“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

Krakatoa: Cataclysm Heard Around the World

We become glued to images of cataclysmic events, some natural, some man-made, and their aftermaths for days and days at a time, and we often wonder why we do this.

It’s really no wonder why we do this. The cataclysms we have endured since 2000 have not only destroyed, killed, and disrupted any sense of order we cling to, some have caused the Earth to skip heartbeats and lose memory, literally shifting the Earth on its axis and shortening the day by a nano-second. The Earth shuddered on Dec. 26, 2004, and on March 11, 2011, each as a result of 9.0 earthquakes and the huge tsunamis that followed.

The images and sounds are frightening and hypnotic. Then somehow, life returns and keeps going.

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The first cataclysmic natural disaster that became part of the World’s nightmare through communication networks – the telegraph, newspapers, and first-hand accounts from survivors – was the volcanic Krakatoa’s final days in 1883.

Most of what I know about Krakatoa I learned from reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (ISBN0-06-621285-5), from which I have quoted and paraphrased for this post, as well as from book reviews and news stories that followed the publication.

The End’s Beginning

In May 1883, earth tremors were noticed, logged in by the lighthouse keeper at the Sunda strait between Java and Sumatra, and recorded in a telegraph sent by a Dutch controller, Willem Beyernick, to his superior. A few days later, a German ship captain reported a white cumulus cloud rising out of Krakatoa upwards of seven miles high. Beyernick’s wife kept a detailed journal that eventually became one of the rare eye-witness accounts of the beginnings of the end and of the end itself. After the May trembling, the Earth quieted down for June and July.

On August 11 a Dutch army captain landed on Krakatoa to prepare a topographic map; he found ominous signs, which sent him back with only a quick map that would have to do for the time being. He was the last human to touch Krakatoa.

On Sunday, August 26, a telegraph master was lounging on a porch, watching ships, when suddenly he heard an extremely loud explosion, looked to his left, and saw a tremendous eruption. He ran down to the sea where he saw very strange rising and falling disturbances. A surge of water roared toward the beach. He ran. At the time he got to the telegraph office, he saw a terrible and dark dust cloud beginning to envelope them. At 2 p.m., he tapped out his message that a major eruption was taking place, “vomiting fire and smoke.” Telegraph lines that weren’t destroyed became flooded with messages for the next 24 hours.

Church sunset

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1883 Sunset over the Ice on Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario may have been inspired by Krakatoa’s resulting worldwide and extraordinary sunsets.

The End

From midnight to dawn on August 27, Capt. W. J. Watson on the Charles Bal, which was trapped about 10 miles from Krakatoa and trying desperately to reach the Java shore, wrote a terrifying first-hand account that has survived. He described “impenetrable darkness,” “roaring of Krakatoa,” and a “peculiar pink flame” coming from clouds. Explosions and eruptions continued through the morning.

Four gigantic explosions occurred, starting at 5:30 a.m. The last one, at 10:02 a.m., is said to be one of the biggest explosions ever recorded. It was heard 3,000 miles away, about the distance from Miami to San Francisco.

Capt. Watson reported at 11:30 a.m. that “we were enclosed in a darkness that might almost be felt, and then commenced a downpour of mud, sand, and I know not what. . . .” “At noon the darkness was so intense that we had to grope our way about the decks. . .” unable to see each other. These hellish conditions continued all day and into the final night.

The four tsunamis that followed the four massive explosions are almost beyond comprehension. They killed 36,000 people, submerged about 300 towns and villages, and ranged in height from 72 to 135 feet high – mountains of water.

Most of those who survived these events were horribly burned by the flaming hot ash, dust, pumice, and other matter that rained from the sky all day and night.

