Sunday 3 May 2015

Restless Earth

Right now we are greatly exercised about the earthquake in Nepal which has killed some thousands of people and made many times that number homeless.  Indeed, the intrinsic poverty of the country means that many of these are also tentless or even tarpaulin-less . . . and the rainy season is just starting to make them even more miserable. These things happen.  In Nepal a big shaker like this happens once a century, so it's hard to plan for. Today is the anniversary of two earlier geological shifts, one much more damaging than the other.

On 3rd May 1481, the island and city of Rhodes was devastated by the largest of a series of earthquakes that rumbled on for a couple of years of fore-shocks and after-shocks.  The Knights Hospitaller, a fraternity of crusaders carrying on the fight long after the Holy Land had been lost to Islam, [Acre, the last toehold, was surrendered in 1291] had their base on the island.  The previous year they had withstood a costly siege by the Ottoman Turks and so were a little low in the coffers. An earthquake was the last thing they needed, but that's what they got.  You cannot fight against a tectonic plate as it lumbers relentlessly Northwards.  The Turks were back again in force 40 years later and in 1522 evicted The Knights Westwards, despite the contribution of doughty John Rawson from Ireland, so that they then became The Knights of Malta.  Their descendants are the chaps with the white cross on a black ground who attend soccer matches and run first-aid classes, I don't think any of them are interested in spearing infidels though.

More recently, and in the USA, so getting a wider press, in the wee hours of 3rd May 2003, the Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire sheared off the cliff face into the valley below. More than most this cliff has a 'face' because of the psychological quirk of pareidolia - the universal drive in the human brain to make sense of the world by seeing patterns. Before 2003, most people could, if they looked from the correct angle, see a human face at the top of the rocky outcrop.  It got to be a big tourist trap and so contributed to the local businesses and generated tax-dollars. But you cannot do much about the fact that water increases its volume as it freezes and so incrementally and implacably converts small fissures in rocks into larger cracks, which become crevices, which become chasms until something gives.  The state of New Hampshire had spent a mort o' money trying to remediate the deterioration with steel chains and quick setting concrete but frost-heave and gravity were not to be denied.  I believe there are plans to replace the missing icon with a fibreglass replica; as we have done with the high-crosses of Clonmacnoise.

Living in Ireland, for pareidolia we have to push the touristic virtues of An Fear Marbh [the Dead Man] aka Inis Tuaisceart [The North Island] which is one of the Blasket Islands off the far West of Ireland.  Not convinced?  Me neither: where are his feet? how come he's pregnant?

At least the view is unlikely to change in our lifetime.  Less so with the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney. This is a 140m tall red sandstone sea stack which local maps show as being part of a headland on the island of Hoy in 1750.  But in 1817, it was painted by William Daniell [L] showing the stack standing on two very stumpy legs separated by a sea-arch.  Shortly after that record one of the legs was swept away and left as a challenging outdoor climbing wall.  It was first scaled by mountaineers Chris Bonington Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie in 1966. The following year, when I was 13, it was climbed for TV with a logistically mammoth BBC outside broadcast that had 15 million viewers, self included. Years later, the team, climbers, cameramen, key-grips and best-boys got together to swap war-stories and reminisce for the Beeb. Better get up there quickly though lads, in 1992 a 40m crack propagated down the South face and the whole thing is certain to go the way of the New Hampshire face and indeed Eilean-a-beithich further South in Scotland.

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