When I was a child we went on a family holiday to a famous volcanic lake. I recall spending all afternoon walking round it, frustratingly slowly as my younger sister always complained of being tired, but as soon as we turned for home, she was suddenly full of energy. when I visited it as an adult I was amazed at how small the place was – I think it took less than an hour for a casual stroll round it. W H Hudson comments on how size is relative to us, a notion that should be obvious, and yet is not. He met an American doing a high speed trip round the West of England, and tells him not to bother with Stonehenge as it is just ‘a few old stones.’
“Stonehenge looked small – pitiably small! For it is a fact that mere size is very much to us, inspite of all the teachings of science. We have heard of Stonehenge in our childhood.. that great building of unknown origin and antiquity, its circle of stones, some still standing, others lying prostrate, like the stupendous half-shattered skeleton of a giant or monster whose statue reached to the clouds. It stands, we read or were told, on Salisbury Plain. to my uninformed childish mind a plain anywhere was like the plain on which I was born [ie Argentina] – an absolutely level area stretching away on all sides into infinitude; and, although the effect is of a great extent of earth, we know that we actually see very little of it, that standing on a level plain we have a very near horizon. On this account any large object appearing on it such as a house or tree or big animal, looks very much bigger than it would on land with a broken surface.
Oddly enough, my impossible Stonehenge was derived from a sober description and an accompanying plate in a sober work – a gigantic folio in 2 volumes entitled A New System of Geography, dated some time in the 18th century. How this ponderous work ever came to be out on the pampas, over 6,000 miles from the land of its origin, is a thing to wonder at. I remember that the Stonehenge plate greatly impressed me and that I sacriligiously cut it out of the book so as to have it!
Now, we know, our reason tells us continually, that the mental pictures formed i childhood are false because the child and man have different standards, and furthermore the child mind exaggerates everything; nevertheless, such pictures persist until the scene or object so visualised is actually looked upon and the old image shattered. This refers to scenes visualised with the inner eye, but the disillusion is almost as great when we return to a home left in childhood and look on it once more with the man’s eyes. How small it is! How diminished the hills, and the trees that grew to such a vast height, whose tops once seemed ‘so close against the sky’ – what poor little trees they now are! And the house itself, how low it is! and the rooms that seemed so wide and lofty, where our footfalls and childish voices sounded as in some vast hall, how little and how mean they look!… it seems odd that unless we grow up amid the scenes where our fist impressions were received they should remain unaltered in the adult mind. the most amusing instance of a false picture of something seen in childhood and continuing through life I had met was that of an Italian peasant I knew in South America. He liked to talk to me about the cranes, those great and wonderful birds he had become acquainted with in childhood in his home on the plains of Lombardy. The birds, of course, only appeared in autumn and spring when migrating, and passed over at a vast height above the earth. These birds, he said, were so big and had such great wings that if they came down on the flat earth they would be incapable of rising, hence they only alighted on the tops of high mountains, and as there was nothing for them to eat in such places, it being naked rock and ice, they were compelled to subsist on each others droppings. Now it came to pass that one year during his childhood a crane, owing to some accident, came down to the ground near his home. the whole population of the village turned out to see so wonderful a bird, and were amazed at is size; it was, he said, the strangest sight he had ever looked on. How big was it? I asked him; was it as big as an ostrich? An ostrich, he said, is nothing to it; I might as well ask him how it compared with a lapwing. He could give me no measurements: it happened when he was a child; he had forgotten the exact size, but he had seen it with his own eyes and he could see it now in his mind – the biggest bird in the world. Very well, I said, if he could see it plainly in his mind he could give some rough idea of the wingspan – how much would it measure from tip to tip? He said it was perhaps 50 yards – perhaps a good deal more!”