Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chronicle in Stone

Knowing my propensity for all things rocky, my writer friend David Laskin recently suggested that I pick up the book Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare. The title alone titillated and the opening drew me in even more.

“It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in the valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature that was now clawing its way up the mountainside. Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales…While preserving human life rather awkwardly by means of its tentacles and its stony shell, the city also gave its inhabitants a good deal of trouble, along with scrapes and bruises. That was only natural, for it was a stone city and its touch was rough and cold.”

Photo of Gjirokastra by Ralf Kreuze

Told in the first person by a teenaged boy, Chronicle takes place in a small town in Albania during World War II. Both the unnamed town, based on Kadare’s birthplace and longtime home, Gjirokastra, and the unnamed narrator, endure the challenges of living amidst the vicissitudes of war. His family is forced out of their home down into their cellar, then into the town’s ancient fortress, and finally out of the town to safer parts. He loses friends and family. The town itself is shelled by the British, and invaded by the Italians, Greeks, and Germans, each of whom exert control over the people.

In many ways a fairly mundane story—the plot moves along slowly with few truly exciting moments—Chronicle is still a compelling read, in part for Kadare’s insights into his culture but more for how he gives the physical town a personality. And that persona, if you will, revolves around stone. When the German troops invade and the townspeople flee, Kadare writes “The city was evacuated. You could feel the great loneliness of the stone.”

Similar to the Stonesfield slate I described late last year, the “slate” roofs of Gjirokastra are made of limestone. According to Oliver Gilkes, a British archaeologist and adviser to the Albanian-run Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization, the limestone is fine-bedded, easily worked, and wide spread locally. The roofing “slates” come from the more thinly bedded parts. Initially light gray, it turns darker with aging. Thicker bedded limestone is used for building walls. (Gilkes writes that the Greek name for the town, Argyrokastron, “means ‘silver city,’ perhaps from the shimmer of wet roof tiles catching the sun after it rains.”)

Two other stones can be seen in town. The cobblestone streets use a black sandstone, which has a rougher surface. Good quarries are across the valley and in the next valley away. For decoration, a red limestone is also used.

My favorite line about stone comes after the family heads to their underground cellar to escape the British air raids. Kadare writes “No doubt about it, these were hard times for the upper floors of the city. When it was built, the wood, more sly, had had itself hoisted up top, leaving stone to the foundations, cellars, and cisterns…After giving the upper floor such privileges, the city seemed to have changed its mind, and hurried to rectify the error. It had them covered with roofs of stone, as if to establish once and for all that here stone was king.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Giant Behemoth: B-grade movie, B-grade paleontologist

A break from building stone for a guilty pleasure. Few things are better time wasters than Cold War-period movies about radiated animals gone bad. Turning my brain off for 90 minutes or so the other day, I watched the redundantly named The Giant Behemoth, tag lined “The Biggest Thing Since Creation!” And, lordy it is! (The movie came out under several titles and taglines.)

Filmed in 1959, TGB starts with a few requisite shots of exploding atomic bombs before the resident scientist, Dr. Steve Karnes, a marine biologist, appears lecturing about bioaccumulation. “We are witnessing a biological chain reaction. A geometrical progression of deadly menace,” he warns. Well, as you might guess, Dr. Karnes is more prophetic than he realizes for just across the way in Cornwall, the deadly menace is about to claim its first victim, an old man of the sea. The cogitator dies after a blast by that ever-fatal force—mystical sounding, pulsating lights. Fortunately, he lingers just long enough to aid the movie audience with a key tidbit: “It came from the sea…behemoth. Aaaachh”

At the old man’s funeral, we get our first foreshadowing of the beast as the preacher intones from the Book of Job, verse 40. “Behold now the behemoth which I made with thee. He moveth his tail like a cedar. Out of his mouth go burning lamps. And sparks of fire leap out from the behemoth. He maketh the oceans boil like a pot. His breath kindleth coals and a flame goeth out of his mouth.” I suspect that some theologians may quibble with this exact wording of Job.

Mayhem and typical B-grade movie dialogue ensues. Finally, late in the movie, after our deadly pal has fried a dog, a boy, and his dad, we get to meet a paleontologist, who can educate us on what exactly we will see when the director reveals THE BEHEMOTH.

