Life in Hawaii, by Titus Coan
Copyright ©1882, 1997 (electronic edition by Edward J. Coan)

Chapter XXI.

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The Eruption of 1855; A Climb to the Source; Mountain Hardships; Visits to Lower Parts of the Lava Stream; Hilo threatened with Destruction; Liquidity of the Hawaiian; Lavas Are the Lava-Streams fed from their Sources only?

THE great eruption of 1855-56 continued fifteen months and the disgorgement of lava exceeded by millions of tons that of any other eruption we have seen.

It was first observed on the evening of the 11th of August, 1855, shining like Sirius at a small point near the summit of Mauna Loa. This radiant point expanded rapidly, and in a short time the glow was like that of the rising sun. Soon a deluge of liquid fire rushed down the mountain-side in the direction of our town.

Day after day, and night after night, we could trace this stream until it entered the deep forest, when the scene by day would often be made beautiful by the vast clouds of white vapor rolling up in wreaths from the boiling streams and water-basins below. In the night-time the spectacle was one of unrivaled sublimity. The broad and deep river of lava, moving resistlessly on through the festooned forest trees, would first scorch the low plants and fallen timber of the jungle, until they took fire, when suddenly a roaring flame would burst forth, covering perhaps a square mile, and rushing up the hanging vines to the tree tops, leaping in lambent flashes from tree to tree, would make the light so gorgeous that for the time being night was turned into day.

These brilliant scenes were long continued, and all Hilo watched the progress of the stream with increasing interest.

On the 2d of October, in company with a friend and several natives, I set off to visit this approaching torrent of lava. As the jungle through which it was burning its pathway was too dense to be penetrated, we chose for our track the bed of the Wailuku river, the channel in which Mr. Paris and I went up to the eruption of 1843. We slept three nights in the great forest on the banks of the river, and the fourth night in a cave on the outskirts of the forest. Early in the morning of October 6th we emerged and came to the margin of the lava stream in the open plain. We had flanked it at the distance of some two miles on our left, and its terminus was about ten miles below us on its way to Hilo. Where we first struck it, we estimated the breadth to be about three miles, but twice that width in places where the country was level, and where it could easily expand. The surface was solidified, and so nearly cool that we took it for our highway. And highway indeed it was, for it was raised in some places twenty, fifty, and a hundred feet above the old floor on which it came down. In some places the walking was comfortable, and in others all was confusion thrice confounded. Ridges, cones, bluffs, hills, crevasses, aa, swirls, twistings, precipices, and all shapes congealed, were there. No fire yet. Little puffs of white steam were coming up from unknown depths below. Far down the mountain terrible fires were gleaming, cutting down a mighty forest and licking up rivers of water. High above us raged a glowing furnace, and under our very feet a burning flood was rushing with an unknown commission, perhaps to consume all Hilo, to choke our beautiful harbor, to drive out our people, and leave this gem of the Pacific a heap of ruin. Thoughts of what might be could not be silenced; like ghosts from the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, they haunted our path.

Onward we went; the ascent grew steeper. We were startled; a yawning fissure was before us hot, sulphurous gases were rushing up the sullen swash of liquid lava was heard. We took the windward side of the opening, approached carefully, and with awe we saw the swift river of fire some fifty feet below us, rushing at white heat, and with such fearful speed that we stood amazed. The great tunnel in which this fiery flow swept down was a vitrified duct apparently as smooth as glass, and the speed, though it could not be measured, I estimated to be forty miles an hour. Leaving this opening, we pressed forward, and once in about one or two miles we found other rents from thirty to two hundred feet in length, down which we looked, and saw the lava-torrent hurrying toward the sea.

These openings in the mountain were vents, or breathing holes for the discharge of the burning gases, and thus perhaps prevented earthquakes and terrific explosions. They were longitudinal, revealing the fiery channel at the depth of fifty to a hundred feet below, and exposing a sight to appall the stoutest heart. To fall into one of these orifices would be instant death. From 10 A.M. we were walking in the midst of steam and smoke and heat which were almost stifling. Valve after valve opened as we ascended, out of which issued fire, smoke, and brimstone, and to avoid suffocation, we were obliged to keep on the windward side, watching every change of the wind. Sometimes hot whirlwinds would sweep along loaded with deadly gases, and threatening the unwary traveler.

