The mechanical guts of the universe

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

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.

McWilliams never dashes to rash and wonderful conclusions about nature. He is always the scientist, always circumspect, often funny in a wry way about weather and nature. He is eloquent and precise, whether he is illustrating the architectural and mechanical infrastructure of a wet day or an igloo.

There’s something unforgettable about his information on how to build an igloo, how to make the inner wall so secure that even a polar bear crossing the top of it would not harm the people inside. Something unforgettable about a cloud in summer that he describes, which is not eight kilometres above Earth but 10 times higher, and which can be seen only rarely in the northern sky on summer evenings.

Through his erudition he offers us glimpses of beauty so vast and big in the changing patterns of weather through the centuries that even in a world clouded by anxiety, as mine is, he pushes me towards rejoicing.

When I read these essays I cannot resist rejoicing just to be alive. And to know the blue of the sea results from a portion of sunlight that the sea cannot absorb. And to understand how water washed down from the mountain bogs can create dark lakes where no light at all remains to be scattered upwards, as the bog water sucks everything in and the lake takes on a black and sinister appearance.

Just as catnaps take me away from wakeful anxieties, so these short essays take me away from my mundane view of the world. They show me an alternative; a hidden cosmos of formal beauty that leaves me speechless. For many years his columns in this newspaper about the weather were a gentle act of defiance in the face of all other news, a counterpoint to the news of the world, and this selection of pieces, written between Christmas 2004 and Christmas 2005, is a fitting tribute to a life that was cut short all too abruptly in 2007.

To illustrate each essay, Anne McWilliams has chosen pertinent images and works of art that her late husband particularly enjoyed, and some of the titles through the book read like poem titles: “The Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms”, “Long Live the Skating Waterdrops” and “The Day That Ladybirds Rose Up in Protest”. At the back of the book are a wonderfully concise index and a list of picture credits. It’s a wholesome book, and as I finished it the smoke in my room cleared and the wind in the chimney died down and the stove began to blaze.

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