meadows, requiring an embankment four feet high, it will be necessary to allow for the base a width of fourteen feet;—four feet for the width of the top, six feet for the reach of the front slope, (1J to 1,) and four feet for the reach of the back slope, (1 to 1.)
Having staked out two parallel lines, fourteen feet apart, and erected, at intervals of twenty or thirty feet, frames made of rough strips of board of the exact shape of the section of the proposed embankment, the workmen may remove the sod to a depth of six inches, laying it all on the outside of the position of the proposed embankment. The sod from the line of the ditch, from which the earth for the embankment is to be taken, should also be removed and placed with the other. This ditch should be always inside of the dyke, where it will never be exposed to the action of the sea. It should be, at the surface, broader than the base of the dyke, and five feet deep in the center, but its sides may slope from the surface of the ground directly to the center line of the bottom. This is the best form to give it, because, while it should be five feet deep, for future uses as a drain, its bottom need have no width. The great width at the surface will give such a pitch to the banks as to ensure their stability, and will yield a large amount of «od for the facing of the dyke. The edge of this ditch should be some feet away from the inner line of tbe embankment, leaving it a firm support or shoulder at the original level of the ground, the sod not being removed from the interval. The next step in the work should be to throw, or wheel, the material from the ditch on to the place which has been stripped for the dyke, building it up so as to conform exactly to the profile frames, these remaining in their places, to indicate the filling necessary to make up for the settling of the material, as the water drains out of it.
As fast as a permanent shape can be given to the outer face of the dyke, it should be finished by having the sod placed against it, being laid flatwise, one on top of another, (like stone work,) in the most solid manner possible. This should be continued to the top of the slope, and the flat top of the dyke should also be sodded,—the sods on the top, and on the slope, being firmly beaten to their places with the back of the spade or other suitable implement
This will sufficiently protect the exposed parts of the work against the action of any waves that may be formed on the flat between the dyke and the deep water, while the inner slope and the banks of the ditch, not being exposed to masses of moving water, will retain their shape and will soon be covered with a new growth.* A sectional view of the above described dyke and ditch is shown in the accompanying diagram, (Fig. 47.)
* The ends of the work, while the operations are suspended during spring tides, will need an extra protection of sods, but that lying out of reach of the eddies that will be formed by the receding water will not be materially affected.