Swirling Sahara and an Apricot Whoosh

Diane Ackerman describes our senses, vividly, with humour and humility. Studying her writing for clues what makes her prose sing.

Quote: White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to the radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink.

This is Diane Ackerman describing a night launch of the space shuttle in her wonderful non-fiction book A Natural History of The Senses

Photo by Sugar Bee, sourced from Unsplash.

It has become trite to label a book wonderful, as if the word has been bleached of meaning, and left only with a wash of lukewarm approval. A shame. I rather prefer and, in this case, mean:  full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous. Truly.

Let me dole out a bit more of her prose, as precious proof, how non-fiction can stir an image as much as fiction can. The Quote above continues as follows.

The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now the 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don’t expect to see thunderheads.

Photo by Garrett Carroll, sourced from Unsplash

Published in the 1990s, the book continues to instill a kind of bemused admiration towards our senses. Our, human, mammalian, animal, living senses. That we have them, that we can use them, and that we can use words to swap stories about them, is miraculous. Ackerman threads experiences with factual explanations, and follows linguistic and historical traces to explain how our sensibilities have developed from our primary senses. Perhaps science has outrun some of her statements, perhaps showed them to be slightly less true, but that is hardly noticeable to the general reader.

The Quote is from the Part on Vision, but before that we had Smell, Touch, Taste, and Hearing, and after that there’s still Synaesthesia.  Synaesthesia, from the Greek to feel or perceive together, means a sensation of one kind brought about by a stimulus of another kind, like tasting colour, or seeing music. Some people are gifted (or cursed?) with such cross-feeling; but aren’t we all a product of synaesthesia, if not in jargon, then in spirit?

We already synthesise (from Greek to place together) our senses into a complex understanding of I. We may not taste colour, but if I say the walls are of sour green, your lips might just about pucker as if experiencing a sour apple. The walls are of an almost fluorescent green does not have the same effect.

(Have you ever wondered why something can look bright and sound bright, but not taste or smell or even feel bright? Something can feel warm, look warm, as in be a warm colour, and have a warm sound. So touch lends adjectives to sight and sound, sight and sound lend to each other, but not back to touch or to the other senses. This is called adjectival transfer, and is a curious topic in itself. Linguistic synesthesia, like the sour green above, stands out because it breaks the natural flow of adjectival transfer.)

Photo by NASA, sourced from Unsplash

Back to the launch.

Seconds into the launch, an apricot whoosh pours out in spasms, like the rippling quarters of a palomino, and now out bleaches the sun, as clouds rise and pile like a Creation scene. Birds leap into the air along with moths and dragonflies and gnats and other winged creatures, all driven to panic by the clamor: booming, crackling, howling downwind. What is flight, that it can take place in the fragile wings of a moth, whose power station is a heart small as a computer chip? What is flight, that it can groan upward through 4.5 million pounds of dead wight on a colossal gantry? Close your eyes, and you hear the deafening rat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers, feel them acting against your chest. Open your eyes and you see a huge steel muscled dripping fire, as seven million pounds of thrust pauses a moment on a silver hunch, and then the bedlam clouds let rip. Iron struts blow over the launch pad like newspapers, and shock waves roll out, pounding their giant fists, pounding the marshes where birds shriek and fly, pounding against your chest, where a heart already rapid begins running clean away from you. The air feels tight as a drum, the molecules bouncing. Suddenly the space shuttle leaps high over the marshlands, away from the now frantic laughter of the loons, away from the reedy delirium of the insects and the open-mouthed awe for the spectators, many of whom are crying, as it rises on a waterfall of flame 700 feet long, shooting colossal sparks as it climbs in a golden halo that burns deep into memory.

Notice that Ackerman peppers the piece with facts & figures. They are an integral part of her writing: they form the backbone of her piece: they are what distinguishes non-fiction from (most) fiction.

What about figures of speech? Other than a liberal sprinkling of metaphors and similes, there’s the onomatopoeia of whoosh and rat-a-tat-tat, and that in booming, crackling, howling. There’s the grandness of the polysyndeton in moths and dragonflies and gnats and other winged creatures, that would not have been achieved with commas instead of conjunctions. There are the two rhetorical questions, posed in parallel form (isocolon, anaphora); there are the two parallel sentences juxtaposed by their openings of close your eyes and open your eyes. 

Apricot whoosh is synaesthesia.

A word which didn’t have to be there, but is: reedy. Saying the delirium of the insects would have been sufficient, but reedy delirium adds that tiny bit more to the description.

Of all those, my favourite is the simile iron struts blow over the launch pad like newspapersnot because it’s a particularly apt visual comparison, but because it gives me a sense of scale: how big must the space shuttle gantry be, how powerful the chemical reaction firing this flight, if solid iron struts blow about like newspapers?

Over to you now: what was your favourite part of the Quote?

Reading recommendations

  1.  A Natural History of The SensesDiane Ackerman. You’ve had a sampler.
  2. Jacobson’s Organ, Lyall Watson. There might be more to your nose than your nose. 
  3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser. If you wanted to write like Diane Ackerman, or better


Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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