McPhee's handling of this small personal remembrance is masterly. It's a tribute to his ninety-nine-year-old mother -- McPhee himself is pushing eighty -- that begins with a series of demurrers: "It has been alleged that ... The assertion is absolutely false that ... It is reported that ... I do not recall any detail of that story.... It has been averred that ... It has been asserted that ..." Each of these assertions and allegations concerns an instance of McPhee's juvenile misbehavior and his mother's execution of justice -- presumably family stories that he dismisses as "rumors, half-truths, prevarications, false allegations, inaccuracies, innuendos and canards." The essay ends with a recollection of his mother accompanying him to a freezing observation platform so he could watch planes take off and land at LaGuardia. After which she buys him a toy, a ball that contained a silk parachute. Tossed into the air, or sent up with a tennis racquet, the hinged ball would open and the parachute would bring it gently back to earth.
Not until the development of the multi-megabyte hard disk would the world ever know such a fabulous toy. Folded just so, the parachute never failed. Always, it floated back to you -- silkily, beautifully -- to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard -- gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.Like a treasured childhood memory.
"Season on the Chalk"
McPhee's excursions into geology have been extensive -- some think too extensive. But they are always full of revelations of curious facts and unknown linkages. Everyone knows the white cliffs of Dover. But how many know that the same chalk that composes them also extends into France, where it underlies the great vineyards of Champagne?
This essay is a ramble: part travelogue, part memoir of a family excursion, part geology lesson, part observations on oenology. We meet McPhee's grandchildren: Ten-year-old Tommaso picks up a chalky rock from the basin of the Thames and writes the words ROCK ON SKI-MAN with it. The incident sets the scene for an exploration of history and geology on each side of the English Channel (or La Manche, if you're on the French side).
McPhee then visits what he calls "the most peaceful place in Europe -- willows over the flint garden wall, a line of poplars against the sky, cattle like brown pebbles far up the circumvallate grazings, few than few human inhabitants." He is in the South Downs, at a place called Breaky Bottom, where English champagne is made. He's accompanied by a man with the imposing name of H.G.T.P. Doyne-Ditmas, whom McPhee has known since they attended Deerfield Academy together. Doyne-Ditmas introduces him to Peter Hall, a viticulteur who supplies this English champagne -- though Hall refers to it as "sparkling wine" because it isn't actually made in Champagne -- to the queen. "At the moment, he has only about fifty thousand bottles laid up in various stages of development. Recent government orders have brought him 'thirteen thousand nine hundred pounds of taxpayers' money.'"
"Chalk, like limestone, endows a fertile soil," and the same chalk endows the soil of Champagne: "From Breaky Bottom out through Beachy Head, under the Channel, and up into Picardy, and on past Arras and Amiens, the chalk is continuous to Reims and Épernay. To drive the small roads and narrow lanes of Champagne is to drive the karstic downlands of Sussex and Surrey, the smoothly bold topography of Kentish chalk."
Always observant, and always able to find the precise words for what he observes, McPhee notes that "the storky, long-legged tractors of Champagne straddle rows and run above the grapes." And that in rainstorms, "water on the chalk roads runs like milk. Your car goes up to its hubcaps in milk." He visits the Benedictine abbey where Dom Pérignon is buried and hears someone playing a record of Mozart's Twenty-first Piano Concerto. "This may be one of the few places on earth that could do without Mozart, introducing, as he does, a sense of sideshow in the vaulted space." McPhee corrects the record: "contrary to Pérignon's worldwide reputation, he did not add to the wines the magic bits of sugar and yeast that enhance carbonation in the second fermentation and result in champagne as we know it and he did not."
In contrast to the fifty thousand bottles back in England,
Deep in the French chalk are hundreds of kilometres of tunnels -- straight-line tunnels, curvilinear tunnels, tunnels on various levels crisscrossing other tunnels -- holding more than a billion bottles of champagne.... The white walls are cool, sticky, and damp, belying the dryness overhead. The name Champagne stems from Campania, of whose dusty fields Romans were reminded when they came here. The porous chalk absorbs rain as fast as it falls, and the year-round temperature down in the caves is wintry.The secret to champagne, it seems, is called "riddling." It was a technique invented by none other than "the veuve Cliquot, the enological Edison." After her husband's death, she invented an "A-framed rack" in which the bottles are placed neck down. "Once a day or so -- to dislodge the yeast from the bottle walls and to stir up the sediments -- she gave each bottle a sharp turn to the right and a sharp turn back to the left, then stopped its rotation a little farther along than it had been." The bottles are also gradually placed on a steeper incline as the fermentation goes on. Computers do most of the riddling today, but if one breaks down, there are trained riddlers who can take over: "One riddler can turn thirty thousand bottles a day." What happens is that eventually "the grubby items in near-suspension in the otherwise diaphanous fluid gravitate in the neck of the bottle." They form "a plug as soft and repulsive as phlegm." The plug is frozen, the bottle is turned upright and opened, and the plug is forced out by the carbonation. Then the bottle is given its familiar mushroom-shaped cork and wire cage.
