11th December 2019

At its most fundamental, a volcano is a crack in the ground. Depending on the circumstance, magma, gases and steam may escape from that crack. Sometimes this unleashing of molten matter from the earth’s mantle is a highly predicatable delight. Sometimes it is otherwise.

In the shadow of White Island, where many tourists have lost their lives and when New Zealand wrestles with the unwitting calamity of a system which delivered day-trippers to their deaths, the world is reflecting on the meaning of volcanoes.

I am interested in understanding what draws us, as human beings, to the volcano’s edge. Why is there a thriving travel industry centred on craters? This is not some pondering in the abstract. I am part of the volcano-obsession myself. 

I have lounged precipitously close to Arenal volcano in Costa Rica in 1996, when it exploded (on schedule) in a manner creating the loudest sound I have ever heard. Momentarily alarmed, I soon relaxed back in the whirlpool of my Volcano Retreat Hotel, and resumed a conversation with some interesting Texans. I was surrounded by US citizens on that trip, Costa Rica being the Wicklow of North America. 

Cycling through Yellowstone in the summer of 2011, I waited patiently beside an Amish family at the site of one of the world’s most momentous eruptions (2.1 million years ago). Most around us were taking photos, but their tradition forbade it. Bicycle by my side, I sat for the best part of an hour speaking to the father of the clan, eager to know all I could know. But when Old Faithful finally geysered, our bond was broken and we went our separate ways. I have never forgotten that gentleman’s tale.

I recall a romantic encounter in Iceland, where I journeyed up the side of a volcanically active hill which sat above our tour group’s hotel. The ambient air was below freezing. There, surrounded by bubbling pockets of water omitting a sulphuric stench, I kissed a handsome Canadian. We might have keeled over into the boiling waters at any moment, and become Lovers’ Soup. But we did not. The air of danger lent welcome urgency to our mission. 

It seems that I am not only drawn to live volcanoes. Dead-ish ones do it for me too. 

If you have walked the ancient streets of Pompeii, with its street order, and bread shops, and graffiti, and stories of people caught in motion of their everyday chores as the eruption froze them forever, you will know what I mean. 

Only one first-hand account of the events below Mount Vesuvius in 79AD exists today, and it comes from Pliny the Younger, then an 18 year-old youth. His words, so contrary to the happy fascination of Pompeii that I experienced here in the 21st Century, are noteworthy:

“You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying.” 

Our culture’s love of the volcano is a soft-core expression of the outright crazy desire for danger which pervades popular programming. Perhaps this began with movie Twister (1996), in turn creating a genre I’ll call ‘storm chasers’ – those energetic lunatics who go full throttle towards a tornado (etc.) whenever it touches down on the American plains. 

Instagram culture has created a cousin of the genre. Think of the many people who have tragically lost their lives seeking to get the perfect selfie, which itself might depict a kind of beautiful danger. Anand Goel, a Trinity student originally from Delhi, died in this manner when he fell 600ft to the bottom of the Cliffs of Moher at the beginning of 2019.

Madeleine John, a visitor from Australia, was close to the scene and her sworn evidence at Mr Goel’s inquest is harrowing in its simplicity:   

“I saw a man falling and I heard him screaming… I stood there for a couple of minutes in disbelief trying to figure out if it was real.”

What is the draw of beautiful peril?

It is an Irishman, a thinker from the 18th Century, who delivers me the most compelling explanation.

In his treatise on aesthetics, Edmund Burke spends some time exploring the meaning of ‘the sublime’. He does so by way of pain and horror, both being more powerful experiences than pleasure. Indeed, he concludes that horror lies at the source of all sublime experiences, the quest for the ‘sublime’ being important because it is the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.

It is a stunning and provocative conclusion, that the most transcendently positive human feelings are delivered through horror. Burke completes his thought in noting that when we experience ‘the sublime’, we are left with a deeply satisfying sensation of astonishment.

I ponder that observation too. It feels important. Because astonishment, especially when captured photographically, is the manna of our times. 

I seek to discover exactly how ‘Ovation of the Seas’, the Royal Caribbean cruise liner docked in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, explained the trip to nearby White Island that some of its passengers embarked upon on December 9th, 2019. The Google machine cooperates. 

It is entitled ‘White Island Volcano Experience Cruise And Guided Exploration’. The text selling its myriad dangers as benefits is solemnly moving, seen in retrospect. I realise that if I were on that ship, I would most definitely have signed myself up.

“White Island is one of the most active volcanoes in the world….Since the majority of the crater sits below the sea, you head straight to the action without much, if any, climbing at all. Get up close to roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and the amazing lake of steaming acid.”

The final selling-point of the tour is a testament to our times: 

“…the vivid hues of yellow and orange resulting from all the sulphur on the island make for remarkable photos.”  

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