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In Which I Meet My Match

31/12/2011

Pay close attention, get as near as you dare, use a magnifying glass if you can and watch the usual become fascinating.

I just blew out a match, one of the long cook’s matches. They give a really firm satisfying strike, always seem to work first time and have enough phosphorus to really flare up and sustain a flame.  The trouble is if you use one to light a single candle you have an awful lot of unburnt wood to play around with.  So I played. I paid close attention.  I knew I was looking at chemistry, a reaction of substances after applying heat is really all the striking of a match is, but up close it is magic.  The examination began after the candle lighting.  I had a tea light in a glass, the flame waving and dancing in the micro-climate of turbulence the flame was creating, the tiny imperfections on the glass punctuating the reflection of the flame within it, the fingerprinted smears on the outside of the glass blurring the dance, the smudge of soot near the rim irritating my sense of wonder because the scene would otherwise be light and sparkle. An artist might argue for the smudge as a counterpoint to light and sparkle. All I knew was that my eye was always drawn to it.  I still held the match and examined that instead.  It was 3” long, half burnt, the dome of burnt phosphorus gone somewhere on the kitchen lino floor as I blew the match out. What remained was a story of the reaction.  I could read it from left to right as my eye followed from the jagged point of charcoal where the phosphorus flame had been the source of intense heat.  The jags in the structure of the charcoal were regular, as if someone had taken the carbon molecules away brick by brick. It was also slightly twisted, like perhaps the tree that it had come from originally, only this twisting was caused by the violent evaporation of the moisture in the wood fibres rather than the sculpting of wind and rain on a canopy of leaves and branches.  Evidence of the oily moisture was still evident as my eye moved along from the graduated blackness to wooden-ness. Another smudge.  It was as distracting as the soot on the glass.  Instead of seeing the smooth transitional change of colour, black through dark brown to light scorched brown to creamy wood, there was this tiny oily smear. Wood molecules heated to breaking point, pyrolized to moisture and unburnt.  A tiny vignette of story in the larger tale. 

It was time to move the story on again.  I moved the match to the glass where the tea light was gyrating. Carefully, without putting it in the flame, I dipped the unburnt end of the match in the molten wax. I held it close to my eye and watched the wax both absorb into the wood fibres and then coalesce to a white sheen on the wood’s surface.  As soon as I brought it to the flame it bubble for the briefest of moments and then flared into a flame that engulfed almost half of the match. I had to move my thumb away for fear of getting singed.  The flame had the lovely blues and purples near the fuel, and the large bright orange, almost yellow aura. Right at the edges the faintest hint of a black outline faded in and out as the combustion fluctuated.  I stared at it a moment longer and blew.  The match had barely disintegrated.  It was glowing a coal-like red deep within its structure. The glow was diminishing as I watched; more structure appeared as the glowing dimmed till it looked like the view through a powerful telescope at a miniature stellar nursery that was obscured gradually by a cloudy night sky. The moment the last pinprick of red disappeared, smoke bloomed into air, twisting like a dervish and evaporating like mist in the sunshine.

I don’t normally spend a moments thought on this sort of thing. However I was minded today of a story I heard about an Amazon tribe that after talking to explorers gathered at the river’s edge to watch their boat plane land to collect the visitors.  They did not seem overly impressed as the noisy machine cut its engine and drifted on its own momentum to the bank.  The explorers asked the tribesman what they thought of the mechanical bird. They replied,”Well of course you can fly, you have fire in your pocket.”

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