Fire, flood, and the black sun: August 2017

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Last week I was lucky enough to witness the total solar eclipse, at a site near Sisters, Oregon. The sky was clear that morning, and the eerie slow darkening owed nothing to clouds or drifting smoke from the nearby forest fire. We were close enough to the blaze to be advised that we might have to evacuate, so I learned a lot about fires that week, and how much harder it seems to fight a blaze a few miles away than to eclipse a vast fireball millions of miles away in space. Some very brave and competent people are still fighting that fire as I write this, along with many other conflagrations in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and around the world. Forest fires have been with us since before we were us, since forests existed, but there’s no doubt that human actions have increased the potential for burning (this particular fire was started by lightning, but campfires and deliberate arson are among other causes), made it more difficult to deal with fires through our desire to build homes in nice places and do aesthetically pleasing things to forest areas, and made the planet hotter and drier, so trees are more likely to catch and the fire season lasts longer and is more dangerous.

Where there’s fire, there is also water, and before we flew home we’d seen Hurricane Harvey crash ashore in Texas. The destruction and loss is unbelievable, and yet it’s important that we do believe it. Around the time of the eclipse I saw multiple memes on my liberal-oriented Facebook feed asking why no one was doubting the science predicting the eclipse if they were disinclined to trust the 97% of climate scientists who are certain that global warming/climate change is happening and caused by human activity. I guess we could add hurricane forecasts to that as well, and I’m all for making the comparison, but there’s a difference between the simple physics that predicts the movements of celestial bodies, and the more complicated science that tells us our climate is irreparably disturbed. The latter is still accurate; it just has way more data points and is less absolutely precise. More relevantly from psychological and socioeconomic perspectives, eclipses have no negative effects (unless you’re responsible for cleaning up all the trash generated in the most popular viewing sites), are over quickly (and once seen pretty obviously real), and while predictable millennia in advance are of concern to the average person for only as long as it takes to make travel plans and buy those glasses, or can be ignored completely. Climate change has no real upside, is affecting us all whether we care about it or not, and is on a long trajectory with potentially devastating effects. It’s not a one-time event that we can put on the calendar. Nor is it just (just) fifty inches of rain in one urban area, and the long recovery afterwards. It’s a Houston every year—or not for another five years but then in five places one year—or crop failures and urban heat waves and massive snowstorms and flash floods and industrial chemical releases and forest fires, all the events we’ve always had but more severe and more frequent and less predictable. But still, if you’re determined to keep the blinders on, easy to dismiss: business as usual, just the way things go, merely a chance to show how brave and competent and helpful we are, rescuing our neighbors in boats, clearing the firebreak, opening the shelters. Many if not most of us are really good at dealing with crises if we can call them acts of God; not so good when they are acts of us. “We are Houston” means “golly, if I had a boat I’d be out there in the streets”; it doesn’t mean “really I should not be running the air conditioner on high all day and driving so much and flying to see an eclipse.”

If the sun had gone out and stayed out, last week, we’d have banded together in those new towns we created by traveling to the zone of totality, shared our food and water, cuddled the children, found shelter, kept ourselves warm by campfires and stopped the sparks from catching the forest. Well, some of us would have, at least. But we knew the sun would come back. Because science, as they say in the memes.

I have also, during this startling period of time, been reading (not finished yet) Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, in which he not only sets forth the consequences of climate change (particularly in Asia, which I appreciate reading about in a North American culture focused on itself), but wonders why this current reality is not being dealt with in works of literary fiction, being instead relegated to the genre of science fiction, “as though,” he says, “in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.” He talks about the obsession of novelists with the individual rather than the collective, and with unsubstantiated notions of realism and improbability, and with a focus on moments rather than broad sweeps of history.

It’s a fascinating book, I’m really enjoying it, and it’s pointing out one reason I sometimes shy away from reading literary fiction and always shy away from writing it (though I have my arguments with genre assignments too). Not that I want to write Serious Issue-Driven Works of Importance either; that’s just like thinking about how to deal with climate change—too depressing, too overwhelming. And—this is where that relegation to science fiction comes in—too much about the future, even if the effects are undoubtedly being felt right now. Time isn’t something we deal with well in our culture: we have a hard time learning from history and are equally bad at thinking far ahead. Because we can’t hold that depth and spread of time in our heads, because we’re all about immediate effects, we focus on reaction rather than prevention in fields as diverse as medicine and international relations; we talk about adapting to climate change rather than doing anything to stop it; we want to make some money now instead of being frugal for the benefit of our grandchildren. We write literature in the present tense, literally or in effect; we talk about living in the moment as if it’s the only way to achieve enlightenment or peace.

Although of course it is. You can’t appreciate the natural world without being in it, concentrating on one tiny wasp or wriggling caterpillar or watching the leaves flutter in the breeze, and if you haven’t found your place in nature you’re unlikely to advocate for its preservation. You can’t write a good novel without living in the minds and bodies of your characters inside the time they experience; the ideas you discourse on may be profound, but the presentation will be dull. The magic trick is managing the wide and the narrow simultaneously, and really we’re going to drop the hat and let the dove fly away nearly always. Maybe that’s why I started writing about time travel, to remind myself to try to keep the one inside the other.

