Volcanoes in Toronto

For as long as I can remember, I have been completely fascinated by volcanoes. More specifically, erupting volcanoes. That incredible power, the smoke, the flying rocks, and the lava. Especially the lava. Realizing that we are all living on top of a sea of molten rock — okay, magma. Great word — has a way of making you feel not quite so much on the top of the food chain. But at the core of it all (see what I did there?), I am transfixed by watching glowing, viscous lava inexorably moving over the landscape. I remember watching coverage of an Icelandic volcano erupting when I was a child — it could’ve been the one in 1973 — seeing houses on fire and being captivated by watching the lava flow into the ocean. Ever since, I’ve wanted to see lava up close and photos like this just makes me want it even more. 

Unfortunately, my tires are made of rubber. Also, lava fields are usually not known for being accessible.

This past weekend, my long-dampened fascination for volcanoes was reignited (sorry, just can’t help myself). In the afternoon, we went to see the Pompeii exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. And it was incredible.

They hit you with the horror of it in the very first piece of the exhibit, the famous guard dog that kept climbing on top of the ever-increasing piles of ash until its leash kept it from climbing further.

(click photos to embiggen)

Cave Canem or Beware of Dog Sign

On the second day, they say, a pyroclastic surge sent toxic gases and rocks pummeling into Pompeii, killing everyone who remained. The heat that followed caused tendons and muscles in the dead to contract, leaving them in contorted positions.

All of a sudden, volcanic eruptions and lava began to shed their scientific and pyromaniacal appeal just a little.

Figs that never became dinner

After that initial bit of education into what happened, the exhibit takes a step back to show us Pompeii before the eruption. And it does so brilliantly, showing a treasure trove of artifacts arranged in different categories, including food, shopping, politics, entertainment, religion, and more. Each section has just enough to build and feed your interest, without challenging the attention span. There are items behind glass, items out in the open, and enough hands-on pieces that all of your senses are engaged.

A ceiling tile featuring Medusa

A saucepan

Just when you think that it’s close to over and the piece at the beginning is the only part that mentions the disaster, you see this

And then you turn a corner and see the dead.

Well, they aren`t the actual dead – these are replicas of the original molds made of the hollows within the ash that used to be people. And they hit you hard, these shapes so recognizable as someone just like us, so evocative of the emotion they felt at the time of death. There was a silence in this part of the exhibit, a reverence, and more than a few tears.

You’d think that was enough for one day, but we had plans for another adventure in the evening. It was Nuit Blanche, the annual night-long art party. We were especially interested in the Beaufort series, located along the shore of the lake, exploring wind speeds at sea (named after the Beaufort scale). And luckily, nature had obliged and provided quite a bit of wind. Steady strong wind with gusts of up to 65 km/hr (that’s 40 m/hr for the Celsius-impaired). On the Beaufort scale, that’s a fresh gale at force 8.

“Fresh.” Right. So cold it took us hours to warm up afterwards.

Beaufort 1: Dispersal Zone took full advantage of the wind, lending a wonderfully eerie quality to the dark streets. Instead of falling in a “glowing deluge” to the ground as planned, the gale force winds sent the smoke streaming from the street lamps, glowing trails connecting each lamp to the next. It was beautiful.

But for me — perhaps not surprisingly — the pièce de résistance was Beaufort 4: Lava Field No.2. Five years in the making, this was exactly what it said. A lava field created by a coke-fueled cupola apparently capable of producing temperatures up to 1800°.

The technicalities didn’t matter. What mattered was the magic of seeing lava up close, inexorably moving across over the landscape. In the dark and helped by the wind, it transformed the scene from a parking lot to a lava field on Iceland. Beautiful. Disturbing. Compelling.

And a wish granted.



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