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An essay by Morley Roberts

On A Volcanic Peak

Title:     On A Volcanic Peak
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

I had seen Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli, but had never yet climbed any volcano until I stood upon the summit of the Peak of Teneriffe, Pico de Teyde, home of the gods and devils as well as of the aboriginal Guanches of the Canary Islands.

The wind was bitterly cold, more bitter, indeed, than I have ever felt, and yet, as I stood and shivered upon the little crater's brink, fumes of sulphurous acid and smoke swept round me and made me choke. The edge of the crater was of white fired rock; inside the cup the hollow was sulphur yellow. Puffs of smoke came from cracks. I dropped out of the wind and warmed myself at the fire. I picked up warm stones and danced them from one hand to another. And overhead a wind of ice howled. For the Peak is twelve thousand feet and more above the sea. An hour before I had been cutting steps in the last slopes of the last ash cone of the volcano which still lives and may burst into activity at any fatal moment.

To stand upon the Peak and look down upon the world and the sea gives one a great notion of the making of things. Once the world was a crucible. The islands are all volcanic, all ash and cinders, lava and pumice. But I perceived that the Peak itself, the final peak, the last five thousand feet of it, was but the last result of a dying fire--a mere gas spurt to what had been. The whole anatomy of the island is laid bare; the history and the growth of the peak are written in letters of lava, in wastes of pumice and fire-scarred walls. The plain of the Canyadas lies beneath me, and is ten miles across. This was the ancient crater; it is as big as the crater of Kilauea, in the Hawaiian Islands. But Kilauea is yet truly alive, a sea of lava with many cones spouting lava. Such was the crater of Teneriffe before the last peak rose within its basin. Now retama, a hardy bitter shrub, grows in these plains of pumice; the flats of it are pumice and rapilli, white and brown. But the ancient crater walls stand unbroken for miles, though here and there they have been swept away, some say by floods of water belched from the pit.

From the last ash-peak of fire, as I stood on the crater walls in smoke and a cold wind, I saw no sign of Teneriffe's fertility. The works of man upon the lower slopes below the pinyon forests were invisible. The slopes by Orotava lay under cloud, the sea was hidden almost to its horizon by a vast plain of heaving mist. All I could see plainly was the old crater itself, barren, vast, tremendous, with its fire-scarred walls and its fumaroles. To the west some smoked still, smoked furiously. But though I stood upon the highest peak, another one almost as high lay behind me. Chahorra gaped and gasped, as it seemed, like a leaping, suffocating fish in drying mud. Its crater opened like a mouth and around it lesser holes gaped. On the plain of the old crater there rise two separate volcanoes--one, the true peak, rising 5000 feet from the Canyada floor (itself 7000 feet above the sea), and Chahorra, nearly 4000. But so vast is the ancient crater that these two peaks, one yet alive and the other dead, seem but blisters or boils upon its barren plain. To the north, miles from the edge of my peak, I could see the crater cliff rise red. To the west and east the wall has broken down, but the Fortaleza, as the Canary men call it, stands yet, scarred into chimneys, shining, half glassy, half like fired clay. And further to the east, beyond the gap called the Portillo, the cliffs rise again as one follows the trail over that high desert to Vilaflor. White pumice lies under these cliffs, looking like a beach. Once perhaps the crater was level with the sea. It may even be that the crater walls were broken down by outer waters, not by any volcanic flood.

None knows at what time the peak of Chahorra and the great peak were truly active. But obviously the final peak itself was the result of a last great eruption. Perhaps the old crater had been quiescent for thousands of years, and then it worked a little and threw up El Teyde. At some other time Chahorra rose. At another period, in historic times, the volcano above Garachico, even now smoking bravely, sent its lava into Garachico's harbour and destroyed it. But the last peak as it stands is the work of two periods of activity at least. The first great slope ends at another flat called the Rambleta. Here was once an ancient crater. Then the fires quietened, and there was a time of lesser activity. It woke again, and threw up the last weary ash-cone of a thousand feet or near it.

All things die, but who shall say when a volcano has done its worst? A quiet Vesuvius slew its thousands: Etna its tens of thousands. Some day perhaps Teneriffe will wake again, either in earthquakes or lava-flow, and cause a Casamicciola or a Catania. The cones over against Garachico seemed much alive to me, and had I not warmed frozen hands at the very earth fires themselves? I broke out hot sulphur with the pick of my ice-axe. Icod of the Vines, or Orotava itself, port and villa, might some day wake to such a day as that which has smitten St Pierre in fiery Martinique.

Once all the quiet seas were unbroken by their seven islands--Hierro, Palma, Gomera, Teneriffe, Grand Canary, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote lay beneath the waters of the smiling ocean. Even now they smell of fire and the furnace; in the most fruitful vineyards of Grand Canary the soil is half cinders. In all the islands vast cinder heaps rise black and forbidding. Lava streams, in which the poisonous euphorbia alone can grow, thrust themselves like great dykes among fertile lands. The very sands of the sea are powdered pumice and black volcanic dust. One of the greatest craters of the world holds within itself great parts of wooded Palma. On dead volcanoes are the petty batteries of Spain over against Las Palmas. There is something strange and almost pathetic in the thought of guns raised where Nature once thundered dreadfully in the barren sunlit Isleta.

But of all the islands and of all parts of them, the Peak, shining over clouds and visible from far seas, is the king and chief. I left its fiery summit with a certain reluctance. It attracted me strangely. It represented, feebly enough, I daresay, the greatest of all elemental forces. Yet its faint fires and its smoke and sulphur fumes had all the power of a mighty symbol. By such means, by such a formula, had the very world itself been made. Though snow lay upon its slopes and ice bound ancient blocks of lava together, it might at any hour awake again and renew the terrors which once must have floated over the seas in a gust of flame.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: On A Volcanic Peak