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There’s (volcanic) dust in the archives

There’s (volcanic) dust in the archives

There’s not much that beats the thrill of discovery.. particularly when it turns up in your own backyard.  This summer, I have been on the hunt for records and reports of the 1902 eruptions of St Vincent, a lush volcanic island in the Eastern Caribbean. There are indeed many reports from this eruption, carefully documented in official records from the time. But, more surprisingly, there are samples – and many of them in the UK: packets, vials and boxes of ash; chunks of rock and more, in museum collections and archives in both the Natural History Museum, and at the British Geological Survey. Here is just a snapshot of some of the incredible samples from the British Geological Survey Archives.

From the BGS archives

Four vials of volcanic ash – all collected on Barbados. The smallest vial is of ash from the 1812 eruption of St Vincent. The three other vials are samples of ash that fell on Barbados during eruptions between May 1902 and March 1903.

Along with the samples are the original envelopes in which they were sent, and handwritten notes documenting the sample: priceless tools, when you want to look back at an eruption that took place over 100 years ago.

1902 Barbados ash

1902 Barbados ash sample sent to Horace Woodward, who was in charge of the Geological Survey’s office in Jermyn Street, London, at that time – which included the Museum of Practical Geology. Memo reads ‘Dust from Mt Soufriere St Vincent, collected on the deck of the SS ‘Statia’ lying at Barbados, 90 miles distant, travelling against a strong S E wind and covering everything to the depth of 5 inches. 1903′.

Some of these samples are timed and dated, and can be linked to particular phases of the eruption. Here is one example – of the ash that fell during the opening stages of the eruption on Barbados.

First hour

‘Volcanic dust collected at Barbados during the night May 7-8 1902. This spec. fell during the first hour’. Collected by WG Freeman, a botanist at the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies in Barbados.

Other samples can be used to map the distribution of ash and coarser samples that fell across St Vincent – here’s an example of a ‘gravel’ grade sample from Rosebank on St Vincent.

1902 ash

1902 tephra sample collected on St Vincent by  Henry Powell, Curator of the Botanic Station on St Vincent. ‘Sample of volcanic sand which fell at Rosebank (Leeward) on night of 3rd and morning of 4th Sept. 1902’

Among the most amazing discoveries, are examples of damage to economically valuable plants – this one, a sample of Breadfruit leaf that was damaged during the latter stages of the eruption in March 1903.

image

‘A leaf of the Bread Fruit Tree (Artocarpus incisa) gathered in St Vincent about 12 miles from the Soufriere and showing perforation caused by volcanic stones etc.’ Collected by WG Freeman in 1903.

Together, these sorts of samples will allow us to go back and investigate what was actually happening during the eruption, in a way that is rarely possible, even for modern events.

Links – read more about the eruptions of St Vincent on the London Volcano blog.

Summer Reading – H is for Hawk

Much of my time is consumed with reading, but it is almost always for a purpose: essays, assignments, proposals, drafts of papers, re-drafts of papers, papers for classes, for review..  This almost always means reading fast, with a goal: to measure, assess, hone, distil, critique and rewrite.  Often, it means hacking through tangled and cumbersome layers of scientific prose, to reveal the central narrative.

Then, for in a few days in midsummer, I get the chance to rediscover reading for pleasure: immersion in a book that grabs hold of your imagination and translates you to another place and another time. This year, my summer reading has got off to a cracking start with ‘H is for Hawk’.

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, alongside TH White's Goshawk.

Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, alongside TH White’s ‘The Goshawk’

 

‘H is for Hawk’, written by Helen Macdonald and published by Jonathan Cape, is a dizzying, dazzling read that defies its rather sober classification (‘Nature Writing/Biography’). The book weaves together a deeply personal story of grief and loss, with the rediscovery of life lived through the training of a young goshawk. In places, the staccato text crunches like the twigs strewn across a forest floor; in others, it soars like the circling hawk, magnificent, alert to the slightest movements below. It contains some wonderful writing on nature, capturing the very essence of the countryside in just a few words, alongside some moving reflections on bereavement and the way that death changes in a moment the lives of the living, and our relationships with what was present and is now past. In parallel, and wrapped up closely with the training of her young goshawk, Helen Macdonald explores the life and writing of TH White, a teacher and writer of Arthurian novels who wrote of his own struggle to train a goshawk in the 1930’s.  The result is a book that works on several levels, and would reward re-reading: a beautiful and captivating read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, published by Jonathan Cape, 2014. ISBN 9780224097000

The Goshawk by T.H. White. Reprinted 2007. ISBN 9781590172490

Update – in November 2014, Helen Macdonald was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for ‘the best non fiction book published in the UK’ for H is for Hawk.