Life After “Us”

Crazy people have been predicting the “End of the World” ever since they invented crazy people. This puts modern doom-and-gloomers at a disadvantage, because we’ve all “been there/done that” with apocalyptic predictions and because our culture is replete with notions of a kind of divine continuity. Our best measure of what the future will bring is the past, right? Past is prologue. What has come before presages what is to come. The sun rose yesterday, it will rise tomorrow. All’s right with the world.

And the most salient argument of all: The world never ended before, when all those crazy folks throughout history predicted it would. So what makes you think it will end now?

Add to that the natural human tendency to ridicule radical notions. They made crazy fun of the Wright brothers and their wacky “aeroplane” – until it flew. Galileo went to jail for discovering that the earth revolves around the sun. And gleaned from a conversation in 1995: “The Internet will change the world? Ptah! It’s just like TV only less interesting.”

So something as biblical and monumental as the “End of the World”, frankly, just seems impossible. It’s just too much. It’s overkill. It’s cliched.

And it is impossible, at least in the near term.

But cataclysmic change – hoo boy, THAT’s not impossible. We have had ice ages, and continental drift, huge asteroid impacts, and massive worldwide extinctions, all throughout history.

But our entire civilization – from Assyria 4000 B.C. to U.S.A Today – has existed, in geological terms, within the wink of an eye. A mere tick of the clock. None of that super-cataclysmic stuff has happened in the last 6,000 years. Why? Chance. Odds. Luck. (However, we can be fairly certain there’s a big old asteroid out there with our name on it – just a matter of time.)

No world cataclysm has ever happened to us, the collective “us” of the modern era, the “us” that believes we embody the whole of man’s existence and represent the apex of evolution. So we think it never will.

We are wrong.

And the irony of our wrongness is rich, because this time we are creating the cataclysm and setting it off in slow motion. This allows many to deny it is even happening, like that famous frog in the stew pot. But the facts are undeniable – we are bringing about a new age of mass extinction, all on our own, through habitat destruction, over-fishing, monocultures (i.e. lots of corn/beans/rice/wheat and cows/pigs/chickens growing, not much else), genetic manipulation, basic air and water pollution, and now climate change brought about – this is a fact now, not a theory – by human industrial activity over the last century. And it’s all either steadily ongoing or, in the case of climate change, rapidly intensifying.

I remember reading several articles on climate change in the late 1990s. These were not in obscure science journals but in magazines like the Atlantic Monthly. Already, climate scientists had working models of the kinds of changes that were coming about – general warming of air temperatures; shifted seasons (early Spring, late Winter); melting glaciers, ice caps and permafrost; more frequent and more intense weather activity; increased droughts and flooding events.

I also remember talking to my college-educated colleagues about it, as I was quite alarmed at the prospect. But by way of reply I got mostly confused looks, like I was one of those guys with the two-foot beards holding the sign saying “The End is Near”.

After a few more attempts to talk with “business” people on the subject, I finally realized “Global Warming” (now termed Global Climate Change since warming is not the only feature) had gone instantly into the “taboo” category of topics to discuss in the workplace. It was not long before the battle lines were drawn and concern for the climate was relegated to the “environmental” crowd. (You know, the extremist hippies.) Pundits like George Will fought fiercely against the notion, repeatedly subjecting it to ridicule by comparing it to the media’s “Global Cooling” story of the 1970s (FYI – Global Cooling was never a scientifically accepted theory, it was a media event only, set in motion by a single crackpot who had no institutional backing or peer-reviewed evidence to support his unscientific theory).

Conservatives lined up on the “skeptics” side of the argument, but they were the only ones on that side. The entire scientific community had meanwhile reached consensus – climate change is real, it’s happening now, and it’s being caused by human activity.

But that revelation changed nothing, except to act as an accelerator for the right wing’s hostility toward science. As you now know, in the intervening years conservatives have developed a full-blown “conspiracy theory” that posits the scientific community is “in the pocket” of “liberal activists” who want to “destroy the economy”. So they are “making up” their thousands of scientific measurements, experiments, data, and peer-reviewed studies – they are “undermining their very profession” by “cynically promoting a leftist agenda by skewing the research”. I know, that’s a lot of scare quotes, but they have to be there since these notions are so incredible, implausible, etc. – and yet these are in essence the beliefs of Ted Cruz, currently within striking distance of the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

So no, the world won’t end. But given our Congress and its head-in-the-sand attitude, not to mention all the growing economies who will want their own slice of the “technology/productivity pie” the West has enjoyed for 100 years, our civilization might very well end.

