Thursday, July 24, 2014

John McPhee

John McPhee [Ned Stuckey-French]

from John McPhee's "Cooling the Lava" in The Control of Nature:

Hearing a sound like a chain saw's, I looked down to see a motorcycle climbing the new volcano. The rider wiped out as he approached the crater rim. The motorcycle, pinwheeling, spun downhill in a sputtering swirl of tephra. Ash over teakettle, the rider tumbled, too. At last arresting his fall, he got up, ran after his loose machine, trapped it, then resumed the steep climb. Reaching the top, he zipped around the narrow rim. He stopped for a moment, contemplating. Then he plunged hundreds of feet down the dark-red slope inside the crater all they way to the bottom, under control. Motorcycles seem to have more prestige in Iceland than in, say, Greenwich, Connecticut, or Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. All over the new volcano, white-painted automobile tires mark the established tracks and competitive routes of what were described to me as "the largest, most powerful, most beautiful motorcycles in Iceland."

Where the lava went eastward into the sea, some of the new cliffs are a hundred feet high. Waves occasionally break over them. After a Belgian trawler crashed there in 1981, waves threw pieces of the trawler up on top of the cliffs. Rocks weighing half a ton have been tossed up there, too. It was at the base of one such cliff that Gudlaugur Fridthorsson first landed on the night of his long swim. In two places, bays with rocks beaches have indented this new coastline. One is called Baetur the Beach of the Insurance Claim. The other is Vidlagafjara the Beach of the Catastrophe Fund. The rocks, whether they are the size of potatoes, grapefruit, watermelons, water beds, or motor buses, are all rounded. Most are so cavitated by former gas bubbles that they suggest black coral, or models of the human brain. It was discovered on Surtsey and confirmed on Heimaey that such boulders do not require thousands of years to assume their shape but can be rounded by a single storm. During the eruption, a lighthouse on the eastern shore went below the lava. A new lighthouse stands above the Beach of the Insurance Claim.

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