Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mark Twain and Mono Lake

First look at these pictures:


Ron Schott

Carelton College (website)

Dane Spencer

Jeffrey Munro

Theater Themes

Now read this passage from Roughing It:

Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sail-less sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque. It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its centre, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice-stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano, whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied.

. . . There are no fish in Mono Lake—no frogs, no snakes, no polliwigs—nothing, in fact, that goes to make life desirable. Millions of wild ducks and sea-gulls swim about the surface, but no living thing exists under the surface, except a white feathery sort of worm, one half an inch long, which looks like a bit of white thread frayed out at the sides. If you dip up a gallon of water, you will get about fifteen thousand of these. They give to the water a sort of grayish-white appearance. Then there is a fly, which looks something like our house fly. These settle on the beach to eat the worms that wash ashore—and any time, you can see there a belt of flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear around the lake—a belt of flies one hundred miles long. If you throw a stone among them, they swarm up so thick that they look dense, like a cloud. You can hold them under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it. When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report, and walk off as unconcernedly as if they had been educated especially with a view to affording instructive entertainment to man in that particular way. Providence leaves nothing to go by chance. All things have their uses and their part and proper place in Nature's economy: the ducks eat the flies—the flies eat the worms—the Indians eat all three—the wild cats eat the Indians—the white folks eat the wild cats—and thus all things are lovely.

. . . Half a dozen little mountain brooks flow into Mono Lake, but not a stream of any kind flows out of it. It neither rises nor falls, apparently, and what it does with its surplus water is a dark and bloody mystery.

Mr. Twain . . . "little graced with the picturesque"? Srsly?

Mono Lake, California is a unique ecosystem that is two to three times saltier than the ocean. The lake also contains 4-6 trillion brine shrimp found nowhere else in the world, plus hordes of alkali flies that will swarm away when a human approaches but enjoy eating algae. And far from being a "dark and bloody mystery," the fate of the surplus water is actually evaporation (sometimes up to four vertical feet a day). Because of its strong alkaline content (the equivalent of household glass cleaner), the water of Mono Lake tastes bitter and feels slippery. Its pH level is high enough to dissolve clothing and footwear after multiple soakings.


Kathryn said...

These posts on Twain are so great...I suppose we'll have to forgive him for the misguided information. Twain can be eerily correct but sometimes he is way off the mark.

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