In one place we saw the burning river uncovered for nearly 500 feet, and dashing down a declivity of about twenty degrees, leaping precipices in a mad rage which was indescribable. Standing at the lower end of this opening we could look up, not only along the line of fire, but also thirty feet or more into the mouth of the tunnel out of which it issued, and see the fiery cataract leaping over a cliff some fifteen feet high, with a sullen roar which was terrific, while the arched roof of this tunnel, some forty feet above the stream, and the walls on each side of the open space were hung with glowing stalactites, tinged with fiery sulphates and festooned with immense quantities of filamentous glass. At the upper end of this opening we cast in stones of considerable size, and when they struck the surface of the rushing current, they were swept from our sight with a speed that blurred their form, and with a force that was amazing.

Amidst clouds of steam and the smell of gases, jagged fissures opening all along the track and wonders of force arresting our attention, we still ascended, until at 1 P.M., October 6th, we reached the terminal crater. This was Saturday and the fifth day of our journey, and we were a little weary, but we set ourselves at once to examine this point where the first red light of August 11th had been seen, and whence the amazing flood of melted minerals had been poured out to startle all eastern Hawaii. From this summit elevation, for six miles down the side of the mountain we found a series of crevasses of a similar character, but no rounded or well-defined crater. This upper cleft was wide, some 500 feet long, and indescribably jagged. It had vomited out floods of lava which now lay in bristling heaps forming a scoriaceous wall 100 feet high on each side of the opening. These walls were so rough, so steep, and in such a shattered state, that it was very difficult to surmount them, but by care and effort we gained the giddy crest of the one on the windward side and gazed down into the Plutonic throat of the mountain. No fire could be seen. Blue and white steam with the smell of sulphur came curling up from unknown depths below, while the fearful throat that had so lately belched out such floods of fiery ruin was nearly choked with its own débris. The action had ceased; the fountain, no longer able to throw out its burning stream from this high orifice, had subsided, probably a thousand feet, and found vent at the lower point where we had seen the flow in our ascent.

We were now more than 12,000 feet above our home, and sitting on the lip of this mountain mortar, we could meditate on its recent thunder, and seem to see the belching of its fire and smoke and brimstone, while its stony hail lay heaped around us. What a battle-field of infinite forces in these realms of thunder and lightning, of stormy winds and hail and snow, of rending earthquakes and devouring fires!

The source of this eruption is about midway between those of 1843 and 1852, and these three igneous rivers ran in parallel lines about five miles apart. This eruption was also only a few miles north of Mokuaweoweo, the great summit crater, whose deep cauldron has so often boiled with intense heat, and whose brilliant fires have thrown a sheen of glory over the firmament and lighted all eastern Hawaii. Mokuaweoweo is probably the great chimney or shaft which reaches the abyss of liquid lava below, and which furnishes the materials for all the lateral outbursts of Mauna Loa, except for those of Kilauea, which are independent eruptions.

It was evening before our explorations of the surrounding scenery closed, and the next day was Sunday. Unfortunately our guides had failed to supply our gourds with water. We had passed pool after pool, and had charged our natives to be sure and fill the gourds in time, but they as often answered that there was plenty of water further on. In this they were mistaken, and we reached our destination with only one quart of water for four persons. But we agreed to spend the Lordís day and offer our sacrifices of prayer and praise on this high altar.

It was cold and dreary, and our bed was hard and rough lava, but raising a low wall of lava blocks, as protection against the piercing night winds, we endured cold and thirst until Monday morning, having no fuel we were above vegetation and only one half-pint of water each from Saturday until the afternoon of Monday.

In itself we would not have deemed it wrong to go down the mountain on the Sabbath, but as our natives are slow to discriminate and reason on points of religion, and as multitudes in all parts of the islands would be sure to hear that the teacher who had so often dissuaded them from unnecessary labor on the Lordís day had himself been traveling on that day, it was prudent to give them no occasion to stumble on this point. I have never regretted the self-denial.

October 8th we marched rapidly down to find water. On our way we passed the famous cone of one mile in circumference formed in 1852, and around the base of this cone we found patches of white frost. So painful was our thirst that we lay down and lapped the frozen vapor. A little before noon we came to a spring of pure, cold water, and here we sat and drank abundantly. At evening we reached Kilauea, a distance of thirty-five miles from our morning position. Here we rested, explored, etc., and on Thursday we reached Hilo, well rewarded for the journey. It was all the way on foot, the whole distance being over 100 miles.

