Mark Twain’s travel tales – most of them genuine, some apocryphal – deserve to be better known. In Following the Equator: A Journey around the World (1897), he marvels at nature and civilization while lampooning racism, imperialism, and missionary zeal. Interspersed are fictional stories and marvellous descriptive passages – such as the one about an American ice storm.
Twain was on a lecture tour of the British Empire in order to get himself out of debt. “The starting point of this lecturing-trip around the world was Paris, where we had been living a year or two. We sailed for America, and there made certain preparations. This took but little time. Two members of my family elected to go with me. Also a carbuncle. The dictionary says a carbuncle is a kind of jewel. Humor is out of place in a dictionary.”
One of the most memorable descriptions in the book echoes the kind of icy visitation later experienced by North America in 1998 when five small storms combined to strike a narrow swath of land from eastern Ontario to Nova Scotia in Canada, and bordering areas from northern New York to central Maine in the United States. Trees, hydro poles and transmission towers came down causing massive power outages, some for as long as a month. And yet there was a natural beauty to the event that many people captured in photos and which Mark Twain 100 years earlier captured in words.
“In America the ice-storm is an event. And it is not an event which one is careless about. When it comes, the news flies from room to room in the house, there are bangings on the doors, and shoutings, ‘The ice-storm! the ice-storm!’ and even the laziest sleepers throw off the covers and join the rush for the windows. The ice-storm occurs in midwinter, and usually its enchantments are wrought in the silence and the darkness of the night.”
“A fine drizzling rain falls hour after hour upon the naked twigs and branches of the trees, and as it falls it freezes. In time the trunk and every branch and twig are incased in hard pure ice; so that the tree looks like a skeleton tree made all of glass – glass that is crystal-clear. All along the underside of every branch and twig is a comb of little icicles – the frozen drip. Sometimes these pendants do not quite amount to icicles, but are round beads – frozen tears.”
“The weather clears, toward dawn, and leaves a brisk pure atmosphere and a sky without a shred of cloud in it – and everything is still, there is not a breath of wind. The dawn breaks and spreads, the news of the storm goes about the house, and the little and the big, in wraps and blankets, flock to the window and press together there, and gaze intently out upon the great white ghost in the grounds, and nobody says a word, nobody stirs. All are waiting; they know what is coming, and they are waiting for the miracle…”
“The sun climbs higher, and still higher, flooding the tree from its loftiest spread of branches to its lowest, turning it to a glory of white fire; then in a moment, without warning, comes the great miracle, the supreme miracle, the miracle without its fellow in the earth; a gust of wind sets every branch and twig to swaying, and in an instant turns the whole white tree into a spouting and spraying explosion of flashing gems of every conceivable color; and there it stands and sways this way and that, flash! flash! flash! a dancing and glancing world of rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires, the most radiant spectacle, the most blinding spectacle, the divinest, the most exquisite, the most intoxicating vision of fire and color and intolerable and unimaginable splendor that ever any eye has rested upon in this world, or will ever rest upon outside of the gates of heaven…”
“In the ice-storm every one of the myriad ice-beads pendant from twig and branch is an individual gem, and changes color with every motion caused by the wind; each tree carries a million, and a forest-front exhibits the splendors of the single tree multiplied by a thousand.”
“It occurs to me now that I have never seen the ice-storm put upon canvas, and have not heard that any painter has tried to do it. I wonder why that is. Is it that paint cannot counterfeit the intense blaze of a sun-flooded jewel? There should be, and must be, a reason, and a good one, why the most enchanting sight that Nature has created has been neglected by the brush.”