A few days ago I dreamt that a friend had given me a volcano for my birthday. It wasn’t a huge volcano, it was contained in a leather pouch and its base measured roughly the embrace of the trunk of a fifty year-old oak tree. He placed it on a low table and it ignited.
What did this all mean?
In my youth I was a wheezy runt of a mole and spent as much time in bed as at school. My curriculum was interrupted but my learning expanded. I was exposed to stamps; those of Mama and those of Great Uncle Mole. They were both very methodical. Their stamps were arranged alphabetically by country and chronologically within it. Their albums were uniform dark green cloth and neatly labelled. When I was with Mama we sat with atlases and books of plants and dynastic charts. When I was with Uncle Mole we concentrated more on ink types and perforations and how many had been issued and where they had been printed. Some of Great Uncle Mole’s stamps were extremely rare and he didn’t care for me looking at them when he wasn’t there because I couldn’t be trusted not to splutter on them.
But once, – I must have been convalescing and mooching around the burrow while Great Uncle Mole was working, I came across an album I had never seen before. It was quite unlike the others, rather home-made and covered with a winey-coloured carpety material, something that might have once been a saddlebag for a camel. I took it to the snuggery and settled myself in.
‘For my dear, dear Mole, with heartfelt wishes for your birthday from your ever-wandering but devoted Ratty, 1937′, was enscribed inside the front cover.
Uncle Ratty had used stamps to decorate the borders of each page, by motif or colour. On one page, for instance, he had alternated blue and yellow. A Mauritian tuppenny blue and a common-ol’-garden Helvetia 10 centime William Tell might sandwich something that looked suspiciously like a Treskilling yellow. Where a stamp didn’t quite fit he’d trimmed it.
Volcanoes, I hear you ask. What has this to do with volcanoes?
Well, the fact is that this album was almost entirely dedicated to volcanoes. It was philatelic, so Uncle Ratty told me later, inasmuch as he wanted to make Mole something with stamps, because stamps were Great Uncle Mole’s passion. But of course being Uncle Ratty, he couldn’t help but gather and enlarge and express with great, even volcanic, effusion. The theme overtook the medium. Words and labels, photographs and daubs of paint exploded onto the pages and beyond them, too, no doubt.
Oh there were stamps, too, lots of them. They had become jumping off points for musings factual and fictional. There was the famous stamp of the active Momotombo which had been sent to American politicians and scared them out of building an Atlantic/Pacific canal through Nicaragua. Uncle Ratty had added news cuttings, some volcanic ash in a small envelope, and a photograph of an old man who’d told him how Momomtombo had roared and trembled every time a Spanish priest set foot on it when the Aztecs were under the thumb of the Conquistadors.
Another page was pasted with illustrations of Le Petit Prince standing on his tiny planet Asteroid B-6-12. In amongst them Salvadoran stamps of Izalco (active for so long it was nick-named the Lighthouse of the Pacific) were stuck willy-nilly. Izalco was one of the three volcanoes shown on Asteroid B-6-12 a tribute, so Uncle Ratty had written, of Saint Exupéry’s to his Salvadoren wife.
He ran out of time and shanghaied his sister and mother. This he told me much later when I asked him about the different handwriting.
Celestine, his firebrand sister, had stuck in a lithograph of Auguste Desperret’s Le Volcan Liberté, the letters L I B E R T E spewing out as magma. The print all but dwarfed the 2 Kronor Icelandic stamp depicting Laki whose eruption in 1873-4 had so changed the climate that the ensuing chaos and crop failure far away was said to have ignited the French Revolution. And had Celestine kept the Belgian paraffin impregnated matches whose label showing Vesuvius she had added to another page.
It was on this page that a piece of rice-paper had clearly been stuck over something to conceal it. The paste had come loose – or maybe I prised it loose with a curious claw. I found, in Celestine’s hand, a gruesomely detailed account of Romans flinging live rats and moles into a sacrificial bonfire. Perhaps Uncle Ratty thought it a bit rich for Great Uncle Mole’s birthday.
But what I am most trying to remember now are the contributions of Uncle Ratty’s mother who was said to be a very wise rat, and fey to boot.
She had used every little space on a page dominated by labels extracted from Kee Chong Hong’s Volcano Super-Charged Firecrackers. Her writing was minuscule. It curved around the round letters of the labels and sideways up their sides. There was little sequencing, more a collage of impressions. And so that is how they come to me now, as impressions. The volcano symbolising the elements: earth as safety and deep knowledge; fire as passion, power and creative force; liquid flowing, unstoppable, bypassing resistance; and air, the giving of voice, broadcasting.
A volcano, shuddering and smouldering underground, can be a pretty scary proposition for a mole. Surfacing even more so. But the layers of volcanic soil that ensue are rich and rewarding.
Plenty to mull on.