Civilizations come and go. Rome’s global empire lasted 1,500 years (counting Western and Eastern empires). Western Civilization, as we call it, has dominated the globe for only about 500 years, fueled by European colonialism and empire-building in the Renaissance and later eras. Rome was eventually brought down by its own internal chaos: in-fighting among its leaders and a pampered, clueless populace eventually led to a weakening of the borders of empire. Barbarians at the gate found a way in. Eventually the gates themselves were torn down.

But climate change is not at all political, except in that the fact of its existence is currently influenced – in America at least – by one’s political party affiliation (a condition that will change soon, but not soon enough). It’s also not part of some human narrative – climate change is not a “story” someone is telling about humanity, not one of many possible futures described by our competing religions or nativistic cosmogonies. No, it’s just science. It’s just happening because that’s what chemical reactions do – they just happen. The world will not end. The apocalypse will not happen. But the world’s habitable surface will change dramatically, affecting every living creature on it, in ways we can’t predict, ways we don’t yet understand.

The world will continue, but civilization will likely be rocked, and again the irony is thick. Because whoever is left will miss our fossil-fueled civilization once the flood waters pour into the coastal cities (where 90% of the people live today). But the world, whose progress is measured in epochs – not election cycles – will live on, and will not care that our new reality is harsh. Because nature favors no particular species. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Life will continue, probably it will flourish as human activity – which tends to crowd out nature – recedes. Humanity will continue also, in some fashion, just as it must have struggled and endured during the last major ice age some 10,000 years ago. Long before that last big freeze, humans had migrated across the land bridge that is now the Bering Strait and settled in northern North America. During the ice age, humans would have migrated south from northern locations (Mexico, say, on this side) and north from southern locations to escape the encroaching glaciers. This time, at some point in the next century, I suppose our descendants will migrate away from the coasts, toward more stable and temperate climates in the continental interiors of northern and southern latitudes. But of course it’s impossible to know if things will be any better there.

Our near future won’t be as simple – or as impossible – as the end of all things. Life will continue, and certainly the world will continue. But we – actually our grandchildren – will have to kiss the Escalade, DirectTV and those Friday afternoon McDoubles goodbye. It will indeed be a brave new world, and the people in it – those struggling to eke out an existence in a harsh and unpredictable climate marked by droughts, floods, and cataclysmic storms – I wonder what they’ll think of us. Will they marvel at the former “greatness” that humans were capable of? Will they strike out in their boats and visit the flooded coastal cities, telling their children that the skyscrapers poking through the waves once held thousands of busy people, that the submerged streets once hummed with thousands of automobiles? Will they share memories of polar bears and penguins, of snowball fights and sleigh rides and the beauty of a white Christmas?

Or will they have nothing but contempt for their greedy, short-sighted ancestors? If they instead curse our names for watching the world slowly transform into a wild new place when we knew we could stop it – can we blame them?

It’s 2010 – Now Shovel!

Another new year, fresh like a just-opened jar of peanut butter with that pristine swirl it feels so good to dig your knife into.

Oh I could talk about how this marks the first year out of the “0” years and what we might call them now that they’re gone – the “aughts,” or the “naughts”,  or the suckiest decade since the 1930s if we’re being honest.

Or I could, blogger-like, conjure up some best-of-the-decade lists, for movies or records or porn stars or something.

Or I could lament, in full middle-aged fashion, the sheer lack of originality and freshness in all things media-rich, the repetition of styles and endless remakes of vintage culture  – the sequels and prequels and boxed sets – a sure sign that the one so lamenting is himself not so fresh anymore. (“If you are tired of London you are tired of life.” )

Or I could remark, as a side note, on the failed Christmas underwear bomber. But perhaps what’s more interesting is that this attempted terror attack is, according to the media, merely a side note. This may be the year we warm up to terror as the English and the Israelis have – relegating it to the ordinary risks of life, as it should be, rather than the sole focus of the government’s efforts (hello – jobs?). Me – I’m much more convinced I will die not in a conflagration of Islamist vengeance but at the hands of a sober, inexperienced and wholly disinterested teenage driver staring at a cell phone.

