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Volcano Discoveries by Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid SmetVolcano Discoveries: A Photographic Journey around the World, Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid Smet (New Holland 2015)

Volcano Discoveries is a dull title for a dazzling book. I would have called it Gods of Fire instead. Mountains are naturally awe-inspiring, but ordinary ones are like slumbering or watchful gods. Volcanoes are mountain-gods that come to life, spewing fire, breathing smoke, devastating the landscape and sometimes wiping out cities. And volcanoes have been worshipped, as this book describes:

For the Mayans, in an interesting parallel to the ancient Egyptians, the pyramid was a very special shape and a holy place that connected the world with the gods. In the mountainous regions of western Guatemala, the Mayans interpreted volcanoes as natural pyramids and, unless in eruption, climbing to their summits was their way to worship them. (“Guatemala: Volcanoes of the Mayans”, pg. 153)

In Italy, the fire-god Vulcanus gave his name first to one fire-mountain, in the Aeloian archipelago, then to all of them (“Vulcano”, pg. 50). In Hawaii, Pele is the volcano-goddess, appearing either as “a tall beautiful young girl or a bent, ugly old woman” (“Hawaii”, pg. 122). Gods, goddesses and demons are everywhere in the stories told about volcanoes. That’s why Gods of Fire would have been a much better title.

But the German volcanologist Tom Pfeiffer is presumably plugging his company VolcanoDiscovery. He supplies the photographs; the Belgian geologist Ingrid Smet supplies the text. His images and her words work well together, but there’s a collaboration in the images too, like the two aspects of Pele. Some of the images are fiery and full of action, as blazing lava fountains against starry skies or pours in blood-red rivers down a slope. Others are bleak: lifeless cones, grey ash-fields, black pavements of cooled lava.

The two kinds of image contrast very effectively, as the book tours every volcanic region of the world from Iceland to Indonesia. And while some images are spectacular, some are small. The huge snow-covered cone of Shishaldin, “in the Aleutian chain”, is spectacular (pg. 141), like the vast plume of smoke belching from Fuego de Colima in Mexico (pg. 149) and the churning lava lake of Marum in the Pacific (pg. 175). Small images include ferns growing in cooled lava (pg. 139); yellow crystals of sulphur around the mouth of a “fumarolic vent” (pg. 74); and a close-up of “Pele’s hair”, or “elongated lava strings that quickly cooled down and became glass” (pg. 126).

So there’s every scale, every stage of volcanic activity, and every kind of slope, steam-plume and smoke-cloud, plus lots of facts, figures and interesting asides in the texts. If you’re interested in volcanoes, the gods of fire are waiting here. If you can raise a glass of tequila to them, even better: “whereas volcanic soils are being used throughout the world to grow grapes for wine production, in Mexico they are used for cultivation of the blue agave – the plant from which tequila is distilled” (“Mexico”, pg. 143).

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Sextant by David Barrie
Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, David Barrie (William Collins 2014)

When a triumphant emperor rode through Rome, he’s said to have had a slave at his shoulder whispering: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” This book has a related message for its readers: “Remember, you’re comfortable.” The world has become much smaller and much safer since the days when a sextant was an essential part of every ship’s equipment.

Or has seemed to become smaller and safer, anyway. David Barrie reminded himself of the underlying reality by sailing across the Atlantic in 1973 with two companions in a 35-ft sloop called Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for “Sea-Queen”). The voyage was powered by the wind and guided by the heavens in the old-fashioned way:

Of course I was intellectually aware of the size of the ocean when we set out from Halifax [on the coast of Nova Scotia], but spending twenty-four days crossing it under sail gave its dimensions a very different and truly sublime reality. The long night watches looking up at the stars in the black immensity of space were a lesson in humility and the experience of a gale in mid-Atlantic left me wondering what it must be like to encounter a real storm. People often talk idiotically about “conquering mountains” or “defying the sea”, but there is no real contest. I was left with an overwhelming sense of nature’s vast scale and complete indifference, and this had a strangely calming effect. We come and we go, the earth too was born and will eventually die, but the universe in all its chilly splendour abides. (ch. 18, “Two Landfalls”, pp. 289-90)

That’s at the end of the book. Descriptions of Barrie’s voyage in the 1970s open almost every previous chapter and set the context first for a history of celestial navigation and then for the stories of the men who used it. Their expertise with sextants and other instruments won them fame, but not always fortune. Nor a quiet and dignified death. Captain Cook charted the Pacific, then was hacked to death on Hawaii in 1779. Joshua Slocum made the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 1895-6, then “disappeared at sea after setting sail from Martha’s Vineyard on a single-handed voyage to the Amazon in November 1908” (ch. 15, “Slocum Circles the World”, pg. 255).

George Bass, after whom the strait separating Tasmania from Australia is named, disappeared too, perhaps at sea, perhaps into the slave-mines of a Spanish colony in South America: “Whatever the truth, Bass was never heard of again.” (ch. 12, “Flinders – Coasting Australia”, pg. 176) That was in 1803. I hadn’t heard of Bass before or of his even more adventurous companion Matthew Flinders. And I didn’t know that Vancouver in Canada was named after the explorer George Vancouver. I’m glad to have changed that.

I had heard of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, but I’ understood the scale of his achievements better by reading this book. He had witnessed Cook’s death on Hawaii, which was why he didn’t want to risk landing on any of the islands of the Tongan archipelago after he was set adrift in an open boat by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. Instead, equipped with only a sextant and compass, Bligh set sail for “Timor, in the Dutch East Indies, some 3,600 nautical miles away” (ch. 4, “Bligh’s Boat Journey”, pg. 41). He needed both skill and “bloody-minded determination” to succeed.

