Friday, April 16, 2010

When Iceland Dealt It

Here’s an epic smellscape you don’t encounter every day—or at least since about 1821: the odor plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. It was noticed in the UK’s Shetland Islands a few hundred miles southeast of the eruption.

Shetland residents said the sulphuric smell of rotten eggs was strong by early yesterday morning.

“I noticed a smell in the house and wondered what it was,” said Joanne Jamieson, from Sandwick on the southern tip of Mainland, the biggest island in Shetland. “It was coming from the outside, so I opened the door. It was very strong, and I initially thought it was rotting seaweed. I looked down to the beach and actually looked up to see if the sky was falling in.”

Jane Matthews, her neighbour, said: “It smelt strongly like rotten eggs, but I didn’t put two and two together realising it was coming from Iceland. Initially, I thought maybe it’s something to do with my young daughter, or the animals in the field.”
It’s curious how often one’s immediate response to a rare event is to grope for context. One night in college I was sitting on the can in my Berkeley apartment when the whole place started shuddering. “What the hell,” I remember thinking, “did a bus just hit the building?” No, it was a 3.5 earthquake.

Lots of us flocked to People’s Park—the nearest open space—for safety. After all, it could have been a prelude to The Big One. Around midnight a wag in the high rise dorms put his speakers in the window and treated us to some Dead:
Shake it, shake it, Sugaree . . .

[Hat tip to reader Michael T.]

For some reason all this reminds me of Hell’s Half-Acre in Yellowstone National Park, which Rudyard Kipling (yes—the same fellow who wrote Smells are surer than sounds or sights / To make your heart-strings crack) described in American Notes, published in 1891.
ONCE upon a time there was a carter who brought his team and a friend into the Yellowstone Park without due thought. Presently they came upon a few of the natural beauties of the place, and that carter turned his team into his friend’s team, howling:--“Get out o’ this, Jim. All hell’s alight under our noses!”

And they called the place Hell’s Half-Acre to this day to witness if the carter lied.

We, too, the old lady from Chicago, her husband, Tom, and the good little mares, came to Hell’s Half-Acre, which is about sixty acres in extent, and when Tom said:—“Would you like to drive over it?”

We said:—“Certainly not, and if you do we shall report you to the park authorities.”

There was a plain, blistered, peeled, and abominable, and it was given over to the sportings and spoutings of devils who threw mud, and steam, and dirt at each other with whoops, and halloos, and bellowing curses.

The places smelled of the refuse of the pit, and that odor mixed with the clean, wholesome aroma of the pines in our nostrils throughout the day.


~x~ said...

i'd like to high five this entry.

Avery Gilbert said...


Go right ahead. But your hand is going to smell bad all day.