The mechanical guts of the universe
METEOROLOGY: Illustrated Weather Eye, By Brendan McWilliams, compiled by Anne McWilliams, Gill & Macmillan, 184pp, €19.99
I used to think that the ocean bed was flat and featureless. But apparently in the middle of the last century a telegraph cable was laid across the north Atlantic, prompting the discovery that the ocean was shallower in the middle than it was on either side. So they named it Telegraph Plateau.
And later they discovered that the plateau was a huge underwater mountain range whose highest peaks broke through the surface to become Ascension Island, the Azores and Tristan da Cunha.
Eventually scientists found that the mountain ridge in the Atlantic curved all the way around Africa. Which means it’s the world’s biggest. And it’s underwater. Which also means that there is a lot of water in the ocean. But if Earth were the size of a billiard ball, then all the oceans in the world would be no more than a thin film of dampness on the surface of the ball.
I discovered all this while reading Brendan McWilliams’s wonderful essays, as I sat by my stove two weeks ago on a day so windy that the draught was coming down my chimney and smoke was billowing into the room. But I kept reading. And the wind kept howling.
In another essay, McWilliams discusses the wind in pine trees. With scientific accuracy he describes how wind interacts with the trees as it passes through the twigs and branches to produce the mournful dirge of a forest in a gale.
Moving from one essay to the next, my mind couldn’t resist focusing on the opaque beauty of the world around me, the vastness of the cosmos above my chimney pipe, the formality and design hidden in the world outside my door.
When Brendan McWilliams was young and still at school, the road from Waterville to Cahirciveen was not tarred and two long stretches cut straight through a bog. On one of these roads there was a house called Tig A’Doicheall, or the House of No Welcomes, because the front door faced away from the road. Only the bleak back wall was humped up against the road, and it was said that this had been done deliberately to dissuade people from coming in or availing of the warmth and shelter of the kitchen as a place to light their pipes.
But McWilliams goes on to explain that the builder probably sited the door in such a way so that the house would be protected from the strong southwesterly blowing across the bog.
These essays made me want to look again at the world outside my door, at bogs and bees and flowers and rustling leaves, not in search of lyrical or foggy poetic moods but because McWilliams reveals the mechanical guts of the universe. He shows us how winds blow and why the sea is blue, and he opens up in the reader a sense of reverence for it all.