On our return we found all Hilo in a state of anxious suspense, and eager to hear what we had seen and what were the probabilities that the eruption would reach the town. The light of the blazing forest was evidently drawing nearer and nearer daily, but no one had as yet penetrated the dense thicket of ferns and bramble and of tangled vines and fallen trees. A few native bird-hunters had gone up some distance into the forest, and climbed lofty trees to prospect, and had reported the locality of the lower end of the stream. I resolved to pierce the jungle if possible, and on the 22d set off early in the morning with an English gentleman who had offered to accompany me, and with one of the natives who had seen the fire from the tree-top. Upon entering the woods we soon took the channel of a watercourse south of the Wailuku, and wading, leaping from rock to rock, and crossing and recrossing a hundred times to work our way along the margin, we advanced at the rate of about two miles an hour.

Early in the day a cold and dreary rain set in, and continued all that day and night. What with wading and the falling rain, we were thoroughly soaked. But action kept up our warmth, and we pressed on that we might reach the fire before dark. Several times in the afternoon our faithful guide climbed trees in order to descry the fire, and to determine its course and distance. The day declined, and we began to fear that we should be left to spend a dark and cheerless night in the forest without light or fire. At length, however, there was a welcome shout from the last tree climbed: "I see the fire! it is on our right, two miles distant." We turned at right angles to our previous course, left the water-channel, and began to cut and beat our way through the thicket under a fresh inspiration. At a little before sundown we reached the lava river, two miles, perhaps, above its terminus. When within a few rods of it, and we saw its glaring light flashing upon us through the jungle, my companion, who had never seen such a sight, was startled, and inquired earnestly if we were not in danger, and if the forest would not soon all be on fire and consume us.

The place where we stood commanded a scene of surpassing interest. We estimated the flow to be two miles wide, and our view of it to extend about ten miles, giving it some twenty square miles of area. Perhaps three-fourths of the surface was solidified, but hundreds or thousands of pools, and active fountains and streams of lava boiled and glittered and spouted, presenting a scene of marvelous brilliancy and beauty.

The margin where we stood was hardened, but red hot; open pools were within a few rods of us, and cracks revealed the moving fusion below. In order to warm ourselves, and partially to dry our caked garments, we stood as near the fire as we could bear it, on a little knoll under a large tree about six feet from the margin and as many feet above the stream.

Here we prepared our supper, hanging a small tea-kettle over the red-hot lava on a pole, and toasting our ham and bread on a spit. Rain fell during most of the night, and we could not lie down; so, supporting our backs against the trunk of a tree, we watched the marvelous scene until morning. The river of devouring fire was moving slowly on toward Hilo, partly under cover of its own hardened crust, and partly open to our sight. Near the center of the flow was an open river, some half a mile wide, forming a central channel of lava, deeper and more active than the rest, while lateral branches gushed out on both sides, and boiling lakes and spouting jets abounded.

Two miles below us, along the whole front of the stream, a fiery edge, like the front of a war-column, was consuming the jungle, and leaving the giant trees standing in the burning flood to be brought down and consumed in their turn. All night long we watched this process. Trees of seventy feet in height and three or four feet in diameter were not felled in an hour, but were gradually gnawed off by the continuous action of the igneous stream. A large number of these trees fell, and we were often startled by their crashing thunder, and amazed at their heavy fall and plunge into the destroying current. Here they would lie until they took fire, and then startling explosions would sometimes occur, and the livid flames would rush and roar while these Titans of the forest were consumed.

The more rapidly flowing lava often submerged the trunks and branches of trees, and during the consuming process the surface of the flood would be covered with thousands of little points of purple and blue flame of the burning gases coming up from below.

