Magazine article The Spectator

A Blade of Light That Illuminates Our Unknowing

Magazine article The Spectator

A Blade of Light That Illuminates Our Unknowing

Article excerpt

The Spanish word jameo describes an underground volcanic cave or tunnel, whose roof has partly collapsed, letting in daylight. Last week I visited one of these on Lanzarote.

An Atlantic desert island off the Saharan coast, Lanzarote is a Spanish possession (one of the Canaries) where a series of massive volcanoes over the centuries has created weird landscapes. But nothing I encountered was more strange or beautiful than this cathedral of a cavern, illuminated from a panel of blue sky perhaps 100 feet above. The jameo was apparently just one small section of a huge horizontal tube, miles long, extending from inland out to the sea. It will have been formed amid molten lava by gas and steam under pressure during an eruption.

In one part of the cavern there was a great pool stretching from wall to wall of the tunnel, perhaps 50 yards long, in places very deep, and filled with clear sea-water which rose and fell with the tides. Here the cavern ceiling was intact - vaults of basalt reaching upward into the gloom. Light penetrated from either end and from a single pothole puncturing the hot ground above our heads and above the pool.

And the principal curiosity of this natural wonder, apart from the breathtaking fact of its existence, were the jameitos - the `little ones' - named after the jameo where they lived. These were blind albino crabs, apparently found nowhere else on earth. Blind, no doubt, because before the roof of their cave fell in there was no light, and albino because in the black they had no need of a camouflaging pigmentation.

There were tens of thousands of them. No larger (the biggest) than a large coin, and the smallest no more than pinhead-- sized, they speckled the floor of their pool like tiny, brilliant white flowers, moving slowly around. In the dim, subterranean twilight, all the rock colours dark browns, they were pricked out like specks of quartz on a black sand beach. Odd that something itself insensible to light and unable to see should be so light, so seen.

Kneeling on a rock by the water, I inspected closer. These were perfect little crabs, each with two major pincers held aloft, crawling over stones, some near the surface and some very far down, meeting each other (it seemed) by touch, and reconnoitring the edges of their little worlds rather as we toe our way down a staircase in the dark. I studied them for some time, then rose from the ground and began to walk on.

Something caught my eye. It was a brilliant, turquoise, diagonal blade, submerged in the water. About ten feet long and some six inches wide, the luminous shaft penetrated from the surface to the bottom at an angle of about 60 degrees, absolutely straight, shining sharp and clear.

Within seconds I realised it was not solid, but made of light. But how? It was surely not a beam because it stopped, cleanly lopped off, at the pool's surface.

My first thought was that someone had placed a spotlight or laser at the bottom of the pool, shining up. Then, all at once, a moth drifting through the air above the blade burst into light as it crossed what would have been the upward trajectory of the blade, then snuffed out again as it passed onward. I looked down on to the water and saw the shaft now in circular cross-section on the surface: a round patch of illuminated dust floating on the top, as though the whole pool were covered in a dusty skin, invisible except where, touched by the blade, it shone. …

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