Our man, Dr. Samson, does not paint the best portrait of a paleontologist. He is tweedy, slightly stooped, obsequious, and a bit nervous. Plus he doesn’t seem to be very observant. During his first perusal of a photo of the footprint of Behemoth, Samson fails to notice the police car, which is dwarfed by the track. Eventually he sees the track, notes that the largest known track is 7-feet-long, and states that it was made by a Paleosaurus, but one much larger than any found previously. (The genus Paleosaurus was first proposed in 1836 by Henry Riley and Samuel Stutchbury for fossils found in limestone quarries in Clifton, Bristol; it was later found to be an invalid genus.)

One big track of one big behemoth

Samson hypothesizes that the track maker was 150 to 200 feet long. He then launches into an explanation that would make a non-cinematic paleontologist shudder.

“Oh, it’s headed for the Thames, they always make for the freshwater rivers to die. That’s where the skeletons have been found. Some irresistible instinct to die in the shallows where they were given birth.

You know, all my life I hoped this would happen. Ever since childhood I’ve expected it. I knew these creatures were alive somewhere but I had no proof, no scientific proof. And I had to keep it to myself or my colleagues would have all laughed at me. See no form of life ceases abruptly, and all these reports of sea serpents but what can they be but the tall graceful neck of Paleosaurus. He can stay underneath the surface for an age. And now he comes to the top.

We must organize an expedition right away. What a wonderful specimen to have in the museum. Oh but it’s dreadfully dangerous. I suppose you know it’s also electric.”

Of course it is.

Paleontologist Dr. Samson, as played by Jack MacGowran

In another unrealistic portrayal of a paleontologist, we next see Samson in a helicopter stalking Behemoth. Or is Behemoth stalking Samson? Unfortunately for Samson, he and his fellow passengers succumb to the mystical sounding, pulsating lights, and the helicopter explodes in a blaze of paleontologists.

After dispensing Samson, Behemoth heads up the Thames, flips over a ferry boat, and climbs out of the river onto the streets of London to wreak havoc among the panicked citizens. Once on land, Behemoth reveals his true nature as some sort of sauropod, with the classic Apatosaurus body. Apparently satisfied with ripping out a few electrical towers, crushing cars, and disrupting the local architecture, Behemoth heads back to sea where he ultimately meets his end when Dr. Karnes blasts him with a radium tipped, submarine-fired torpedo.

Ah, they don’t make movies like that anymore.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Little Diatribe about Local Stone

The New York Times had an interesting article yesterday about the imminent loss of the 19th century church in Geste, France. Two years ago, the town council voted, by one vote, to demolish the church. Money was the main reason, as it would cost more to renovate the original than to raze and build a new one. The article notes that many towns and cities across France face a similar dilemma. To destroy or not to destroy. As one cultural official stated, “In the past these buildings were sacred, but today there is no sense of sacred.”

Nor is there a sense of honoring the past, of those who labored to erect such buildings in times when simply moving stone was a challenge. I recognize that old is not always better. Old buildings may be structurally flawed, hot in summer, chilly in winter, and dripping during a rainstorm. They can be just as ugly as modern ones. Workers were often exploited to build them. I am not advocating going back to or completely glorifying the past, but when we lose these older structures we lose stories of place, of our past, of ourselves.

And in regard to my interests, I have no idea what sort of stone was used in the Geste church but suspect that most churches in small towns in France were built with locally available rock. As I have written before, there is something special about local stone. It reflects the vagaries of place, of how its geologic history shaped the topography, hydrology, and soil. Local stone also tells of the human stories, of economics, architecture, and transportation.

I am in no ways a church, synagogue, or mosque goer but I guess that many who do attend are seeking connections. They may seek out new friends, treasured stories, spirituality, or like-minded others. To me, stone provides another level of connection. I recognize that many will not consciously make the connections I write about but perhaps they will experience them in ways they don’t truly understand. And isn’t that one aspect of religion.

I don’t advocate leaving up every and all stone buildings or not recognizing that buildings can be improved but I do think that people should consider the psychic value of stone buildings when we raze them and rebuild another one just because it is financially prudent.