Great changes took place during the night. The mountain furnace was in full blast, and millions of cubic feet of lava were rushing down in the pyro-ducts to replenish this river and to push it onward to the sea. The surface of the stream before us was constantly heaving and changing under the force of these fiery dynamics. Large fields of the solidified crust would break up like ice on a great river in spring-time, and melt. There were detonations at various points, and the uplifting and cracking of the crust would call our attention from one point to another, while we noted that the whole surface of the flow seemed to be rising like a river in a freshet. The hot and hardened lava near us, where we had warmed our feet, dried our clothes, and cooked our supper, had been melted, and a superincumbent stratum of liquid fire had raised it nearly six feet, so that its surface was nearly on a level with our hillock. Lateral streams, like skirmishers, were being pushed out, new fountains were opening, and vertical jets were leaping and dancing before us like ghosts in flame. A tree fell within a few yards of us; and finally we heard the crackling of the brambles just on our left a small stream of lava, like a fiery serpent, was creeping along behind us, while the rising stream on our right was about to go over the bank, and thus we were threatened to be surrounded by a ring of fire.

It was nearly daylight, and the rain and cold continued, but the call to retreat was imperative. We withdrew to the rear. In about ten minutes more our nest was covered with a fiery flood, our sheltering tree stood in the midst of it, and the flames were running up its clinging vines and leaping among its branches.

I had determined to find, if possible, some place where we could cross over the lava-stream and go down to Hilo on the other, or north side. Working our way along the southern margin, and searching for some point where it should be so nearly crusted over that by zigzagging we might reach the opposite side, we at length ventured, my companion and our guide following me closely. We made a serpentine track, winding up and down, and often diverging from our course to avoid open pools and streams. But the hardened surface was swelling and heaving around us by the upheaving pressure of the lava below, and valves were continually opening, out of which the molten flood gushed and flowed on every side.

Not a square rod could be found on all this wide expanse where the glowing fusion could not be seen under our feet through holes and cracks in the crust on which we were walking. After venturing some thirty rods upon this sea of fire, we saw just before us an open channel of seething lava, some three hundred feet wide, and whose extreme length above and below we could not see or measure. Of course there was no alternative but to beat a retreat, and we worked our way back to the place whence we started.

To many it may seem strange that any one should venture into such a place; but to a person familiar with the movements of these igneous masses, the danger is not alarming. Fused rock is heavy and of great consistency, and when left quiet for a time under the atmosphere its surface stiffens and congeals, so that I have often walked on a flow that had been liquid only five hours before. We returned to Hilo to report.

Still the eruption made steady progress toward the town, felling the forest, filling up ravines and depressions, and licking up the streams and basins of water in its way. It reached the banks of the Wailuku, and lateral arms were thrown out into the river. Again I visited the scene of action. Several ship-masters and other gentlemen wished to join me, and my two daughters begged that they also might go. The distance had been lessened to about fifteen miles, and after patient toil over rocky precipices and wearisome obstructions, we reached the flow before nightfall. A furious line of lava marked the lower end of the stream, gushing out at white heat from under the crust that covered it for miles above. This igneous stream had fallen into a stream of water, and the conflict between the elements was fierce. The water boiled with raging fury, but the fire prevailed, sending up spiral columns of steam and filling the channel. To those to whom the sight was new, it was overwhelming.

Near the margin of the flow we found a lava oven, red-hot, but not fused, and near this, on account of the cold, we made our lodging for the night. In the morning we retraced our steps to Hilo.

When the advancing stream was within ten miles of the shore, I pushed through the woods again, accompanied by one native, to the lower line of the flow. Here we found an advanced stream which had fallen into a dry wady, and was coming rapidly down to a precipice of some seventy feet, over which it continued to pour from 2 P.M. until 10 A.M. of the next day. My guide and I took seats upon the rocky roof of a cavern in the center of the channel, some distance below the lava cataract. Here we had a grand front view of the scene during the whole night. The fusion was divided by rocks into two streams, and these descended in continuous sheets through the night where we were there was no night filling up the deep basin below, and changing the nearly perpendicular precipice into an inclined plane of about four degrees angle. This great cavity being filled, the lava began to flow down the channel where we had established our observatory. The channel was full of boulders and very rough, so that we sat undisturbed for some time; but when the fusion began to enter the cavern on whose roof we were perched, and we heard subterranean thuds, we were admonished to seek other quarters.

As the weeks went on, I made several other visits to this lava stream eight, I think, in all marking its rate of progress and its varied phenomena, and concluding, with many others, that its entrance into our town and harbor was only a question of time, unless the blast of the awful furnace on the mountain should cease.

