Volcanoes Be in Sicily

27th May 1883: Clouds pouring from the volcano on Krakatoa (aka Krakatau or Rakata) in south western Indonesia during the early stages of the eruption which eventually destroyed most of the island. Royal Society Report on Krakatoa Eruption – pub. 1888 Lithograph – Parker & Coward (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia Commons

We seem to be on something of a volcanoes kick of late, one of those perfect storms of interest that leads to a spontaneous unit study. I love the way it happens that when you start paying attention to a topic, it’s suddenly everywhere, all those delicious connections waiting to be made!

It all started with a chapter in Story of the World about the Minoans, whose civilization, it is theorized, was destroyed by the eruption of a volcano on the nearby island of Thera, now called Santorini. As I read Bella got more and more excited. “Was it a supervolcano?”

She fell in love with a library book about Krakatoa last year and so immediately after we finished our history chapter on the Minoans we had to go look up the definition of supervolcano to figure out if Thera was one. And then we had to look at a map of other supervolcanoes around the world. We stumbled upon an article about the supervolcano that Naples is built on with a lovely little video interviewing the scientists, it’s really not long and worth watching.

Anyway, the upshot was I ordered a bunch of books from the library about volcanoes. But in the meantime I kept stumbling upon other volcanoes. First, I realized that I’d already chosen an Emily Dickinson poem about volcanoes for Sophie to copy, Volcanoes Be in Sicily. I chose it because it mentioned geography, South America and Sicily, and she’s loving her geography readings; but it was fun that retrospectively it fit in to our volcano focus.

Volcaoes be in Sicily
And South America,
I judge from my Geography.
Volcanoes nearer here,
A Lava step, at any time,
Am I inclined to climb,
A Crater I may contemplate,
Vesuvius at Home.

Additionally, later in the day after our Minoan/supervolcano excursion, Anthony remarked that the name of the Roman god “Vulcan” sounds a bit like like “volcano.” So he and I had a nice chat about mythology and how indeed Vulcan was the god of volcanoes, and of smiths and forges. He tucked that tidbit away in his memory and I overheard him later recounting it to several other people. Love to hear those spontaneous narrations.

Then, in what was a delicious coincidence, a friend with whom I’d been discussing Gerard Manley Hopkins tagged me on an article about a little-known series of letters that Hopkins had sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon of the dramatic sunsets of 1883, caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in the far-off Pacific.

A few weeks later, the stratospheric veil moved outwards from the tropics to the poles, and by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze. Throughout November and December, the skies flared through virulent shades of green, blue, copper and magenta, “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets,” wrote Hopkins; “the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

In common with most other observers at the time, Hopkins had no idea what was causing the phenomenon, but he grew fascinated by the daily atmospheric displays, tracking their changing appearances over the course of that unsettled winter. At the end of December he collated his observations into a remarkable 2,000-word document, which he sent to the leading science journal, Nature. The article, published in January 1884, was a masterpiece of reportage, a heightened prose poem that mixed rhapsodic literary experimentation with a high degree of meteorological rigour. . .

Hopkin’s descriptions are well worth reading. Also fascinating are some of the featured pastels by William Ascroft inspired by the same sunset. And the article featured a tidbit I did not know: evidently there is a theory that the lurid sunset in Edvard Munch’s famous series of pictures The Scream, was inspired by the same Krakatoa sunsets!

This version of The Scream was executed in 1895 in pastel on cardboard, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m looking forward to further volcanic explorations as we dive through our luscious pile of library books.

Bella told me that she is loving The Volcano Adventure Guide by Rosaly Lopes, literally a travel guide to the world’s volcanoes, it give history for each volcano, has photos, contour maps and cross sections, and information about trails.

She enjoyed Surtsey: the Newest Place on Earth by Kathryn Laskey and Christopher Night, the story of the creation of a new volcanic island near Iceland and the study of an ecosystem newly forming from scratch.

And Into the Volcano: A Volcano Researcher at Work by Donna O’Meara, the story of one scientist’s love of volcanoes.

However, she didn’t really love the novel The Twenty-one Balloons by William Pene du Bois, a novel which I thought she would love. It’s about a scientist who flies over Krakatoa in a balloon. “It’s too silly,” she said. She enjoyed many of the humorous parts, “Some of it is very funny,” but too much of it played fast and loose with either the history or the science and that offended her sensibilities. She doesn’t mind playfulness but she does want the historical and scientific details to be accurate. And she knows too much about Krakatoa to just enjoy the book. She’s read the Krakatoa book so many times. Still, I suspect other young readers would enjoy it very much.

Other notable mentions were the DK Eyewitness Books: Volcano & Earthquake and a book about Mt Saint Helens, Volcano: First Seventy Days, Mount St. Helens, 1980 by Robert D. Shangle and Linda Kelso.

There are a few more books she wants to examine more closely. Many of the books I checked out turned out to be too adult, but I figure it’s best to cast my nets wide. You never know when you’ll find a gem of a book that’s written for adults but may be enjoyed by more sophisticated kids or just kids with a passion about a topic.

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2 Responses to Volcanoes Be in Sicily

  1. Stephanie February 18, 2017 at 12:29 am #

    What fascinating threads, especially the Hopkins’ letters and Munch’s The Scream.

    Two junior novels our children have enjoyed are Volcano Adventure by Willard Price and Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee. The Price is a boys’ own adventure set in the Pacific and part of a series of natural history informed adventures. The Gee is a thriller, set in Auckland, New Zealand, a city of 50 plus volcanos. (I once lived in a house which backed onto a volcano). BTW Lake Taupo, NZ is the earth’s newest supervolcano.

    Today I just finished The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. It features volcanic eruptions and won a Newbery this year. It is a fantasy of love and magic and reminded me of Margaret Mahy’s stories.

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