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Low Beasts and Tall Timbres

'Be that as it may, a cleric would not serve so well as a surgeon for the purpose of discreet inquiry. Not even one of the better sort with a Presbyterian mind, like Douglas down there leaving the ship.' Graham could not be deflected from his thought that Stephen would make a fine spy.

Returning to an earlier theme, Stephen invited distraction: 'On consideration, I believe you were right about mariners. To the orderly mind they present a contradiction as disturbing as wood that sinks or stones that float.'

Graham stared with deep suspicion, but favored Stephen with his knowledge: the spew of volcanoes not properly stone; Cleghorn and Lavoisier commended, Spallanzani sound enough, and even Fourier not to be discarded despite his loyalty to the beast; the easy consensus among those who studied the Earth with a prepared mind: pumice recognized as ash from the meeting of caloric — upwelling from Earth's center — and the great subterranean wind that flows between volcanoes the world over.

To cement Stephen's grasp he offered a metaphor suited to a surgeon: Earth an enormous animal — a thing of life and heat, with volcanoes for nostrils, lava for blood, and earthquakes for pulsations. With this new understanding, Stephen would see his error: 'Stone is the bone of this great animal. Pumice is merely the waste of her metabolism, the fecal matter.' Moved by his own words, he held up a pinch of this metaphoric substance.

With a flick of the fingers, he dismissed stones that float. As to wood sinking, Stephen was misled by the tragic fate of ships. An easy mistake, but he did not allow sufficiently for the effect of ballast — 'Stones in the general case!' — nor the combined weight of the iron fittings, putting his hand on the nearest for clarity.

Stephen might have withdrawn, perhaps justifying it with the wish to make note of these important points. He should have. He did not: 'Your defeat of pumice is complete, sir, but I must protest that your hand is nearly touching an example of wood that sinks.'

'That...' the word 'deadeye' could not be found. 'The very piece bound with that iron you instance is carved of lignum vitae. We note the tight grain and the striking contrast between the light and dark resins so richly dense in each piece. These are insignia of the species. The carpenter showed a piece sinking in water to educate our squeakers.'

Affecting not to see the glare, Stephen led on: 'You spoke of the nautical art being instinctual, and some facets are indeed. The choice of this wood or that for a particular purpose is surely vindication of your view. Sailors and builders are in achord when they call for harmony in these choices.

'An aspect neglected in casual accounts is the importance of timbres in shipbuilding. The strength of oak is its greatest renown, but the shipwright's choice of thickness, taper, and tone are critical to effective sailing of vessels necessarily driven to the limits of art. Seamen rely on skills developed in their common entertainments using stringed instruments.' Stephen reminded Graham how often the captain would place his hand on the rigging when setting the sails. 'An important quality of manila line is its ability to stay in tune once the sails are adjusted properly. The harmony of the stays, sheets and tacks plays against deeper notes from the sails, and these complement the deepest note of all — that from the hull itself.

'This last is essential to judge the response of a ship driven hard. It is known as the keel sound — or keelson — by English sailors. In the Irish we would say it is a "bass kennard" from the use of that deep note to "know" the ship's state.' At the last moment, Stephen refrained from explaining to a Scot that the word 'ken' or 'can' meant 'to know' in the Gaelic languages.

Averting enthusiasm, he concluded: 'The keelson rises from the linear structures of the ship, the fore and aft members, if you will.' Belated memory came to his aid. 'These "deadeyes" are so called because their use has a damping or deadening effect on the palls, or the shrouds as some say — the names being understood from this role. They mute the contribution of the lateral members of the vessel, and allow the true keelson to be emitted.

'It is in this role and in the sheaves of the rigging that lignum vitae is prized — for its ability to resinate.'

Stephen broke off, pleading the needs of a patient with a distressing case of lingua bifurcate.


© 2003 Gary W. Sims