The eruptions also produced two kinds of shock waves – air waves and sea-borne waves. The air waves traveled the globe seven times. Nine hours after the last explosion, boats were sunk or swamped in Calcutta, India; unusual waves were noticed in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

It was later revealed that the 2,600-foot mountain of Krakatoa had blown itself out of existence and left a hole in the ocean floor 1,000 feet deep. The ash and debris affected the climate and atmosphere around the world. Winchester suggests that the atmospheric effects in Europe and North America influenced artists and poets. For example, Frederic Edwin Church’s Sunset over the Ice on Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario, painted in December 1883, captures the incredible sunsets that followed Krakatoa’s explosion for the next several years. It has also been suggested that the background for Edvard Munch’s The Scream, painted in 1893, represents the artist’s rendering of the volcanic sunsets.

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Edvard Munch’s 1893 The Scream

 

Winchester also argues that the disaster of Krakatoa and the communication of those events ushered in what we now call the Global Village, a world created by communication and technology. Perhaps our rage for order compels us to describe cataclysms, communicate about them, study them, and watch as life returns and the human spirit not only endures, as William Faulkner said, but prevails.

A Birth

As we watch the Japanese survivors’ determination to rebuild their lives, I think again of Krakatoa. It wasn’t too long before the site drew curious fishermen, mariners, and the scientists of the day. Krakatoa’s fate certainly informed the nascent sciences of meteorology and geology.

Then an amazing thing happened. In June 1927, the sea around the site of Krakatoa’s disappearance began roiling, bubbling, and spurting. Surely it must have scared those who knew it was happening. On January 26, 1928, land broke the surface and Anak (Child of) Krakatoa was born. Since then, the child-mountain has grown 20 or so inches each month. As Winchester reminds us, geology says the mountain will again explode, but geological time is a long, long time.

In 2006 the BBC aired a docudrama of the Krakatoa cataclysm using Willem Beyernick and his wife as the central figures. Clips of the production can be seen from the World News portal here. Below is the first clip.

From the BBC docudrama of the Krakatoa cataclysm

San Diego State University’s site, How Volcanoes Work, offers an interesting look at Krakatoa. NOAA’s Center for Tsunami Research provides information and videos of the power of tsunamis.

Celestial News

Tomorrow night presents a rare show for earthlings: an extreme full moon.

According to NASA, our moon will be a mega-perigee moon, the biggest and brightest  in 20 years. No, it hasn’t grown; here’s how NASA explains it:

Full Moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon's orbit. It is an ellipse with one side (perigee) about 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other (apogee): diagram. Nearby perigee moons are about 14% bigger and 30% brighter than lesser moons that occur on the apogee side of the Moon's orbit.

NASA demonstrates it on YouTube. That’s worth a look. The video suggests that to get the full effect, watch it come up over the horizon where trees and buildings influence how we perceive it.

I think I’ll go outside on my patio and howl at it.

Vernal Equinox

The very next evening is the Spring Equinox: March 20, 7:21 EDT, 4:21 PDT, 23:21 UTC, at which time the sun returns to the Northern Hemisphere. It rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west.

It’s a day and night of equality: the same amount of daylight and dark everywhere on the globe.

Krakatoa in the next post.

 

Raging Chaos

I had been suffering from a rage for order -- a need to clean my house, pile things up for a yard sale, steam-vac rugs, wash windows.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a horrendous nightmare was visited upon Japan: An 8.9 earthquake followed by a tsunami whose waves reached 30 feet in many places along the eastern shoreline.

And as I type, the nightmare worsens as the seconds tick by: the globe, not just Japan, but the globe, may suffer from a multi-nuclear reactor meltdown. As I type, I can’t shake CNN’s reporting that reactors 4, 5, and 6 are now in serious trouble. Six. Six reactors. Six potential meltdowns. According the AP wire this evening, “some radiation” was detected in Tokyo, 150 miles to the south of the nuclear plant housing these six reactors.

I am now frozen. I don’t really know what to say about anything.