Mark those words – I’ve seen it in a vision.

Instead, though, I’ll just talk about the weather. Because it’s the most remarkable thing about this year so far. At least around here.

It began in mid-December. We were all feeling fine about the news from the meteorologists that it would be a mild winter. But before winter had a chance to get here and be mild, we had about 11 inches of snow dumped on us.

Mild snow, I guess. And mild zero-degree temperatures. And mild fatal car wrecks.

Then, a couple of weeks later on Christmas eve, an old-fashioned, Laura Ingalls Wilder type blizzard rolled in. Whiteout conditions, and another twelve inches of snow. We had to eat the horses.

OK, we didn’t eat the horses. I wanted to, but there was plenty of peanut butter.

Nobody moved – Christmas was effectively cancelled (a small bright spot) – the city froze solid for a few days while everyone either looked out the window and marveled or – we the unlucky ones – were marveled at as we lifted endless shovels full, tried to find a place to put the four-foot snow drifts that had collected in the driveway. Turned our faces from the biting crystals as we blew them aside and the North wind blew them back at us.

As the gutters filled with pounds and pounds of ice, a solid wall of it gushing a freeze-frame cascade of watery stalactites.

I had to buy a roof rake and actually shovel the snow off the roof. It’s just not natural.

But hey, we’re plains folk. We’re hardy, or so I’m told. So we got the job done, got the walks shoveled and the roofs raked, and the cars unstuck and the snow blower gassed up again.

Because here it is next week, and the forecast is for snow, snow, and snow.

Here on the plains.

Storm Center

Today is my birthday, and here I notice that I’ve kept this log for about a year. My first items–from the mental backlog–sprang forth last spring, and here we are again, enjoying spring on the plains. Another year older, but not much smarter. The Iconoclastic Dog is a year older too, yet she remains the same, eschewing labels. Give me green grass and a hint of rabbit ‘neath the firs, and I’m happy, she avers.

And, as always, I agree. Say what you want about her, she is not one to over-analyze. And while I may not be able to emulate such a philosophy, I do admire it.

It was a wet May. Out here the weather patterns tend to set themselves for a while, offering calm or violence as is the gods’ wont, then abruptly shift to something new. To a Midwesterner, it’s a kind of weather roulette. Folks in San Diego wouldn’t understand, but we enjoy the challenge.

So May offered weekend storm after storm, followed by strangely calm work weeks (feeding rumors that the weather pattern is somehow tied to the Dow Jones). One Saturday was particularly spectacular, offering up 18 twisters in a single night for Nebraska, flash floods in Iowa, and massive storms in Kansas, Oklahoma  and elsewhere. The little town of Hallam, in south-central Nebraska, was destroyed. Less than 10 percent of the buildings were left standing, and the entire town has been condemned, its homes unlivable. People joke about it, but this was actually one of those Level 4 storms that had folks spotting cattle flying through the air. Not funny when you’re the cow, or the owner of the cow.

Dozens of the town’s residents broke into the bank and huddled in a vault as the tornado swallowed up their homes. They say the sound is almost unbearable, and this one took a slow saunter through town, finishing the place off with a businesslike thoroughness. The brick bank building, like most others, actually collapsed. But the people, who are at least as important as currency but not always so well-housed, were safe in the vault. One woman died in her home, struck by debris before she could reach her basement stairway, but that was the total mortality. Mostly these people lost their past and present, and the future doesn’t look so bright either. But they live.

Our experience in the city has been less dramatic, but we’ve had our share of excitement. On the Saturday following the destruction the storms were back, and this time they hit the city pretty hard. We were having a dinner party and at times had to shout over the thunder. Our guests exhibited that nervousness we sometimes feel when experiencing a cataclysm away from our familiar homes. It was a celebration of electricity and raw power, without regard for the plans of the men and women. The point was not lost on us.

We cling deftly but precariously to the exposed surface of this world, which at any time might be swept clean of us or our neighbors by indifferent nature. Yet we cling, and we hope that today’s storm will pass us by, and we try not to think of what realms it will cleanse instead.

We live in the sometimes violent plains, but no one is safe from the storms, which take so many awesome and terrible forms these days. And there is no preparing now, no safe haven really, if there ever was, from what may come. All we can do is keep our grip, and remind each other of how wonderful, how beautiful it all has been. And will be.

