TAMBORA: THE ERUPTION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by Gillen D'Arcy Wood, Reviewed by Ashton Nichols

By Gillen D'Arcy Wood
(Princeton, 2014), 312 pp.
Reviewed by Ashton Nichols on 2016-03-19.

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Gillen D'Arcy Wood has written a wonderfully readable and thoroughly researched book that will be of interest to a wide range of audiences: academics and lay-people, geologists and literature scholars, all of whom will be drawn into the story of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the history of our planet. In April of 1815, an Indonesian mountain named Tambora blasted out pumice, stone, magma, lava, and above all a gigantic sulfate dust cloud. Creating an ash-storm that circled the globe, it launched "The Year Without a Summer"--1816--when snow fell in London in May and the earth's temperature dropped by over one (1) degree Fahrenheit on average: that's big! Farms throughout Europe were completely devastated. From Spain to Scandinavia, from Scotland to Sicily, riots begot chaos across the continent, including widespread cases of arson and extensive looting. Farm devastation caused the largest famine of the century, leading to additional disease, terror, and widespread civil unrest for a period of three years.

In the summer of 1816, when Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin sat down in the parlor of Villa Diodati on the shores of Lac Leman--Lake Geneva--to begin writing what would become Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, she was clearly thinking about climate change, about the effects of the environment on even the smallest details of human existence and also on the species' survival. The result of her efforts was the first work of science fiction and one of the most widely read (and redacted) novels of the past two centuries. Mary was there with her married lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their host--but at that point strained friend--Lord Byron. Since Byron had impregnated Mary's half-sister Claire Clairmont with a child-to-be (the future Allegra), Mary and Percy were visiting the "Great Poet" chiefly to find out if he was willing to support the stirring result of his liaison with Claire back in London not so long ago.

But since the weather was cold and wet because of a volcanic eruption half way around the world over a year earlier, their talk turned to a book of German ghost stories they had found on the dusty shelves of the villa, and they soon decided to have a ghost-story writing contest. Good idea! Bryon produced a poetic disaster about a skull-headed woman; Percy produced nothing that we know of; Byron's sexually-mixed "doctor" John Polidori wrote the first complete vampire story in English (The Vampyre, a novella that directly and powerfully influenced Bram Stoker's Dracula); and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin--soon to be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley--wrote Frankenstein. It's amazing enough to think that a tale produced under these circumstances could have led to more film versions than have been prompted by any other text in the English tongue. The volcano itself is surely just as amazing.

Tambora is--or was--a mountainous peak on Sumbawa, a volcanic hunk of rock in the Lesser Sundra Islands. They were thrown up from the Pacific sea-bottom as part of the Sundra Arc, which is itself a long line of volcanoes stretching out along the southern tip of the archipelago of Indonesia. Seismologists tell us that before 1815, Tambora had erupted three times: in c. 3900 BC, 3050 BC, and 740 AD. When Wood came to Dickinson College and addressed my students last fall, they were literally on the edges of their seats as he unfolded the details of his geologic tale. Excitingly packed with geology, economics, and meteorology, the story seemed unlike what students usually get in a class on English literature. My students listened carefully, and they asked a number of great questions. That is the way I suspect most readers will feel upon finishing this book: tell us more.

In these latter New Historicist days, professors of literature are increasingly turning to extra-literary topics. That is not a bad thing, as long as the professors in question are as careful, accurate, and thorough in documenting their sources as Wood is throughout this volume. Unlike some other literary scholars, he is an excellent researcher who writes with a clear and engaging style. He takes us from the opium dens of China, where worldwide drug markets exploded after 1815, to the world's first continent-wide epidemic of cholera, which spread largely because unpredictable shifts in the weather impeded sanitation. Wood also claims that chaos in Europe led the United States economy into its first ever "depression," generating anger, fear, and instability that would ultimately help to provoke the Civil War (though this latter claim seems to me a bit of a stretch). After the Panic of 1819, Thomas Jefferson received half the price he had expected for his flour when it got to market in Richmond; also, in the three years after Tambora erupted, financial chaos caused by the instability of agricultural production forced him to sell off part of Monticello to help pay his debts before he died.

Beyond effects like these, the aerosol cloud of sulfate produced by Tambora spread around the globe, even influencing several paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner, Wood writes, "drew vivid red skyscapes that, in their coloristic abstraction, seem like an advertisement for the future of art" (2-3). From raising the deathbed debts of Jefferson to influencing the lyrics of the Chinese poet Li Yuyang, the meteorological havoc wrought by this eruption had a decades' long impact on the world's economies, governments, and arts. Indeed, Wood contends, the first so-called "climate pessimism" provoked by Tambora-influenced weather in the "traumatized world of 1815-18" (234) anticipates the sorts of feelings that have now "returned in full, bounding and ferocious" (228), thanks to our own fears of fast-approaching climate change.

Working with a degree of care, detail, and logic rarely displayed by cultural historians, Wood reveals just how the scientific, economic, political, and artistic impacts of a natural event are linked in complex ways. The story he tells exemplifies how a single environmental impact--say climate change, or habitat loss and subsequent species extinction, or a pollution spill on a single ecological community--can devastate one region, one process, or one natural balance in one way (or several ways) beyond recovery. Once a species is gone, the cycle of life in that single community is stopped. Once a weather change is established, the entire structure of a way of life involving thousands of species is gone. Tambora's eruption sent out less obvious effects that have even had impacts down to our own day. The eruption led, for example, to the first systematic governmental recording of precipitation and temperature: the "earliest meteorological journal kept by the Army Medical Department [1816]" (227) and the first Federal Land Office weather records [1817]. From that time to this one, federal gathering of meteorological data has only expanded and grown more sophisticated.

Wood ends by quoting the words of Mary Shelley's monster: "All men hate the wretched" (234). "Two centuries on," Wood writes, "the global ranks of the wretched are set to increase exponentially in coming decades at the hands of our own climate 'Frankenstein,' a monster who feeds on carbon waste and grows more violent by the year" (234). Wood knows full well that "Frankenstein" is not the hideous monster of Mary Shelley's novel-- not the Wretch himself--but rather the name of the medical student (never a doctor in the novel) who creates the monster. Like the monster, the climate we have now created springs directly from the scientific and technological progress that has been unleashed on an unsuspecting world--including the developing world--over the past two centuries. If the sea is set to rise by as much as almost four feet in the coming century (U. S Global Change Research Program), then we are on our way to global impacts that will make Tambora look like a local hilltop hiccup.

Finally, this book may well prompt readers to travel to Tambora in order to see the results of such a catastrophic eruption (which are still evident on site there), or to visit other active volcanoes in order to understand and appreciate what happens when the ordinarily stable crust of the globe is punctured by astonishing explosions of steam and lava, magma and rocks from the depths of our planetary core. There are currently almost 1500 active volcanoes on planet earth, not even counting the many hundreds of volcanic vents under the sea. Approximately 500 eruptions have been recorded during the history of humanity. The most recent rumble of Tambora, one recorded by seismologists as an official eruption, occurred in 2011. Stay tuned!

Ashton Nichols is Walter E. Beach '56 Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Studies and Professor of Language and Literature in the Departments of Environmental Studies and English at Dickinson College.

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