Giving ourselves to the moment can also teach empathy. How many of us, in the last week, have imagined what it would be like to stand on a roof waiting for rescue, clutching a bag of pure necessities, our precious possessions drowning in the floodwaters below? It’s good to feel for the plight of others, though I’m not sure the effect is greater than “I should write a check to help them and maybe get the filing organized just in case I’m next” and clearly all those photos of people of different races carrying each other does nothing sympathy-wise toward the next shooting of an unarmed black man or the next toppling of a Confederate statue, or else we’d have been living in a paradise of racial harmony long since. And it’s good to recognize that the doctrine of American individualism is fatally flawed—hey, sometimes we need to rely on others, including but not exclusive to our much-maligned government—but turning that around is part of the equation. If we want a world with fewer Harveys we can’t get it just by standing on the roof waiting for scientists, engineers, and the government to rescue us; on the other hand, once they’re pointed in the right direction (and let’s hope our government will be, one day), then get the heck out of their way, or hand them a wrench. Pay attention to the weather forecast, even if there’s a ten percent chance the hurricane might swerve and not hit you; pay attention when you see the fire evacuation notice; don’t look directly at the sun.

The sun’s awfully bright even when ninety-nine percent of it is obscured; you still can’t look at it. I went to a lecture by an astronomer the night before the eclipse; he told us exactly what to expect, what to look for, and then told us not to worry if we missed all of those details: the experience is what counts, being there in the moment. When the moment was over, I got a chance to think about what it must have been like for people who didn’t know in advance what was happening, who didn’t go to lectures, read articles, plan travel years in advance or get persuaded by their friends at the last minute, buy the glasses on the internet for a whopping sum or in the bins at Fred Meyer for $2 the day before. For people it just happened to, in a world long ago (or some places in the world today).

You’d be out in the fields tending your sheep (if I’m going to be biblical on purpose), on a beautiful summer day, not a cloud in the sky. At first, you’d notice nothing. (We knew to put the glasses on and look up at the sun at 9:04 precisely, to see that first tiny bite taken out.) Then, almost imperceptibly, the world would darken. You’d glance up, expecting clouds: maybe rain soon. No clouds, no smoke: the sun still too bright to look at directly. Maybe, if you passed under a tree branch and the ground below was smooth enough, you’d see that the bright spots between the leaf shadows had changed in shape. (Many in the crowds set up pinhole cameras, got out colanders, took photos of the sidewalk under the trees.) But probably you’d notice nothing but the inexplicable growing shadow over the earth and the chill in the air. You’d know something was wrong; you’d be scared, but you wouldn’t know why. The threat would be baffling, vague, literally obscure. Not a fire, not a storm; everyone knows to run from those, get the sheep to shelter. This would be different. The sheep, around this time, might begin to wonder why night had come before their stomachs were full; they might express dismay, or simply go to sleep. But you, with your sense of time, pattern, right and wrong: your heart would be beating harder, your palms sweating.

And then, suddenly, the brightness above would vanish like a lamp blown out; you might sense a shadow sweeping over the land (I knew it was coming; I forgot to look), and the fields would go dark, and you’d look up and see the sun as a black hole in the sky with a glowing halo around it, and probably you’d fall down and pray to whatever gods you worshipped, or maybe you’d just gaze up in wonder not caring whether this was the end of the world. In a few minutes, your eyes would be stung by the reemergence of brightness at the edge; you’d look away; the birds would start to sing again, the sheep would start eating breakfast. It would still be pretty dark, but you’d feel that all the light in the world had returned with that sense of reprieve. (Most of us got our belongings together and started walking away. It’s not so interesting to watch the sun come back as it is to watch it disappear. Something about the appeal of tragedy.)

Maybe a few minutes or an hour later, your mind’s eye still blistered by that black sun, you’d remember some old tale about a dragon or a fish or a tiger, or some wise speculation from a long-dead elder about how the moon moves through the sky. Maybe you’d be lucky, and in not too many years the same thing would happen once more, and this time you’d anticipate, run home shouting about the world darkening and the sun vanishing, and become a prophet. Or maybe you’d never see it again. But you’d tell your children, and they would tell theirs. And we’d remember.

Perhaps there’s some hope, if we use our imaginations the right way, to be both the shepherd and the lecture-goer, to experience both fear and knowledge, surprise and anticipation. We were pretty much together in the moment, I think: prayer and wonder and the shock of the unique. Science isn’t separate from amazement, it turns out. It’s not separate from empathy or self-interest or hard work or sacrifice, either. This is where we are today: the hurricane’s coming and there are too many of us to evacuate, but we don’t have to climb on the roofs and hope a boat will come; we don’t have to adapt to the flood or consider it too improbable to exist or argue about whose fault it is. We’ve been doing this stuff a long time. We’re smart; we’re fast; we get the sheep to shelter and cuddle the children and remember the tales. We know what water seeks and always has, past and present and future, and we can build on the higher ground.

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2 thoughts on “Fire, flood, and the black sun: August 2017

  1. Philomytha says:

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the Ghosh, I thought it would be up your street. I was also struck by that line about climate change being like extraterrestrials, in the literary world, because yes, and no, and how else do you write about the future that’s unknown and largely unknowable but definitely full of floods and hurricanes?

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