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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

THE END OF THE WORLD

I believe the world came to an end on April 5, 1761. And if you haven’t heard about it, well your ancestors were just not paying attention. In a world where many still believed in the literal history of a real Adam and a real Eve, a certain William Bell, a trooper in the Life Guards, went about London, England telling anybody and everybody who would listen that doomsday was nigh. And thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people listened and believed him. And what is amazing is that Corporal Bell was right. The world did end on Sunday, April 5, 1761. But Mr. Bell was right for the wrong reasons. And reason made all the difference.February 8, 1761 dawned cold, as was to be expected in a world still in the grip of “The Little Ice Age”. Most winters the Thames still froze over, and the great city was chocking on her own coal smoke to keep warm. The “Picadilly Butchers”, as the members of the Life Guards Household Cavalry were called, were gathering for their Sunday parade, set then, as now, for 11:30 A.M.

Then, from Greenwich below London on the south bank, to Richmond, on the upstream north shore, the entire Thames valley shuddered. In Hampstead and Highgate houses shook. Amongst the ship construction ways in Limehouse the chandler’s tools were vibrated off their frames. In the tiny village of Poplar across from the Isle of Dogs in the great bend of the Thames River, chimneys were shaken apart, their bricks crashing to the ground. In ‘The City’ itself pewter keepsakes slipped off mantles and chairs were upended. It was over in a few seconds. The dust settled. Nerves calmed. Normality returned.On Sunday, March 8, 1761, between five and six on in the morning, the Thames valley shuddered again. This time the shaking was stronger and lasted longer, roiling from north to south and back again. In St. James Park a section of an abandoned canal in the private gardens behind Buckingham House collapsed. Panicked, the richest and poorest citizens of central London ran from their beds, convinced their homes were about to collapse around their heads. Some did. But the most well known collapse in this second earthquake to strike London was a loss of sanity in the person of William Bell, a “Tinned Fruit”, a corporal in the Household Cavalry. He became convinced that the shaking of February 8 (the first Sunday in the month) and March 8 (the first Sunday in that month), would be followed by a truly catastrophic shaker on the first Sunday in March - the fifth. His visions were so intense and detailed, and his passion to tell it so commanding, that he shared his nightmare with any and all who would listen. And it took hold of the city like a fever.Charles Mackay’s excellent book, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (Harmony Books – 1843) records that, “…all the villages within a circuit of twenty miles …(were) crowded with panic-stricken fugitives, who paid exorbitant prices for accommodation to the housekeepers of these secure retreats. Such as could not afford to pay for lodgings at any of those places, remained in London until two or three days before the time, and then encamped in the surrounding fields…and hundreds who had laughed at the prediction a week before, packed up their goods, when they saw others doing so, and hastened away. The river was thought to be a place of great security, and all the merchant-vessels in the port were filled with people, who passed the night between the 4th and 5th on board, expecting every instant to see St. Paul’s totter, and the towers of Westminster Abby rock in the wind and fall amid a cloud of dust.” One enterprising chemist even advertised pills which he claimed to be “good against earthquakes”, although exactly how the pills proposed to save the swallower, was never fully explained.Needless to say, the world did not end on Sunday March 5, 1761, at least not in the way Corporal Bell had anticipated. As Mackay recorded, “The greater part of the fugitives returned on the following day, convinced that the prophet was a false one; but many judged it more prudent to allow a week to elapse before they trusted their dear limbs in London.” Corporal Bell became a man scorned, a repository for all those angry with themselves for having believed his prediction. And although he tried his hand at other doomsday prognostications, Corporal Bell was soon confined for some months in an insane asylum. Edward W. Brayley recorded in his book “Londoninania” (Hurst, Chance and Company – 1829) that Bell “…afterward kept a hosier’s shop in Holborn Hill during many years, and …retired to the neighborhood of Edgeware where he died a few years ago”.Some things did change because of the twin quakes. Due to damage his royal highness George II picked up Buckingham House at a bargain price. He kept the gardens but filled in the collapsed canal and turned it into a Parade for the Household Cavalry. He renamed the residence “The Queen’s House”, but over the years, as additional buildings were added, the old name returned and it became known as “Buckingham Palace”. The channel between the Isle of Dogs and the hamlet of Poplar was bridged at two points and eventually became the East End of London. But something more fundamental had changed with the Earthquakes of 1761, and while the superstitions of William Bell were largely forgotten, another man was inspired to a vision that gave birth to a new world.His name was James Hutton, an ugly little man with a great big brain who was trained as a lawyer, a chemist, a doctor of Medicine, a businessman, and late in his life, a farmer. But the earthquakes of 1761 had awakened his curiosity as to what had caused them. He had already come to the observation that the forces of erosion he saw on his farm, (streams and rivers, wind and rain) must be have been working in the time of Adam and Eve. But how long ago was that? Hutton didn’t know, but he was curious and sure enough of his God given brain to believe that he could understand the process. He allowed the idea to percolate in his mind until 1788, when he went sightseeing with the mathematician John Playfair. And while walking at the cliff edge at Siccar Point in Scotland, Hutton saw a single formation of rock that utterly lifted the veil of superstition from his eyes.There, in front of Hutton, was a bed of schistus, (to the right)thrusting up vertically from below. And sitting directly on top of this was a bed of sandstone, (left side of picture) lying in opposition to the schist. The junction point between the two rocks came to be called an “Angular Unconformity.” They were different kinds of rock and they could not have been formed in the same place or the same time, or even close to each other. Something between them must be missing; that was the unconformity.

Sandstone is produced by compressing desert sand under tons of more dessert sand. Any water present will chemically alter the rock, so we know it had to be formed when England was at the same latitude as the Sierra Desert is today, and looked very similar.

Schist is created by lava cooling deep under water, then reheating the rock almost to the melting point and forcing it to cool quickly, but again under pressure. Each of these processes take millions of years by themselves. And the angular junction of the two beds was like the missing pages in a book, missing pages that tell a story of other mountains perhaps rising and wearing down but leaving no record behind; of seas and valleys and millions of years whose record has been destroyed; all lost between the crystals of the schist and the grains of the sandstone.

The Angular Unconformity that Hutton stood over that day hinted at why earthquakes happen in England (above, evidence of the most recent); not because God is seeking to destroy a sinful humanity, but because this is how God made the world, and how he is remaking it, a single grain of sand and a single crystal of schist at a time - the same way he made our brains, and out of the same stuff.


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