As the flood of consuming fire came nearer and nearer, the anxiety in Hilo became intense. Its approach was the great subject of conversation. In the streets, in the shops, and in our homes, the one question was, "What of the volcano?" Watchers were out keeping vigils during the livelong night. Merchants began to pack their goods, and people looked out for boats and other conveyances, and for places of refuge to escape the impending ruin. Every house near the lower skirt of the forest was evacuated, and all the furniture and animals removed to places of safety. Our inland streams were choked, and the river which waters our town and supplies ships was as black as ink, and emitted an offensive odor. The juices of vines, and the ashes of thousands of acres of burnt forests containing charred leaves and wood came into these streams, and the smell of pyroligneous acid was strong. By day the smoke went up like the smoke of Sodom. By night the flames arose and spread out on high like a burning firmament. We thought we could calculate very nearly the day when Hilo would be on fire, when our beautiful harbor would be a pit of boiling fury, to be choked with volcanic products and abandoned forever. What could we do?

The devouring enemy was within seven miles of us, his fiery lines extending two miles in width. Already had it descended on its devastated track fifty or sixty miles, persistently overcoming every obstacle; the little distance remaining was all open, and no human power could set up any barriers, or arrest the on-coming destroyer.

All knew what we could not do. Some one said; "We can pray"; and I have never seen more reverent audiences than those that assembled on our day of fasting and prayer. No vain mirth, no scoffing, no skepticism then. Native and foreigner alike felt it was well to pray to Him who kindled the fire, that He would quench it.

On the 12th of February, only a few days after this, a party of fifty or sixty foreigners was made up to visit the eruption, then about six miles from the town. A United States frigate with her commodore was in our harbor, and seven or eight whale-ships. Visitors were also here from Honolulu, and eight wives of ship-masters were boarders in the town. It was a great muster; the cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen included the commodore and his suite, lawyers, judges, sheriff, merchants, ship-masters, etc.

A way had been opened for horses through the thicket by natives hired for the occasion, so that we might ride nearly to the margin of the flow.

The morning on which we started was radiant with beauty; and as we advanced, natives, catching the inspiration, turned out in troops, and it was supposed a hundred joined us.

We met in an opening in the forest, some distance from the main stream, but opposite an active flow of lava that had shot ahead down the channel of a rivulet. A number of the company desired to see the main flow in its breadth, and with these I proposed to advance two or three miles, while those who remained were to follow a trail which the natives would open, and prepare a camp near the margin of the stream. We returned about sunset and found the camp demoralized. The party had pursued the trail as directed, but at sight of the glowing fires which were rushing down in volume had taken fright, turned back on their track and fled deeper into the forest.

The commodore retreated at discretion, ordered his horse hastily, vaulted into the saddle, and taking one or two of his officers sped down the hill, out of the woods, over the rocks and through streams and mud, never halting until he had reached the shore.

The frightened ladies and children wandered here and there, bewildered in the forest, and it was midnight before the stragglers were all brought into camp. Most of them were then so terrified that they could not be persuaded to approach nearer to the burning river; but those who were reassured and ventured to join the party of observation were well repaid. Through the energy of a ship-master, a fine topsail canvas tent had been set up on a high bank of the water-channel overlooking a deep basin, into which a cascade was falling from a height of thirty-nine feet, and our position commanded the channel for half a mile. The fiery stream, perhaps seventy-five feet wide, filled the whole channel and drove the boiling water before it, burning the bushes and vines and ferns along the banks as it approached the fall. Down plunged the molten lava, moving like a serpent into the depths of the basin, covering the whole surface with enormous bubbles. A dense steam which rolled upward in convolving clouds of fleecy whiteness floated away upon the wind. Sometimes the glare of the fire would so fall upon the cloud of vapor as to produce the appearance of flame mingled with blood, and again the quivering and dancing of countless prismatic colors. By break of day there was not a drop of water left in this basin; the space was filled with smouldering lavas, and the precipice, which had reared itself at an angle of 80į, was converted into a gently sloping plane. A large slab of lava crust was tilted, and stood as a monument of the accomplished work; the flow ceased, a little red-hot lava was seen amidst the smouldering heaps of rocky coal, and from that day the fearful flood did not come another foot toward Hilo.

