Saturday, March 21, 2009

Remembering a Grandparent's Adventures

volcanic eruptionThere was an undersea volcanic eruption in the western Pacific, near Tonga, this week. The Boston Globe's The Big Picture offered a set of fascinating photographs of an island being born from the eruption. The image at right is from that collection.

Scrolling through these pictures brought my mind back to a series of letters written by my Grandmother in which she described a similar eruption that sprang up in the Galapagos Islands, in the eastern Pacific, off the coast of South America, in the spring of 1925.

My grandmother, Isabel Cooper, was an artist. Starting in 1917, she made seven voyages with the naturalist William Beebe to Central and South America, and surrounding equatorial seas, to study animals and plants.

This was in the days before color photography. My grandmother, as the expeditions' “scientific artist,” produced detailed color paintings of the flora and fauna of the Amazonian jungle, the Galapagos Islands, and the open ocean. The image at left is from The Arcturus adventure: an account of the New York Zoological Society's first oceanographic expedition (1926, Putnum). It shows my grandmother at work on the Arcturus, painting a live fish.

During the 1925 voyage, she wrote a series of letters to my grandfather, Charles Mahaffie, who she had met the previous winter and with whom she would carry on a nearly three and a half year courtship – mostly by letter. We are lucky to have these letters in a collection edited by my father.

On Easter Sunday (April 12) of 1925, she wrote from the Arcturus:
I have put in some peculiar Easters: fire at sea five years ago; shooting rapids of the Mazaruni River last year; etc. But this time is the prize. What do you suppose has gone and happened out here in this “ash heap of the world?” Blooming volcano has broken loose, erupting all over the place. Rather decent of it to pick just this time to do it, as we are probably the only people anywhere around for a few hundred miles to observe it.
They had been anchored in Darwin Bay, at Tower Island (now Isla Genovesa), when “the night watch noticed a faint glow in the direction of Albemarle Island [Isla Isabela], about sixty miles away.” When morning came they began a voyage of a day and night, across the span of the Galapagos Islands, to reach the volcano.
We got to the scene of the eruption early this morning, after the wildest possible night. You couldn't sleep. It was too exciting, steaming slowly toward the first active volcano that any of us had seen.
They watched the eruption from off-shore. I think it differed from this week's eruption in that it was on an existing island and featured less explosive activity, but perhaps more lava flow. A small group went ashore and trekked close to the crater. That was probably a foolish thing to do, as she describes their return “in very bad shape.”
Legs full of cramps, from walking on hot lava, I suppose. And all symptoms of bad thirst, tongues swollen, etc. They finished their canteens in the first mile. They ran into some pretty poisonous gases, which they couldn't smell, but which made them sick.
In spite of this, she had wanted to go ashore, if only at the edge of the island, but was not allowed. And she wanted to try to capture what she was seeing:
I tried to make a sketch of the thing: memory sketch of the red clouds and generally hellish aspect at night, as well as the really beautiful colors of the craters by daylight, but have arrived at the conclusion that it can't be painted. Usually takes a good whang on the head to convince me that I can't accomplish something that appeals to me to do, but this time I give up.
They watched the volcano through Easter night and into the following Monday morning before returning to their work. At midnight she wrote:
We have spent the whole evening looking at the crater – flames popping up here and there and most incredible clouds rising out of it and turning all kinds of red. The moon is just about two days past the full, but enormously bright, and adds to the general strange effect.
It's a large world we live on. We in the internet age are used to seeing images instantly from around the globe. We have become used to what in earlier generations would have been strange, fascinating, and special.

My grandmother's time was modern, of course; the voyages of the Arcturus were transmitted by radio (The “wireless”) and reported in the newspapers in New York. But these were just the “when” and “where” details and brief descriptions. The bright colors and fantastic shapes of alien plants, animals and fish needed the work of artists to be brought back to the home-bound public.

So as we page through yet another collection of photos from the other side of the world, or watch a YouTube video from some far frontier, we should try to remember that, at one time, even the other end of our nation was an expedition away.

What we see as “a small world, after all” is really a vast place deserving of respect and wonder. We should not let the ease of access we have inherited blind us to the size and diversity of our planet.


alan taylor said...

This was a great story, the descriptions so vivid, what a great adventure. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Great story. Your grandmother sounds like a woman I would have loved to meet! I also enjoyed the style with which you presented the information. Send it to National Geographic!

Life On The Edges said...

Great entry, sounds like you have a real treasury of family history (and some pretty darn interesting ancestors) to draw from.

Mike Mahaffie said...

Thank you, all. And Alan Taylor, thank you for "The Big Picture" site. It is a regular part of my days now. I was really happy to find a connection to personal history with which to highlight your site!

Anonymous said...

Is it true, though?

Mike Mahaffie said...

Yes, it is true.

samantha muka said...

Mr. Mahaffie,

My name is Samantha Muka and I'm currently a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania writing a dissertation on marine science in American 1880-1930. I'm currently researching the history of taxonomic illustration, and your grandmother's work keeps coming up in my research. I found this blog, and I was hoping that I might speak with you about any information you might have about your grandmother, her career, and the above letters that you quoted from. Please let me know if you would be interested in speaking with me. My email is

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