Twain on glaciers

October 17th, 2010
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This isn’t what you think. Mark Twain didn’t write about incipient climate change in the 1870′s although, unbeknownst to him, the warming was about to start. What he did was to take an only slightly fictional journey on Switzerland’s Great Gorner glacier, described in his delightful memoir A Tramp Abroad.

The great humorist tells how his ever present Baedeker states that glaciers are “in constant motion”. It is then that he resolves to travel, with an appropriate retinue, from the Riffelberg hotel above Zermatt to the town itself – by glacier. The guidebook estimates the downhill trip by mule train path to take three hours. Why walk, thinks Twain, when the “natural motion” of the glacier can convey him and his companions  down to Zermatt in style?

He describes the journey as follows: “(I) took up as good a position as I could in the middle of the glacier – because Baedeker said the middle part travels the fastest. As a measure of economy, however, I put some of the heavier baggage on the shoreward parts, to go as slow freight.”

After waiting until dark, and not finding a timetable in Baedeker,Twain concluded that the glacier had “run aground”. He describes much elbow-grease used by his crew, wedging timbers at the ice’s edge to jar it loose, but to no avail. Pockets of water on the surface suggested that the conveyance had also “sprung a leak”. This was corrected by some enthusiastic pumping by the men.

But still no movement. Then came the shocking revelation from Baedeker: “‘The Gorner Glacier travels at an average rate of a little less than an inch a day’”. Breaking this “outrage” to his companion, Harris, he calculated the transit time to Zermatt as somewhat over five hundred years! The latter could not contain his anger:

“‘That is European management all over! An inch a day – think of that! Five hundred years to go a trifle over three miles! But I am not a bit surprised. It’s a Catholic glacier. You can tell by the look of it. And the management.’
I said no, I believed nothing but the extreme end of it was in a Catholic canton.
‘Well then, it’s a government glacier,’ said Harris. ‘It’s all the same. Over here the government runs everything – so everything’s slow. Slow and ill-managed. But with us everything’s done by private enterprise – and then there ain’t much lolling around, you can depend on it. I wish Tom Scott could get his hands on this torpid old slab once – you’d see it take a different gait from this.’
I said I was sure he’d increase the speed if there was trade enough in it.
‘He’d make trade, said Harris. ‘That’s the difference between governments and individuals. Governments don’t care, individuals do. Tom Scott would take all the trade. In two years Gorner stock would go to two hundred, and inside two more you  would see all the other glaciers under the hammer for taxes.’ After a reflective pause Harris added, ‘A little less than an inch a day. A little less than an inch, mind you. Well, I’m losing my reverence for glaciers.’”

OK, so Twain wasn’t exactly extolling private enterprise, just immortalizing the kind of political talk that was as common then as now. One wonders what he’d have thought of “European management” today?

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By John Weissenberger