more than meets the eye

For a hiking trip there’s been a suspicious lack of physical activity noted on this site over the past two weeks, wouldn’t you say? Time to fix that today with a straight climb up highest hill on Mull. All mountains have a certain magnetic attraction for those who enjoying a good harrumph, but Ben More has more than you’d suspect. At 3,172 feet, the peak is a true beauty because every inch of it is climbed from sea level and that’s a rarity. Plus, the views from the top are spectacular. Beneath the summit are the glens and table-lands carved by retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. Eastwards across the sea are the serried mainland mountains; to the north, the sawtooth peaks of Rum and Skye; southwards, the Paps of Jura; and if you look westward on a clear day, you can almost see as far as Ireland. Bound by lochs on either side – and Iona and Staffa seemingly close enough to touch – the panorama is superb. (Double click each image for a greater sense of scale.) Many hikers mistakenly assume Ben More is a volcano. It is not, despite the picturesque “smoking” that often appears near the summit. In fact, it is a much rarer phenomenon: a highly magnetic mountain. Extruded 55 million years ago, the iron-rich basalt is so strongly magnetic that chippings will jump on to a proffered magnet. More importantly, compass readings can’t be trusted, particularly at the summit, which has been struck by lightning and remagnetized so often that readings vary enormously even within a few feet. Another surprise is the lack of a well-marked trail, which led to more than a few heated discussions on the extended hike up – all of which evaporated into thin air once we had summited and, more to the point, returned back to ground level unscathed.

 

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walking with giants

Staffa is another of the uninhabited Treshnish islands. Like Lunga it is home to hundreds of seabirds, yet it’s better known for the magnificent basalt columns which at first glance seem to rise out of the sea like pilings. The effect is almost overwhelming at An Uamh Binn, or Fingal’s Cave as it is more commonly known, which is formed completely out of hexagonally jointed basalt. In the 8,000 years humans have inhabited Mull it is safe to say that Staffa’s columns and caves have been viewed as something special, possibly sacred or mythical in origin. According to one legend, the Gaelic giant, Fingal, got into a quarrel with the Ulster giant, Finn McCool. (Over a lady giant, no doubt.) In order to fight each other they built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When the causeway was destroyed only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other at the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. (Having visited the Giant’s Causeway several times, it is remarkable to see how both locations share an almost identical geology.) The truth of the matter, however, is much less colorful: as Britain and North America were being pulled apart by continental drift, huge amounts of magma rose up through the Earth’s crust, erupting as lava and volcanic ash on the surface. As the 1,200 degree molten rock cooled, it hardened, shrank, and fractured into a regular series of stone pillars. The caves came into existence as waves crashed against the soft layer of ash underneath the columns, slowly eroding into the formation we see today. Of the five sea caves on the island Fingal’s is by far the largest. It came to the attention of the wider world at the end of the 18th century as the Romantic Movement was spreading across Europe. With its emphasis on wilderness and natural splendor the island quickly became one of the must-see sights on the Highland Tour. Part of the cave’s appeal lies in the  remarkable symmetry of the cavern –  fractured columns form a crude walkway just above the high water mark, allowing easy exploration of the interior. Equally beguiling are the strange colors and sounds inside what is, in effect, a natural cathedral. If you’ve heard of Fingal’s Cave before reading this, it’s likely due to Felix Mendelssohn, who composed his concert overture, The Hebrides, following a visit to the island in 1829. His inspiration came from standing in the cave and listening to the roar of the waves.

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stones in his pockets

Designed by the artist himself, the Noguchi Museum opened in 1985 as the first and only museum in the country to be founded by an artist during his or her lifetime and dedicated to their work. The collection occupies a renovated photogravure building in an industrial part of Long Island City, Queens, that dates to the 1920’s and focuses on Isamu Noguchi’s extensive production, articulating the cultural times in which he worked, the many major cultural figures with whom he engaged, and his influence on the art and design of today. One of the most important artists of the 20th century, American-born Noguchi (1904 – 1988) began his apprenticeship with Brancusi in Paris before moving on to expand traditional notions of sculpture. Creating gardens, playgrounds, fountains, stage settings, lighting and together with Charles Nelson and George Eames, a line of influential modern furniture under the aegis of Herman Miller, Noguchi bridged the gap between East and West, creating landmarks in the process of integrating seemingly disparate disciplines. What is so difficult to comprehend in two-dimensional photographs  – and so fascinating to ponder in situ – is the ethereal sense of lightness Noguchi brought to bear in major compositions of marble and basalt. On the ride back to Manhattan, a quality I had never before ascribed to stone kept popping into my head:  pliant.

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