Now comes the geology lesson. In 1822, the Belgian J.J. d'Omalius d'Halloy designated the chalky region from England to France "Le Terrain Crétacé. Chalky it certainly was, and soon the word not only made the jump from adjective to adjectival noun but also from geologic system to geologic period -- from rock to time. With the arguable exception of the Carboniferous, the Cretaceous is the only period in the forty-six hundred million years of the earth's history that was directly named for a rock." The Cretaceous period lasted eighty million years, and the Cretaceous Extinction took place sixty-five million years ago, which McPhee asserts is "a date better known to modern schoolchildren than 1492."
McPhee now takes us, and his family, to Maastricht, in the Netherlands, where "the youngest of all levels of Cretaceous chalk is found. Maastricht is full of buildings made of chalk, quarried from Sint Pietersberg, five miles up the Maas river. Here we meet another McPhee grandchild: Livia Svenvold McPhee, the six-year-old daughter of Mark Svenvold and Martha McPhee. Sint Pietersberg is a Dutch mountain -- that is, "A steep but modest hill." It's also "a chalk quarry -- an intermittent source of building stone across a scale of time approaching twenty-one hundred years." The Romans were the first to quarry there. "Its rock is a less than pure-white chalk, tanned by enough clay to be called a marl."
The tunnels in the mountain were a refuge for the Dutch resistance forces in World War II, and Allied pilots who were shot down in Holland were led through the tunnels into Belgium. The Dutch also stored valuable works of art, like Rembrandt's "The Night Watch," in the tunnels. There are graffiti on the walls dating back to 1551. Napoleon inscribed his name there in 1803.
When they leave the tunnels, Livia asks why her grandfather was taking notes in the tunnels. He was interested in the fact that the fossil of Mosasaur had been found in Sint Pietersberg in the eighteenth century, so he explains that what he was writing had to do with dinosaurs. He asks Livia, who is not yet in first grade, "Have you ever wondered what killed them?" Her reply is, "Asteroid or volcano." Her answer amazes McPhee, because the asteroid theory wasn't proposed until 1980. "Now a freshly turned-out kindergarten graduate lists it first among the causes of the death of the dinosaurs." As for "volcano," McPhee wishes "she had said 'volcanism,' but what can I do? She isn't seven yet." He notes that there is yet another theory, set forth by the paleontologist Greta Keller of Princeton, that "mentions depletions of ocean oxygen, global warming, and pronounced rises of sea level among the developments that have prefigured mass extinctions, whether volcanism and asteroidal impact were or were not involved." She calls it "'the bad-luck theory'-- a bunch of natural events piling up at once."Martha: "Why was Napoleon here?"Guide: "Why are you here?"Martha considers this an inadequate answer.
McPhee returns to the South Downs and Doyne-Ditmas, who used to work for MI5, and now calls himself Harry Ditmas. At MI5, Ditmas "sat for a time at a desk next to David Cornwell, an exact contemporary who left the service to extend his career as John le Carré." He also was stationed in Kuala Lumpur and Moscow, where at night he "imagined that if he were to speak aloud in a dream the K.G.B. would be recording what he said."
They go to Beachy Head, "the highest, giddiest chalk cliff in Britain," where McPhee notes near the edge a small sign that says, "God is always greater than all of our troubles," along with the number for a suicide hot line. McPhee notes that chalk and limestone are both essentially the same: calcium carbonate. The difference is caused by ocean chemistry. And that the Chunnel, for which Ditmas was in charge of transport security when it opened in 1994, goes through chalk. "The cliffs of Sussex are being eroded, we learn, at an average rate of about thirty-five centimetres a year.... Sounds slow, but geomorphologically that is fast."
The chalk cliffs as studded with black dots that are chunks of flint, concentrations of silicon dioxide or cryptocrystalline quartz. "The shingle beaches below the white cliffs consist almost entirely of flint cobbles the size of ostrich eggs." Among other things, McPhee notes that "Flints from English chalk ignited the powder that answered the shot heard round the world." And: "Chalk is the bedrock of Salisbury Plain, so the stones of Stonehenge came from as far away as Wales."