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The Water-Babies by Charles KingsleyThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

When I first read this as a child, I didn’t realize that it was one of the strangest books ever written. I do now. And the strangeness was heightened by the old edition I’ve re-read it in, because it came as a double volume that started with Kingsley’s The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

No-one reading The Heroes would guess what awaited them in the second half of the book. The prose plods, the imagery is strictly conventional – “Then Aietes’ rage rushed up like a whirlwind, and his eyes flashed fire” – and Kingsley makes interesting stories dull. I quickly gave up when I tried to read them.

Maybe I was anticipating The Water-Babies too much. It starts almost conventionally, but it has an unconventional hero: “a little chimney-sweep” called Tom. He’s unwashed, unlettered, untaught, and unfairly treated by his master in “a great town in the north country”. But he accepts the hardships of his life, finds fun where he can, and thinks of “the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.”

That first long paragraph of The Water-Babies is already richer and more vivid than the whole of The Heroes. And the book hasn’t got strange yet. It starts to do so when Tom is taken into the country to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, the grand home of the squire Sir John Harthover:

[It] had been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.

For the attics were Anglo-Saxon.

The third door Norman.

The second Cinque-cento.

The first-floor Elizabethan.

The right wing Pure Doric.

The centre Early English, with a huge portico copied from the Parthenon.

The left wing pure Boeotian, which the country folk admired most of all, became it was just like the new barracks in the town, only three times as big.

The grand staircase was copied from the Catacombs at Rome.

The back staircase from the Tajmahal at Agra. […]

The cellars were copied from the caves of Elephanta.

The offices from the Pavilion at Brighton.

And the rest from nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth. (The Water-Babies, ch. 1)

That’s an early taste of the eccentric lists and juggling of ideas to come. Tom begins to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, but accidentally comes down in the bedroom of the squire’s daughter as she lies asleep in bed. She’s the “most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen”. And she’s completely clean. Then Tom notices someone else in the room: “standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth.”

He turns on it angrily, then realizes it’s his own reflection in a “great mirror, the like of which [he] had never seen before.” For the first time in his life, he understands that he is dirty. The knowledge startles and shames him, so he tries to flee up the chimney. But he upsets the fire-irons and wakes the little girl. She screams, thinking he’s a thief; and Tom’s adventures begin. He leaves the little girl’s bedroom by the window, climbing down the magnolia tree outside, and runs off.

Soon the whole house and its staff are chasing him, but he tricks them off his trail, “as cunning as an old Exmoor stag”, and makes off through a wood, then onto the hills of a moor. After the grand catalogue of architectural styles, Kingsley’s descriptions become detailed and naturalistic: “[Tom] saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible.” But when he disturbs a grouse washing itself in sand, it runs off and tells its wife about the end of the world. Like Tom, the reader has entered a new world where animals think and talk.

But the truly big transformation is still to come. The sun is very hot as Tom climbs the limestone hills and starts down the other side. He grows thirsty and begins to suffer from sun-stroke. When he seeks help at a dame-school, he’s given some milk and a place to rest, but his head is ringing and he wants to be clean. He walks to a stream in a nearby meadow and bathes in it. Then he falls asleep in it:

Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke — children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them — found himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or — that I may be accurate — 3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills (I hope you understand all the big words) just like those of a sucking eft, which he mistook for a lace frill, till he pulled at them, found he hurt himself, and made up his mind that they were part of himself, and best left alone. (ch. II)

He’s now a Water-Baby and can begin his amphibious adventures. As the title suggests, water is central to this book: it’s a protean, ever-changing medium, with the power to transform, transport and cleanse. And it has a lot in common with language, which is also protean and transformative.

So Kingsley plays with language as he describes water and its inhabitants. I thought he was making fun of scientific terminology – “3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills” is just the start – but apparently he was a friend of Charles Darwin and accepted Evolution. A lot of that goes on in this book: physical, intellectual and moral. Tom evolves from boy to Water-Baby, but he has a lot of bad habits to unlearn as he travels down the stream and the river into which evolves. As part of his education, he talks with all kind of animals:

And as the creature sat in the warm bright sun, a wonderful change came over it. It grew strong and firm; the most lovely colours began to show on its body, blue and yellow and black, spots and bars and rings; out of its back rose four great wings of bright brown gauze; and its eyes grew so large that they filled all its head, and shone like ten thousand diamonds.

“Oh, you beautiful creature!” said Tom; and he put out his hand to catch it.

But the thing whirred up into the air, and hung poised on its wings a moment, and then settled down again by Tom quite fearless.

“No!” it said, “you cannot catch me. I am a dragon-fly now, the king of all the flies; and I shall dance in the sunshine, and hawk over the river, and catch gnats, and have a beautiful wife like myself. I know what I shall do. Hurrah!” And he flew away into the air, and began catching gnats. (ch. III)

Tom also meets wicked otters and snobbish salmon. Then he reaches the sea, realm of the ever-changing god Proteus, and things get even stranger. He talks with hermit-crabs and lobsters as he searches for other Water-Babies. Words and ideas run and swirl through the story like currents, and so do emotions. Tom experiences both joy and sadness:

And then there came by a beautiful creature, like a ribbon of pure silver with a sharp head and very long teeth; but it seemed very sick and sad. Sometimes it rolled helpless on its side; and then it dashed away glittering like white fire; and then it lay sick again and motionless.

“Where do you come from?” asked Tom. “And why are you so sick and sad?”

