Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gillen D'Arcy Wood's "Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World"

Gillen D'Arcy Wood is professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he directs the Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities. He has written extensively on the cultural and environmental history of the nineteenth century.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, and reported the following:
My new book—about the volcano Tambora’s disastrous eruption in 1815—rides upon its volcanic plume across continents and oceans, from Indonesia to India, and from New England to The Arctic. On page 99, my airy journey has taken me as far as Yunnan, and the remote rice-growing hamlets of western China, surrounded by mist-wrapped mountains of the Himalayan range. I tell how a deadly veil of Tambora’s volcanic dust depressed temperatures across Yunnan for three long years, wiping out rice crop after rice crop, and plunging the people into a desperate famine.

Be assured, Dear Reader, I worked hard to do justice to this terrible, forgotten story! But nothing I could write was a match for my historical source, the Yunnan poet Li Yuyang, who left harrowing poems of a people devastated by extreme weather anomalies of the kind we now associate with climate change. At key moments, therefore, I simply let Li Yuyang tell the story of the human tragedy of Tambora in China.

In his poem “Bitter Famine,” Li Yuyang describes the climate crisis at its worst in the autumn of 1817, when the people of Yunnan descended into a living hell, their prosperous communities transformed into a Dantean circle of starvation and death.
Outside, the starved corpses pile high,

While in her room the young mother

Waits upon her child’s death. Unbearable

Sorrow. My love, you cry to me to feed you—

But no one sees my tears. Who can I tell which aches

More? My heart or my body wasting away?

She takes her baby out to the deep river.

Clear and cool, welcome water...

She will care for that child in the life to come.
When mothers kill their children out of mercy—as they did the world over in the Tambora years 1815-18—we know we have entered the heart of darkness.

These Tambora famine poems appear for the first time in English translation in my book (a story unto itself). Even Chinese scholars I spoke to had never heard of Li Yuyang. And the same might be said of the whole book, which instead of re-telling the same old textbook histories, rewrites the Post-Napoleonic nineteenth century through the lens of Tambora’s eruption—the most devastating climate change event of the modern era.
Learn more about Tambora at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue