Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock

How a Brook Drops Its Load

Teacher's Story

The brook is most discriminating in the way it takes up its burdens, and also in the way it lays them down. It, with quite superhuman wisdom, selects the lightest material first, leaving the heaviest to the last; and when depositing the load, it promptly drops the heaviest part first. And thus the flowing waters of the earth are eternally lifting, selecting, and sifting the soils on its surface.

The action of rain upon the surface of the ground is in itself an excellent lesson in erosion. If there is on a hillside a bit of bare ground which has been recently cultivated or graded, we can plainly see, after a heavy rain, where the finer material has been sorted out and carried away, leaving the larger gravel and stones. And if we examine the pools in the brook, we shall find deltas as well as many examples of the way the soil is sifted as it is dropped. The water of a rill flowing through pasture and meadow is clear, even after a hard rain. This is owing, not so much to the fact that the roots hold the banks of the brook firmly, as that the grass on the surface of the ground acts as a mulch and protects the soil from the erosive impact of the raindrops. On the other hand, and for a reverse reason, a rill through plowed ground is muddy. On a hillside, therefore, contour plowing is practiced—that is, plowing crosswise the hillside instead of up and down. When the furrow is carried crosswise, the water after showers can not dash away, carrying off in it all the finer and more fertile portions of the soil. There are many instances in our Southern States where this difference in the direction of plowing has saved or destroyed the fertility of hillside farms.


Where the stream drops its load.

The little experiment suggested at the beginning of the following lesson, should show the pupils clearly the following points: It is through motion that water takes up soil and holds it in suspension. The tendency of still water is to drop all the load which it is carrying and it drops the heaviest part first. We find the pebbles at the bottom of the jar, the sand and gravel next, and the fine mud on top. The water may become perfectly clear in the jar and yet, when stirred a little, it will become roily again because of the movement. Every child who wades in a brook, knows that the edges and the still pools are more comfortable for the feet than is the center of the stream under the swift current. This is because, where the water is less swift at the sides, it deposits its mud and makes a soft bottom; while under the swifter part of the current, mud is washed away leaving the larger stones bare. For the same reason, the bottom of a stream crossing a level field is soft, because the silt, washed down from the hills by the swift current, is dropped when the waters come to a more quiet place. If, across a stony brook, the pupils can build a dam that will hold for two or three months in the fall or spring when the brook is flooded, they will be able to note that the stones will soon be more or less covered with soft mud; for the dam, stopping the current, causes the water to drop its load of silt. It would have to be a very recently made pool in a stream, which would not have a soft mud bottom. The water at times of flood is forced to the side of the streams in eddies, and its current is thus checked, and its load of mud dropped.

It should be noted that at points where the brook is narrowest the current is swiftest, and where the current is swiftest the bottom is more stony. Also, where there is a bend in the stream the brook digs deeper into the bank where it strikes the curve, and much of the soil thus washed out is removed to the other side of the stream where the current is very slow, and there is dropped. (See Introduction to Physical Geography, Gilbert and Brigham, pp. 51 and 52.) If possible, note that where a muddy stream empties into a pond or lake, the waters of the latter are made roily for some distance out, but beyond this the water remains clear. The pupils should be made to see that the swift current of the brook is checked when its waters empty into a pond or lake, and because of this they drop their load. This happens year after year, and a point extending out into the lake or pond is thus built up. In this manner the great river deltas are formed.

References—The Brook Book, Mary Rogers Miller; Brooks and Brook Basins, Frye; Up and Down the Brooks, Bamford; Physical Geography, Tarr; Introduction to Physical Geography, Gilbert and Brigham.

Lesson CCX

How a Brook Drops Its Load

Leading thought—The brook carries its load only when it is flowing rapidly. As soon as the current is checked, it drops the larger stones and gravel first and then the finer sediment. It is thus that deltas are built up where streams empty into lakes and ponds.

Method—Study the rills made in freshly graded soil directly after a heavy rain. Ask the pupils individually to make observations on the flooded brook.

Experiment—Take a glass fruit jar nearly full of water from the brook, add gravel and small stones from the bed of the brook, sand from its borders and mud from its quiet pools. Have it brought into the schoolroom, and shake it thoroughly. Then place in a window and ask the pupils to observe the following things:

(a) Does the mud begin to settle while the water is in motion; that is, while it is being shaken?

(b) As soon as it is quiet, does the settling process begin?

(c) Which settles first—the pebbles, the sand or the mud? Which settles on top—that is, which settles last?

(d) Notice that as long as the water is in the least roily, it means that the soil in it has not all settled; if the water is disturbed even a little it becomes roily again, which means that as soon as the water is in motion it takes up its load.


1. Where is the current swiftest, in the middle or at the side of the stream?

2. What is the difference, in the bottom of the brook, between the place below the swift current and the edges? That is, if you were wading in the brook, where would it be more comfortable for your feet—at the sides or in the swiftest part of the current? Why?

3. Does the brook have a more stony bed where it flows down a hillside than where flowing through a level place?

4. Place a dam across your brook where the bottom is stony, and note how soon it will have a soft mud bottom. Why is this?

5. Can you find a still pool in your brook that has not a soft, muddy bottom? Why is this?

6. Does the brook flow more swiftly in the steep and narrow places than in the wide portions and where it is dammed?

7. Do you think if water, flowing swiftly and carrying a load of mud, were to come to a wider or more level place, like a pool or millpond dam, that it would drop some of its load? Why?

8. If the water flows less swiftly along the edges than in the middle, would this make the bottom below softer and more comfortable to the feet than where the current is swiftest? If so, why?

9. If you can see the place where a brook empties into a pond or lake, how does it make the waters of the latter look after a storm? What is the water of the brook doing to give this appearance, and why?

10. What becomes of the soil dropped by the brook as it enters a pond or lake? Do you know of any points of land extending out into a lake or pond where the stream enters it? What is a stream delta?

"In the bottom of the valley is a brook that saunters between oozing banks. It falls over stones and dips under fences. It marks an open place on the face of the earth, and the trees and soft herbs bend their branches into the sunlight. The hangbird swings her nest over it. Mossy logs are crumbling into it. There are still pools where the minnows play. The brook runs away and away into the forest. As a boy I explored it but never found its source. It came somewhere from the Beyond and its name was Mystery.

The mystery of this brook was its changing moods. It had its own way of recording the passing of the weeks and months. I remember never to have seen it twice in the same mood, nor to have got the same lesson from it on two successive days: yet, with all its variety, it always left that same feeling of mystery and that same vague longing to follow to its source and to know the great world that I was sure must lie beyond. I felt that the brook was greater and wiser than I. It became my teacher. I wondered how it knew when March came, and why its round of life recurred so regularly with the returning seasons. I remember that I was anxious for the spring to come, that I might see it again. I longed for the earthy smell when the snow settled away and left bare brown margins along its banks. I watched for the suckers that came up from the river to spawn. I made a note when the first frog peeped. I waited for the unfolding spray to soften the bare trunks. I watched the greening of the banks and looked eagerly for the bluebird when I heard his curling note somewhere high in the air."

—"The Nature-Study Idea," L. H. Bailey.

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