Amina Cain

Lamps and Fulgurites

Who burned the first oil lamp? The question immediately becomes: how many of us will be able to see all the utensils in our kitchens? Is there a message you would like to send back through time? Are you time?
The first oil lamp was burned here, in Los Angeles. In a large covered wagon on Wilshire a family of four enjoyed a small flame. What is an oil burning lamp but a spirit you keep with you? 70,000 BC or the 18th century, lighting animal fat or enclosing it in a glass chimney. Have you ever smothered glass? A famous author said that an oil burning lamp cured her anxiety, making her less afraid. She wanted to sew it. I can not say her name. In case of a devastating earthquake you should purchase your own lamp. A certain heated quality will take over you: the spiritual nature of the lamp, and the idea that it might cure you of something.
Virginia Woolf carried a lamp from one place to another. So did Audre Lorde. I once saw a lamp being ferried across a field in Ohio. Emily Dickinson. Oil burning. Clarice Lispector. Lamp. And yet? The Argentine National Library in Buenos Aires where Jorge Luis Borges was director. Oil burning lamps on the tables; their little flames.
Now that you are newer than you have ever been, do you want the lamp to remind you of who you were, of another time when you were another person? When you broke your leg, you said to yourself, at least I have this, another leg that is not broken. The lamp reminded you of that. And now you walk through these streets, lit not by lamps, but sensation. “You asked whether Miss Martineau made me a convert to mesmerism?” Charlotte Brontë wrote in 1851. “Scarcely; yet I hear miracles of its efficacy and could hardly discredit the whole of what was told me. I even underwent a personal experiment; and though the result was not absolutely clear, it was inferred that in time I should prove an excellent subject.”
It is now obvious that I know very little about lamps, about legs. I know very little about empathy. Florence Nightingale carried a lamp to light her way when she tended to injured soldiers. In the Smoky Mountain News George Ellison writes: “I don’t know when the first oil lamps arrived here in the mountains. It must have been well before cast-iron wood-burning cookstoves . . . Cleaning chimneys and trimming wicks isn’t a big chore, but it has to be done from time to time. We usually get around to it when we notice we can’t see well enough to read at night.”
Ellison lights his whole house with lanterns. He heats his whole house with wood burning stoves. He has much to say about lanterns in his article. He goes on: “About 20 years ago I purchased in a used bookshop a little 45-page pamphlet by Cecil A. Matthews titled ‘Discovering Oil Lamps.’ It was published in 1972 in England. A note about the author advises that Mr. [Matthews] ‘was apprenticed to the ironmongery trade in the late 1920s when there was still a small demand for oil lamps in rural East Anglia ... He has built up a considerable collection of his own ... and gives talks and lectures on the subject.’ I never imagined that anyone gave lectures on oil lamps. I hope Mr. Matthews was paid handsomely for his lamp lectures.” I never imagined talks and lectures on oil burning lamps either.
The fulgurite is another story. It is another story, but I will combine it here with the lamp, for a great light and a small rough tube have a relationship to each other. Imagine lightning striking sand, turning the area just around it into a glassy worm.
Richard Wright published a novella on the fulgurite, though, admittedly, he felt he wouldn’t be able to generate enough material on the formation for an entire novel. The fulgurite is a sort of science fiction, a surface both impossible and extremely serene. Hannah Weiner, clairvoyant poet, saw her future projected onto its past, but there was no way to write this down. Lechatelierite. “You see our results were not great, but the visit was not wholly barren to me.” Astrapialith. I don’t even know how to pronounce these names.
According to the Utah Geological Survey, a fulgurite’s shape “mimics the path of the lightning bolt as it disperses into the ground.” This is a narrative, and here we are told what role lightning plays. I don’t share the fascination the Utah Geological Survey holds for what we see when we lie down on the ground. It’s the very air I’m interested in, and the ways in which we are ourselves when we can’t breathe.      
            One may also find fulgurites on the shores of Lake Michigan, or on the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. Christopher Libby, Chief Instructor at Outward Bound/Mammoth Lakes tells us:

I was surprised to find, in the summers of 1984 and 1985, that fulgurites are relatively common on the granite peaks of California's Sierra Nevada. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks I found fulgurites atop the following granitic peaks: Thunder Mountain (13,588 feet), Sugarloaf (8,002 feet), Whaleback (11,726 feet), Mount Stewart (12,205 feet), [and] Big Bird Peak (11,602 feet) … The Sierra Nevada fulgurites are similar in appearance to those in Oregon– black, green, or white bubbly crusts on the surface of the rocks. The crusts appear on the topmost rocks as veins.

Do you want to know about the first fulgurite? It is important that we know about firsts. It was so small no one could see it. This is boring, and there is nothing I can do about it. Still, there was a gathering around it, and a desire to know how one would change in the face of this new invisibility. There was a fight between two visible women. There was blood all over the place. “Of course, many wise people will say, I did not see the lights, but that they were the offspring of my excited imagination.”
George Eliot said in 1872, “Your experience with the planchette is amazing; but that the words which you found it to have written were dictated by the spirit of Charlotte Brontë is to me (whether rightly or not) so enormously improbable, that I could only accept it if every condition were laid bare, and every other explanation demonstrated to be impossible.”
Most fulgurites feature a blowhole. This is spiritual. If you think about your life, you might realize all the things that are missing from it, all the things you have forgotten, or never learned, that are still very far away. You might never reach them. I have never seen a fulgurite in the Sierra Nevadas. I have never seen one on the shores of Lake Michigan, or in Utah. But, I have a fulgurite that sits on my desk. It features several blowholes. I have an oil-burning lamp, which sits on my kitchen table.

This text uses material from “Fulgurite in the Sierra Nevada” by Christopher Libby; “Oil Lamps are Useful . . . and Nostalgic” by George Ellison; the Utah Geological Survey; and Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide by Vanessa D. Dickerson.