Stern Nature

I’ve let half of July expire. Well, good riddance.

The real storm came amidst the storm inside me. Holiday weekend, the fifth of July, we raced home from Niobrara after only about 24 hours in that lovely country. We had been visiting the family homestead, perched atop a promontory above the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. It was a peaceful visit. About three and a half hours driving home (love that Lewis and Clarke rest stop near Sioux City), then quick get ready to join more friends and family at one of our signature Italian steakhouses.

It was not an unpleasant evening. But somehow my insides were rebelling from all the activity, the stress and strain of fast travel and holiday fun mingled with workplace chaos. I had been feeling sick, for weeks, from some unknown cause, and I was tired of it. My sister was among our party, visiting from Atlanta with her husband, and her presence also puts me on edge these days.

After the restaurant we gathered at our home for some congenial conversation, but my stomach and head would have none of it. It’s really too bad, to have a holiday weekend–and the first time off from the job in months–spoiled by a queasiness and uneasiness that won’t dissipate.

About midnight I drove a friend visiting from California back to his hotel downtown. It was just another calm, humid summer evening on the Plains. But on my way back the wind came up. That’s not so strange, but then I noticed the small trees blowing across the streets and the traffic lights swinging to horizontal. Lightning, torrential rain followed.

I made it home, and the button on my garage remote told me the power was out. I parked and ran up to the front door. My wife was relieved to see me. Then I looked out the back window to see the reason the power was out–our mature Bartlett Pear had been split by lightning, and half of its venerable body lay across the power lines. The main line carrying power had snapped. All was darkness and fury.

We were without power only for a couple of days. We kept staring out the window at our yard, now exposed to the neighborhood. My wife’s brother brought over the chain saw and we proceeded to autopsy our fallen friend. Half of him still stands, but not for long. This winter, when he’s bare of leaves, we’ll take the rest of him down.

We kept coming up with “bright sides” during this time. “Well, at least we won’t have to pay to have the whole tree taken down,” or “Well, at least it didn’t fall on the house.”

I still felt sick, now sick at heart. It was like the death of a family member. We mourned that tree.

We’ve planted others; in fact a small young pear tree stands beside the dead trunk, waiting to grow into the new sunlight exposed by its absence. We planted it knowing the old one would not last forever. It had been struck before, probably by the early snowstorm of 1997, and was ailing already.

I’m feeling better now. Let re-growth begin.

Interlude with Clouds

Out here on the Plains the big blue sky can take on the air of a deity. Lately the cloud god has been angry betimes. Last night we walked again on the wet streets after a brief rain. It was one of those when it might be raining in the front yard but sunny in the back. The sun threw a stark bright line dividing a wet tree into shadow and unreal, oversaturated color, the clouds bunched and rolled and came and went. We spent a lot of time looking up, until the dog pulled toward a jaded lawn rabbit.

Today the god’s black face rolled in just after lunch, killed the shadows, and rained big drops on us for a little while. E-mails flew back and forth to assure that loved ones were aware of the tornado warnings. As is the habit of the office worker, a number of us obeyed the irresistible urge to step out on the patio and watch the heavens roil. Then, just as quickly, the darkness was gone, and the big blue bowl of cotton balls returned, and the sunlight glistened on the long wet grass.

Our god is a schizophrenic god.

The Plainsman with a bent for the written word will often take up his pen and try to decipher the sky in descriptive phrases. We get such a variety up there that we don’t get below.

Walking in the urban landscape sparks its own interest, providing  an ever-changing perspective on a three-dimensional, accidental design. You feel yourself walking through it, as through a canyon or a forest.

But out here the art is on canvas, bowed but still flat to the earth-bound eye, a wash of blue or gray or white either brilliant light or dull shadow, or both at once. The dimensions are shaped by the clouds, if there are any. They might tower up a thousand feet like great mounds of soft serve ice cream, or streak across the sky flat and high like a staccato of white charcoal on steel gray, or mar an otherwise clean slate with mere smudges of a darker gray. They might wander lonely or in little bunches seemingly just out of arm’s reach, buzzing the city like fluffy barnstormers. Or they might form a huge herd, shoulder to shoulder, stampeding across the sky toward the horizon and some new grazing ground, brawny, edged with black and blown on strong high winds.

Such does Nature muse on these lonely Plains.