Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Earth, Sea, and Sky: or, Marvels of the Universe

That's the title of a beautiful late nineteenth-century book that I found in the back of a library a few years ago and that I haven't told nearly enough people about. It is a treasure. Remember Bastian Balthazar Bux's eyes when he stumbled through Mr. Coreandor's bookshop and just had to open up The Neverending Story? Those were my eyes when I found this old, dusty, leatherbound volume, with its over 300 engravings and its innumerable pages. The book offers short anecdotes on "all that is wonderful on the globe, in the waters, or in the starry heavens." The language of the book is Victorian and yet not - there is a vitality to its descriptions that is almost desperate. For example, in describing the earthquake that overtook Lisbon a few centuries ago, the book declares of such earthquakes: They bury mountains as we bury the dead.

In the aftermath of this decade's upheavals in Indonesia and Pakistan, we better than our fathers and mothers, perhaps, can feel the full horror and awe of that sentence. Although: what do we, who are here comfortably or somewhat comfortably blogging, know of that? Ask those starving among the bodies about horror.

But this is my favorite of all the books of that century. It is beautiful beyond hope. Take the first paragraph, for example, of one chapter:

There are beautiful creatures in the great deep with colors as gorgeous as those of butterflies; moreover, like butterflies, some of them have wings and rise like birds from the surface of the sea.

How well I remember a crossing from the white cliffs of Dover to Calais many years ago by ferry. I had never seen a flying fish, but that night by moonlight I saw three flashing above the darkness of water beside the ferry, carried so far north by some wild warm current. I watched them, rapt, as the first child must once have watched the first butterflies. And when I stumbled down onto the docks with my French pocket dictionary and a few coins in my pocket, all my mind was consumed by the thought: What beautiful things there are in the sea!

These days, thanks to the existence of the Internet, you can find a copy of Earth, Sea, and Sky on ebay or alibris, though once it must have taken a treasure hunt indeed.

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