9 January 2010

Unconformity at Jedburgh, borders, by John Clerk, 1787, courtesy Scottish Academic Press. From John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World.

Something about this etching is deeply affecting — unsettling, almost, in its placidness. I wrote, more than three years ago:

A geologic cross section of a country road: trees, a little fence, a hillside, attractive shrubs. A carriage and a man on horseback cross paths. Beneath, under the earth: straight piled lines, like brickwork, rows bigger, then smaller — finally, at the lowest, a mysterious tangling bubbled mass that pushes upwards like flowering shrubs, like roots, something that foams & waves like the sea. That tranquil summer day, men going about their business oblivious — and under the skin of things . . . Like stories of a snake wrapped around the heart of the world.


Later, McPhee quotes a geologist:

“The lesson is that the whole thing — the whole Basin and Range, or most of it — is alive. The earth is moving. The faults are moving. There are hot springs all over the province. There are young volcanic rocks. Fault scars everywhere. The whole world is splitting open and coming apart. You see a sudden break in the sage like this and it says to you that a fault is there and a fault block is coming up. This is a gorgeous, fresh, young, active fault scarp. It’s growing. The range is lifting up. This Nevada topography is what you see during mountain building. There are no foothills. It is all too young. It is live country. This is the tectonic, active, spreading, mountain-building world.”

p. 45-6


Meanwhile, I’ve just finished Jim Crowley’s ÆGYPT, and now, arranging these pieces of quotation around this picture, it occurs to me that he conjures up a similar kind of feeling in a passage I copied out, that sense of a world of infinite correspondences, all planes of it in contact at once, the hidden engines of things laid out in plain sight (this aside from how much he probably enjoyed writing it — you can tell he was having fun, showing off, I think):

Meanwhile the enormous sun burned in the blue, blue sky; pleasure craft and oared warships skimmed across the bay, the azure bay prinked with silver points of wavelets. The Spanish viceroy (for the Kingdom of Naples was a possession of the Spanish crown) rode through the city dressed in Spanish black, in his little black chaise; if he met the Host being carried through the streets to someone ill or dying, he would get down and join the procession, following it humbly to its destination. Every year the congealed blood of St. Januarius kept in the cathedral melted and flowed on his feast day as though just shed, and the people and the priests and the cardinal and the viceroy wept and groaned aloud or held their breaths in awe. Some years, the blood was slow in melting, and the mass of people pressed into the cathedral grew restive, and a riot would start to seethe.

There were always riots; there were always the poor, crowded in the tall close houses of the port quarters, in narrow alleys plied with refuse, where children grew like weeds, untended and wild and numerous. They begged with persistence, robbed with skill; they laughed equally at the pulcinelle in their booths around the Piazza del Castello and at the extravagant farewells of a brigand about to be hanged in the Piazza del Percato. All day the naked beggars lay on the quays; at night, fisher-girls danced the tarantella on the flat roofs of cottages that ringed the bay under the moon.

The moon drew humid tears from the earth, attracting them upward by her own watery nature; by her action also, in the mud-flats of river estuaries and in sea-pools, frogs and crabs and snails were generated. When she was full, dogs all over the city turned their faces up to hers, and howled. When their own star Sirius arose with the sun, they went mad, and the dog-killers went out to catch them.

In the wood of dead trees, in the guts of dead dogs, worms were generated; from the guts of dead lions, bees were born — so it was said, though few had ever seen a dead lion. Horsehairs fallen in a horse-trough turned into snakes, and now and then you could see one starting: one hair beginning to whip sinuously amid the floating still ones. The sun shone, and the heliotrope in the gardens of the Pizzofalcone turned their faces to it, and the living lion in the viceroy’s menagerie roared in his strength and pride. The moon drew the fogs, the sun drew the heliotrope; the lodestone drew iron, and Saturn in the ascendent tugged terribly at the brain of the melancholic man.

p. 320

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