He also needed intelligence. That combination explains why this book about mapping the world’s oceans is dominated by men from a small corner of that world: north-western Europe. Cook, Bligh, Flinders and Bass were English; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Perouse, were French. There’s an “x” in sextant and an “XY” in the human beings who invented and used the instrument. Galileo was one of them: his discovery of the Jovian moons provided a way to determine longitude.

Latitude was relatively easy: you can obtain that by determining the height of, say, Polaris at the north celestial pole. If Polaris is directly overhead, you’re at the north pole. If it’s on the horizon, you’re on the equator. If you can’t see Polaris at all, you’re in the southern hemisphere. Or it’s daylight or a cloudy night. Navigation in past centuries was difficult and dangerous. When Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell got it wrong “on the night of 22 October 1707”, he lost four ships and 2,000 men on the “reef-strewn Isles of Scilly” (ch. 5, “Anson’s Ordeals”, pg. 54). Barrie adds that “Shovell himself was washed ashore and reportedly murdered by a local woman who fancied the ring on his finger.”

Even today, with GPS, radar and secure communications, the sea is still claiming lives. This book reminds you of the days when it claimed many more and was a much more frightening place to venture. Those days may return: modern electronics and satellite technology are a fragile system and Barrie describes at the end of the book how some sailors deliberately abandon it, training themselves to rely on their own eyes and brains, not on the pressing of buttons. This book is about balls in more senses than one. The Polynesians who made astonishing voyages over the Pacific didn’t use only their eyes:

When the horizon was obscured and its changing slant could not tell them how their boat was responding to the waves, they apparently stood with their legs apart, using the inertia of their testicles as a guide. (ch. 17, “‘These are men’”, pg. 283)

That’s a reminder of the male biochemistry underlying the courage required to face the sea and the spatial skills that had to accompany it. There are lots of balls elsewhere: the terrestrial globe and the globes of the sun, moon, planets and stars that helped men navigate their way around it. Sextant is a fascinating read about some formidable men and their often frightening voyages. They helped shape the modern world and you can’t understand the modern world without knowing something about them. This book is an excellent place to start.

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Front cover of The Surfrider compiled by Jack Pollard
The Surfrider, compiled by Jack Pollard (K.G. Murray 1963)

On land it’s skiing; in the air it’s gliding; at sea it’s surfing. What is it? The most elegant and elemental sport. Using the simplest of equipment, man creates speed and grace from some basic aspect of nature: snow, air, water. Surfing has something in common with both skiing and gliding. Like skiing, you need good balance and coordination; like gliding, you need quick and sure reactions to an ever-changing medium. Like gliding too, but unlike skiing, surfing is ultimately powered by the sun. In theory, you could ski on Pluto, because all you need is a slope and a coating of snow. Gravity will do the rest. But the wind that carries a glider also creates the waves that carry a surfer. That idea of being carried is part of the joy of both surfing and gliding. We usually have to carry ourselves or exploit an animal or machine. In surfing and gliding, by applying a little ingenuity and skill, you get a free ride at high speed. Surfing is really brain against brawn: the brain of the surfer against the brawn of the sea.

But human brawn may be required to set that confrontation up: you have to carry your board and paddle out to catch a wave. Being small or slender is a disadvantage in big-wave surfing too. It’s not a fatal one, but being timid, unlucky or unskilful can be: “Every big wave rider can tell you of his narrow escapes from death,” writes the Australian surfer Bob Pike in his chapter of this compilation from 1963. Perhaps in the end he wished he had died while surfing. The book contains more now than when it was originally published, because everyone in it, however young and casually athletic then, is either old or dead now. Great athletes, and the best surfers are definitely great athletes, do not enjoy long careers by sedentary standards. Bob Pike, a world champion in 1962, committed suicide in 1999, after an injury had stopped him surfing. He looks like a surf-god in one of the black-and-white photos here, calmly riding a huge but glassy wave at such speed that his board is hydroplaning, or lifting partly free of the water. But he was mortal rather than divine and moments like that were one day only memories.

I don’t believe he really wrote the chapter credited to him either, because it’s too professionally crisp. But he must have approved it and he did indeed think that “Competitions are all against the spirit of surf-riding, which is supposed to be a communion with nature rather than a hectic chase for points.” Another chapter of the book, Jon Donohoe’s “Your Body is Enough”, suggests that the communion is even closer in body-surfing, which doesn’t use a board. But I’d say that the board is an essential part of what makes surfing so compelling. A board is simple but allows human beings to do something spectacular. Penguins and seals body-surf, after all, but no animal can ride on water the way humans can. The board is even attractive as an object in its own right, an elegant shape for a chaotic medium.

But the chaos of water has its own elegance and its own regularities, and one of the most interesting chapters is Jack Mayes’ “How Waves Are Formed”. For example, did you know that the power and height of waves depend on their “fetch”? That’s the distance they travel before they reach the shallow water near land. The further they travel, the bigger they are at the end. This explains why islands like Hawaii and Tahiti, isolated in the vast Pacific, have some of the world’s biggest waves. Big waves display the ocean’s grandeur and beauty, but there’s something sinister in this chapter too. Doubly so. The rip-currents created by water rushing back out to sea threaten incautious surfers not only with drowning, but with dentition too. One kind of rip-current “sometimes contains sharks”. To surf, you generally have to confront the sea and the sea is a dangerous place. But, like its grandeur and beauty, the sea’s danger has an essential place in surfing: Pike’s chapter is called “With Your Whole Heart Jumping”. Colour photography and videos are available nowadays to help you understand why so many people give their hearts to surfing, but this simple black-and-white book from the early 1960s is more than enough.

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