Three things keep whirling around in my head as I Windex the wall mirrors in my foyer and dining rooms: one concept and two events. I first met the concept of a Rage for Order in graduate school when we got to Wallace Stevens in the Modern American Poetry course. Next, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the sites of the first uses of atomic bombs, which effectively ended World War II.

And Krakatoa. On August 27, 1883, the volcanic island of Krakatoa, that was once located in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java in Indonesia in the Indian Ocean, exploded, blew up, and disappeared. “Exploded” and “blew up” do not capture what it was like, what really happened.

In the next post to Spittin’ Grits, I will tell you what I found out about Krakatoa.

Meanwhile I will go on washing windows to try to quiet this rage for order I’m feeling.

Night of the Fairies

Special Note

Tonight I saw a small handful of fireflies out in the woods behind our house. It seems a bit early, but we’ve had several warm days in a row. Cooler weather is due in behind a front that will pass through tomorrow, which will likely send the fireflies back under the leaves. I would like to re-run a post about a special night, The Night of the Fairies, which must be close.

Mar

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2010

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I saw the first lone glittering light just after dark one evening last week, but the nights are still cool, going down to the low 40s. Still, I know the Night of the Fairies must be close; a few seasonably warm days and nights is all it will take. I will watch each night.

(Above) Rockwell Kent's illustration of Titania, from A Midsummer Night's Dream for The Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Cambridge Edition Text, 1936

I first saw this phenomenon in 1999, I think. It was astonishing. This event happens each year sometime after the spring equinox depending on how early we begin to get warm days and nights. Late March and early April days and nights in the lower South can come as a surprise. They whisper a promise just as winter is dying. Most of us gardeners end up planting our flowers too early in still cold soil, and they end up damaged or dead from the last inevitable cold spell.

This night was in early April, when the days warm up and linger for just a while into the night, nights for a fire in the patio fire pit, for wrapping up in a shawl, and for just sitting. This night I could barely see at the edge of the woods the silhouetted trees’ new growth. Spring would come.

My eyes on the wood’s growing darkness, dusk turned into early evening. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the darkness was transformed with small, twinkling lights rising in unison up from the earth.

A million glittering stars against a dark sky. A Fairy Woodland come to life. Shakespeare’s Titania and Oberon waking in spring before their midsummer night’s dream. Thumbelina. Tinkerbelle. Fairies from the children’s books my grandmother read to me. A spectacle of diamonds and crystals.

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(Left) Thumbelina's lily-leaf raft. Engraving from Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, 1872

As the glittering mass rose up from the wood’s bed of moist leaves, they began to float away from each other, some higher and higher, some drifting into the backyards of the surrounding houses, some toward the patio. They magically became fireflies for the upcoming summer.

“It must be the night they rise from hibernation,” I said out loud to no one. I stood transfixed.

The cold air caught my attention and I moved closer to the fire.

The fireflies continued this fantastical ritual for some nights to come, but as spring became early summer, they emerged from this place in fewer and fewer numbers. They simply appeared in the summer nights.

I wondered that night if this performance was some kind of gift or sign, never to return again, like a rainbow’s pot of gold.

Each year I have waited for this Night of the Fairies. It has returned year after year. It could happen tonight or tomorrow night.

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(Left) Available from the Web

But this special gift also brings some sadness. Several years after this first event, I asked my daughter to watch for it with me. It happened. I thought this kind of beauty could add something to my daughter’s dismal existence that was dominated by her addictions to drugs. She watched in what I thought was a sense of wonder.

“Oh, man,” she said. “This is cool. It’s like being on LSD.”

I think that night was my first intimation that my daughter’s kind of addiction is a lot bigger than herself and me and her father all put together. By then it seemed that the addictions were also bigger than treatment programs.

Unfortunately, that fear has been borne out.

Anyway, I will be watching the woods for the next several nights, waiting for this annual gift. I look forward to showing it to my granddaughter, Joanna Leigh.

ClipArtFairy3 (Left) Available from the Web

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