Glass Curiosities: fulgurites & Diatoms

This was the time of night when things seemed unreal, when a thought that could be dismissed in daylight might take hold of the guts and not be uprooted until morning… He’d dreamed of lightning striking beaches and fusing sand grains into glass.

– from The Girl with Glass Feet

Much of the fun of researching a novel comes from the strange tangential discoveries that you make while doing so, the tidbits of knowledge your usual reading pattern would never lead you to.  While I was writing The Girl with Glass Feet I read all I could about glass.  Glass is, of course, always a product of transformation.  Glass blowers have been creating it from silica for centuries.  But as I read, I hoped to discover naturally occurring transformations that might help me visualise the one afflicting Ida in my story.  I am pleased to be able to inform you that our big, bad and beautiful world did not disappoint.  Glass is, after all, just a very dramatic example of a constant process.  Everything on Earth is continuously transforming, much as I have transformed from one thing to another during the writing of this sentence, and you have transformed into something infinitesimally different during the reading of it.  In the case of glass creation, however, such metamorphoses can take place at breathtaking speed.

We would have to put our lives in danger to witness the fastest and most powerful natural creation of glass.  Even if we survived the spectacle, our eyes would likely be too slow to watch the change taking place.  But let’s imagine that we are superhumanly tough and eagle-eyed and we are standing on a beach during a thunderstorm.  The sea is going wild, the sky is black with clouds, but it’s the beach we’re watching closely.  A lightning bolt blasts down from the clouds and smashes into the sand.  And in that microsecond the extreme heat fuses the fine rock grain into a forking glass fossil.  This is a fulgurite, a streak of glass forged in the shape of the lightning bolt that made it.  If we had lived a thousand years ago in Scandinavia one of us could have picked it up and hung it around our neck on a thread, in doing so guaranteeing the blessings of Thor.  Nowadays we could probably make a few coins from selling it in a fossil shop.

Apart from during the sentence at the head of this post, I couldn’t find room for a fulgurite in The Girl with Glass Feet. Still I imagine that the beaches of St Hauda’s Land are rich with them.  Perhaps there are even fulgurites there such as this one, the largest ever discovered, a glass tube penetrating seventeen feet into the earth.


There was no way at all to fit the following glassy curiosity into the novel.  All the same, I’ve got a soft spot for these microscopic beings.  They’re diatoms, miniscule organisms that live in the water.  The interesting thing about them is that they create a kind of shell for themselves, and the shell is made from glass.  It’s a very simple, capsule-like casing for a very simple life form, but as I understand it (and I’m in no way qualified to make the following statement) diatoms are the only beings on the planet who create such glass houses for themselves.  Back when I was writing the novel I managed to find a video of them in a library, which demonstrated the creation of the shell itself.  Sadly I no longer have it, but there are various films of diatoms online, all of which have presumably been shot through an incredibly powerful microscope.

Comments 2

  1. kathy wrote:

    Hi. I was entranced by your book. I was so taken with Midas’ father having a glass heart that it “haunted” me to some degree as I was reading. Your ideas, use of language, etc., etc. are stunning. Two of my favorite authors are Juno Diaz (The Brief and Wondrous Life…”)and Urrea (“The Hummingbird’s Daughter”). I am including them in my post because your writing has “filled” me as theirs does.

    I do have a question what life experiences led you to create these ideas and images?

    Thank you. Kathy

    Posted 02 Feb 2011 at 8:08 pm
  2. Monalisa Marques wrote:

    I’d like to see moth-winged cattle in my city. =]

    Posted 07 Feb 2011 at 2:06 am