“I come from the warm Carolinas, and the sandbanks fringed with pines; where the great owl-rays leap and flap, like giant bats, upon the tide. But I wandered north and north, upon the treacherous warm gulf-stream, till I met with the cold icebergs, afloat in the mid ocean. So I got tangled among the icebergs, and chilled with their frozen breath. But the water-babies helped me from among them, and set me free again. And now I am mending every day; but I am very sick and sad; and perhaps I shall never get home again to play with the owl-rays any more.” (ch. IV)

That’s a description of an oar-fish, I think. When Tom finds the Water-Babies of whom it spoke, he completes his moral education under the guidance of two mother-fairies, the ugly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and the beautiful Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. But the ugly can become beautiful: Kingsley was a Christian and this is a moralistic story too. The dirt that Tom has to lose is spiritual, not just moral and physical: he saw a crucifix in the little girl’s bedroom and didn’t know what it was.

But there’s too much going on in The Water-Babies for any simple reading of Kingsley’s aims. Or perhaps I’m saying that because I’m not a Christian. Either way, the book certainly isn’t conventional in its Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Kingsley’s world is big enough for non-believers. But it isn’t as coherent as Narnia or Middle-earth, or as easy to enter as Wonderland. That’s part of why The Water-Babies isn’t as famous or as widely read today. Lewis Carroll played with both logic and language; Kingsley plays with both life and language.

That’s what I like about this book. You’ll find vivid little naturalistic touches like spiders shaking in their webs and words like “Necrobioneopalaeonthydrochthonanthropopithekology”. If Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll had collaborated on a book, it might have ended up something rather like The Water-Babies. And James Joyce would have been good as a collaborator too. I don’t know if he was influenced by The Water-Babies, but he could have been. He too was obsessed with language and water. Both of them are at the heart of this Fairy Tale for a Land Baby.

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Volcanoes A Beginners Guide by Rosaly LopesVolcanoes: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosaly Lopes (Oneworld 2010)

My first introduction to volcanoes was fictional: Willard Price’s Volcano Adventure (1956), which stands out in his Adventure series because it centres on something inanimate, not on animals like lions or gorillas or elephants. This book by the NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes is factual but equally enjoyable. And some of it would fit well into Volcano Adventure anyway:

[V]olcanoes come with different sizes, shapes and temperaments. It is fascinating to study what causes these differences and understand that, while generalizations are possible, each volcano has its distinct quirks, just like people. We could also compare volcanoes to cats: with few exceptions, they spend most of their lives asleep. (ch. 1, “What are volcanoes?”, pg. 1)

When a volcano wakes, look out. They’ve slain cities, devastated eco-systems and shaped landscapes. They’re also shaped cultures. Like a thunderstorm or earthquake, an erupting volcano raises a big question in the minds of human observers: What caused something so powerful and impressive? Our explanations began with myth and moved to science. And they moved a long time ago: the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras “proposed that volcanic eruptions were caused by great winds within the Earth, blowing through narrow passages” (pg. 5) and becoming hot by friction. Two-and-a-half millennia later, scientists are plotting “silica (SiO2) content” against “alkali content” as they classify “different volcanic rocks” (ch. 2, “How volcanoes erupt”, pg. 15).

But Anaxogaras’ principles are still at work: seek the explanation in mindless mechanism, not in supernatural mind. Classification is another essential part of science. In vulcanology, the scientific study of volcanoes, magmas are classified and so are eruptions, from subdued to spectacular: Icelandic and Hawaiian are on the subdued side, Peléean, Plinian and Ultraplinian on the spectacular, with Strombolian and Vulcanian in between. Some eruptions are easy to understand and investigate. Some are difficult. Volcanoes can be as simple or complicated as their names. Compare Laki, on Iceland, with Eyjafjallajökull, also on Iceland.

Laki is an example of an eco-slayer:

Although the eruption did not kill anyone directly, its consequences were disastrous for farmland, animals and humans alike: clouds of hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds caused the deaths of over half of Iceland’s livestock and, ultimately, the deaths – mostly from starvation – of about 9,000 people, a third of the population. The climatic effects of the eruption were felt elsewhere in Europe; the winter of 1783-4 as noted as being particularly cold. (ch. 3, “Hawaiian and Icelandic eruptions: fire fountains and lava lakes”, pg. 31)

Lopes goes on to look at city-slayers like Mount Pelée and Vesuvius, but they can be less harmful to the environment. A spectacular eruption can be over quickly and release relatively little gas and ash into the atmosphere. And death-dealing is only half the story: volcanoes also give life, because they enrich the soil. They enrich experience too, not just with eruptions but with other phenomena associated with vulcanism: geysers, thermal springs, mudpools and so on.

And that’s just the planet Earth. Lopes also discusses the rest of the solar system, from Mercury, Venus and Mars to the moons of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The rocky planets have volcanoes more or less like those on earth, but the moons of the gas giants offer an apparent paradox: cryovolcanoes, or “cold volcanoes”, which erupt ice and water, not superheated lava. On Neptune’s moon Triton, whose surface is an “extremely cold” -235ºC, cryovulcanism may even involve frozen nitrogen. The hypothesis is that under certain conditions, it’s heated by sunlight, turns into a gas and “explodes” in the “near-vacuum of Triton’s environment” (ch. 11, “The exotic volcanoes of the outer solar system”, pg. 138).

Hot or cold, big or small, on the earth or off it, volcanoes are fascinating things and this is an excellent introduction to what they do and why they do it.

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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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