This was six months after the commencement of the eruption on the mountain. Above this pool, where the action ceased so suddenly, was the broad river of one to two miles wide which supplied the flow; and this also ceased to move toward Hilo, at the same time leaving a breastwork of indurated lava some twenty-five feet high across the whole terminus of the stream.

But what is most marvelous, confounding our geology, is the fact that for nine months longer, or until November, 1856, after the arrest of the flow toward our town, the great terminal furnace on Mauna Loa was in full blast, sending down billions of cubic feet of molten rock in covered channels, and depositing it near the lower end of the stream, but without pushing beyond its breastworks. This lava gushed out laterally along the margins of the stream, or burst up vertically, rending the crust, throwing it about in wild confusion, or heaping it into cones and ridges a hundred feet high, as monuments of its fury. I have mounted some of these cones, finding them cracked from base to top in fissures six to eight feet apart, but so firm that I could walk to their summits and look down in the seams on the right and left, and see the red-hot lava glow like burning coals in a coal-pit, sending out deadly blasts of acid gases.

At many points for miles above the terminus, pools, lakes, and streams of liquid fire were scattered over the square miles of aa and immense fields of pahoehoe, boiling, seething, and flowing during the nine months that followed February 13th. During all this time the water of the Wailuku was so discolored, and so offensive in taste and smell, that ships refused it, and it was disused by the residents and in some of the lovely woodland rills the water became black like ink.

During this eruption Prof. J. D. Dana wrote to me requesting that I would ascertain on how great an angle of descent lavas would flow without breaking, as some scientists affirmed that a continuous stream could not flow down an angle of more than five degrees. I took pains to measure accurately on one of my excursions, and found lava flowing continuously on declivities of from one to ninety degrees. I also noted that our Hawaiian volcanoes send out streams of such perfect fusion that they will run like oil down any angle, and even cleave like paste to an inward curve of the rock and form a thin veneering upon it.

Another question arose: Can a lava stream flow for many miles longitudinally upon the surface, without being fed by vents or fissures from below? Of course no one will dispute the fact that fusion pouring down a steep mountain-side will rush for miles with such rapidity that it can not cool in its descent so as to stop its progress. But can it push forward over broad fields of almost level surface? I have answered this question thus: 1st, On ascending the mountain to view an eruption I see no evidence of deep fractures until we are more than two-thirds the way to the summit.

2d. Where there is an opening extending down to the fiery abyss below, there will, I think, always be a column of mineral smoke ascending to mark the spot, so long as action continues. This is true of Kilauea, and it is also true of all the eruptions I have observed. We see continuous volumes of smoke ascending from the terminal crater on Mauna Loa, and others near the terminus of the stream where the fusion is gushing out from under its hardened surface. The smoke at the fountain is mineral, while that below is from vegetable matter. These two kinds of smoke are distinguishable by the smell; and the mineral smoke is nowhere continuously emitted along the line of the lava-stream, however extended that may be; it is characteristic of the lava-source.

3d. I have often surveyed, for distances of five to twenty miles, the ground upon which eruptions were approaching, and have seen the burning floods come on, covering today the ground on which I traveled yesterday, and consuming the hut where I slept. Their manner of progress is so familiar to me that it is difficult to see how I can be mistaken in thinking that our longest lava-streams maintain themselves wholly from the source, and are not fed from fissures beneath their course.

This eruption of 1855-56 gave us an example of the law of compensation. Repeated efforts had been made to open a road for horses through the great central forest of Hawaii. It is probably a moderate estimate to say that ten thousand days of native labor had been expended on the enterprise. But the road was abandoned long ago, after having been carried about ten miles from the shore, and in a few years it was covered with jungle. This eruption consumed the forest to within a mile of the lower skirt of it, and a bridle-path has been made to the flow, and upon this hardened stream animals have been taken through an opened passage to Waimea and Kohala. With proper effort a convenient road might be made upon this lava-field, so as to shorten greatly the distance to the western side of the island.

As before mentioned, surface lava exposed to the atmosphere crusts over before running very far, unless it is moving with great velocity, as down steep descents. This process of refrigeration so protects the liquid below that it flows onward at white-heat, it may be, until obstructed, when it gushes out on the margins, or bursts up vertically. On plains where the movement is slow the obstructions are more numerous and the force required to overcome them is less; this accounts for the lateral spreadings, the upliftings and the thousand irregularities which diversify the ever-changing surface of the lava-flow.

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