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25 October 2021

From the NS archive: The melting of the ice

3 July 1920: What a vision it must have been whenever it took place!

By Hilaire Belloc

In this whimsical piece from 1920, the Anglo-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc muses upon the melting of the ice that formed the continents as we now know them. “What a vision it must have been whenever it took place!” he exclaims, imagining the spectacle. Belloc’s study is not based upon scientific evidence, and he does not connect the concept of melting ice to global warming, as we would today. He marvels at the speed at which the last ice supposedly melted, a “jerk” that was “revolutionary” and “catastrophic”. If the sea rose, as he writes of some suggestions, “then what a sight it must have been!” is his response. For all the exclamations, Belloc understands the great force of change that nature has brought on the human world, and wonders at all that has been lost in the process.

I wish I had been there when the ice melted; in the days when the great river valleys were formed, when the rich meadows were laid down from the mud of the flooded rivers, and when the gravels were rolled along, forming beaches one upon the other as the waters subsided, and when Northern Europe was carved.

Men were there and saw it. Some say it was so little a while ago that the great monarchies of the hot places, Egypt and Assyria, were in their splendour, and there is something to be said for that saying.

It was an Englishman, spontaneous, individual, but at the same time exact, who started that hare. And the hare may be more than a phantasm. When you read the arguments it looks as though he were right. And if he were right, what an explanation of history! … The Ice Melting but 5 or 6,000 years ago.

Then indeed could we explain how it was that the North was unheard of during all these early centuries, and how it was that an increasing field of increasingly breeding men, expanded towards the North, and how it was that you have no records of the North before the first movements of tribes 3,000 years ago, and their greater movement 2,000 years ago, and then at last the very late story of the brief Scandinavian adventure with its marvellous epics. And it would explain also the very small numbers of the North and the way in which the North got its language so largely from the South – for what we call the “Teutonic languages” to-day (of which we have no appreciable record till about a thousand years ago), turned out to be for half their matter at least (and research will increase the proportion) built up of words from the Mediterranean. (Read [Leo] Wiener, his revolutionary book.)

But apart from what it would explain in history, what a vision it must have been whenever it took place! For the melting of the ice was very rapid. The geologists do not always use their eyes. Look at those great scoops in the chalk hills shorn out by the water as it swung from left to right through the valleys, and see those enormous floods racing down.

See how those huge stones were run along which form the gravels of the higher levels, and ask yourselves in what a current they were suspended! Or wonder at the great sawings through the rock which unite and drain the old lakes of the Pyrenees! That was a sight to see! It is just possible that someone recorded it. Some traveller thrust up northward by exile or by avarice may have come with his slaves and his retinue to the edges of the enormous thing. He may have seen the Rhône tumbling like a sea released through the gap of the Jura. Or he may have seen the white seething at the mouths of the river which laid down the Camargue.

We see no such things nowadays.

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Imagine yourself in a galley bowling westward under the Levanter compelled to go further north than you had wished: the wind dropping. Then your hanging about all night off the coast of what is now the Stes-Maries, and then at morning hearing with fright, but with wonder, on your starboard beam to the North, the enormous noise of waters, and seeing the flecks of foam go by you, and catching on the horizon a sort of low tumble or cataract or flood reaching the sea over twenty miles of beach and carrying with it half a county of stones from the hills. There the stones are to this day – a vast plain of sterile pebbles from a fist to a pea. The ancients said that Hercules once passed that way.

Or think what it must have been to stand on the Ventoux and see the melting of the ice from Auvergne. Or to stand driven upward on to the hills of the Artois, and to see the waters rising in the channel strait below.

For the thing went very quickly, make no doubt of that.

There is a superstition for the moment in favour of slow, very slow, changes in the affairs of this earth. I think that superstition has arisen from a desire to exclude in the affairs of matter the force of will. At any rate there is no proof for it. Some of the processes have been very slow (they are exceedingly slow to-day), but some jerks have been rapid enough: revolutionary: catastrophic: and the last melting of the ice was of these.

And what do you suppose happened in the splendid valleys of Norway? To-day they are drowned. What recession of the ice filled them more full? How did man come to occupy the land released? During what intermission of time, during what generations (few and creative) did the tall fair race, for a moment wanderers, build their little simple structure of a religion of which we know so little (because what we have of it is wholly intermixed with our own) and of a language of which we know so little (for that also is mixed with our own), but at any rate of a special culture common to but a few thousands of men. How came they to build ships? Who taught them? Or from what regions did they teach themselves? It all came after the melting of the ice.

Then I ask myself what men saw, and what they felt as they saw, the waterfalls. For those marked all Europe also. Glaciers we know to-day. We have but to imagine them expanded and the landscape is the same. Stand on the Maladetta and conceive the field of ice holding not only the shoulder of the mountain but all the valley below and out to the plain of France, and you only have the replica of what a man may see from Mont Blanc. Or stand on an Alpine peak and imagine the sheets of ice and snow below you, spread, covering every rock for as far as the eye can reach, and you only have a repetition of what men still see in Greenland. But we have no modem parallel (save in perhaps half a dozen places on the whole earth) by which to reconstruct the enormity of the waterfalls.

For there were not only these swirling waters carving out the great valleys, there was the thundering of water down over the ledges, thousand upon thousand. Perhaps they helped to scoop out the smaller lakes more than did the ice before them. There must have been some such sight above Grenoble when the great lake which burst seven hundred years ago was forming. For in the beginning that lake basin in which the Bourg d’Oisans now stands must have been a mass of ice, and then as the ice melted and the glacier above it melted all the way up to La Grave, up to the very shoulders of the Pelvoux, what mighty armies of water must have roared down to the trench of the Isère! And wherever there is to-day a gorge (or at least in the most of these cuttings) you must have had the same sight. Their little dwindling descendants now and then show a trickle of water for our amusement and we are still astonished. But the grandfathers of these were giants!

[See also: From the NS archive, 18 August 1928: Even though the joys of summer are passing, the change to autumn brings new pleasures]

They say also that the sea rose. It may have done so. Perhaps it must have done so. And if it did so what a sight must that also not have been: the cutting of the straits!

I have read of but one part of the world in which a tradition remains of such a change and in that case it may have meant an earthquake rather than a rising of the waters: I mean the Straits of Messina. Of the water flooding in here there is a legend; but there is none remaining of the cutting of the chalk between Kent and the Artois; or of the flooding, if it were flooded, of the channel between the Pillars of Hercules; or of the slower lap which gradually just covered the entrances of the Baltic – a freshwater lake.

And by the way, what made that most amazing issue whereby the Black Sea feeds the Eastern Mediterranean with a continuous stream? I have read so many guesses, and they have not satisfied. It is so long, so narrow, so artificial, and double at that. Very changed would the history of the world have been – of the modern world – if Nature had played some freak of the same sort to join the central Atlantic and the central Pacific Seas, or if the low sand between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean had not run dry, or if by some shock the Mediterranean had poured into the Jordan valley.

And of much else in the melting of the ice. Was it then that the hither North of Africa ran dry? Was it then that the old watercourses which are now desert and in which you can still find proof of the habitations of men, and stranded beasts and fishes of old rivers, were in full spate?

Who lived there? What did they in the story of mankind? And did Egypt when it was already able to build and to carve men out of stone, look out from the head of the Delta upon a shallow sea?

I think the greater part of the story of the world’s landscape has been lost to us for ever.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).