Wednesday, June 13, 2012

if in doubt, invert a tree

This was a rarish glimpse of clear sky at the end of today - a curiously grey, flat light for most of it, which matched my still cold-ridden mood for much of it, stopping me from doing as much writing and reading as I wanted to (and what I did read was in large part the first quarter of John Lanchester's Capital, which I'm much enjoying, but was hardly to the point), and amplifying my distracted tendency to check the road and driveway for signs of a FedEx van multiple times (I'm waiting for my badly-needed car keys, still somewhere between LA and here, but that's another story).  A van did turn up, or rather a truck, but it was delivering a new tree next door, replacing one that died last summer, was uprooted a day or so back, exposing, just briefly, a wonderful view of the Sangre de Cristos from our middle bathroom.

But this (also, maybe, dying) tree fits quite neatly with what I was writing about today: keraunography ("writing by thunder") - in other words, the patterns left on people when they're struck by lightning.  Back in the C19th, people saw this as a kind of flash photography - the human skin was the sensitized plate, the tree (say) the object, the lightning flash the agent of light.  So they ended up with the image of a cat that had been standing in front of them imprinted on their bald head, or the simulacrum of an umbrella they'd been carrying, or, more likely, the veiny image of a tree.  Something like this, in fact.  It seems that in fact, these burn marks are not (of course) some kind of photography, but represent where a person has been sweating, but even that doesn't explain what happened to Abbott Parker, struck in the back by lightning in Morristown, NJ, in 1904.

"Upon being removed to the Catholic Hospital, Parker was placed on a cot over which hung a large           crucifix.  While the patient’s back was being bathed with alcohol and water the physicians and nuns were astonished to see a picture of the crucifixion on the flesh, whereas a few minutes before no picture was there.  The nuns believed that it was a miracle, and the doctors were mystified, as they declared that the picture was not the result of tattooing.  An expert tattooer, after an examination, also decided that the picture was not tattooed.  A theory which seems generally accepted is that Parker’s skin had become sensitized by the effect of lightning, and acted as a photographic plate for the crucifix hanging over his cot."

NJ has always been a strange place.


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