The great nature writer Henry Beston spoke of elemental things, of wind, fire, water, earth. He did so longingly and in the utopian tradition of nature writing, as one who, having chosen a simpler life in nature, sought greater contact with the elements.
Lately, I have been thinking of elemental things too, but with a decidedly dystopian, not utopian, slant. Summer marks the coming of fire season in the American West and hurricane season on the Atlantic Coast where I live. Over the last few years we have seen our share of flooded streets and subway steps turned waterfalls, as well as millions of western acres set aflame, mountain homes providing the kindling. In both cases the word “Rebuild!” is trumpeted and there is talk of resilience and hope. This is the meaning they find in disaster, but some of us hear a different message.
Perhaps it may be time to come to grips with what I’ll call our elemental, or primal, future. When I was growing up in the 1960s the future was clear, staring up from the pages of our textbooks: flying cars and phones where we saw each other’s faces. It was a Jetsons future, a clean, antiseptic, sleek future. No trees or bugs mucked up this vision, let alone flooding cities or whole states on fire. Everyone, for one thing, had electricity.
A different future is here. The world is warming. The waters are rising. The storms are worsening. The fields are withering. These are not political statements, though typing them even I, living in these strange times, can’t help but feel they are. But no, they aren’t. Climate and weather have no interest in rhetoric, and are in no way influenced by it. These are simply the facts. Elemental facts. And they remain facts no matter what your political affiliation.
Anyone who has lived through weeks without power in the wake of hurricanes knows about elemental facts, as does anyone who has seen the black charred husk that once was their home on a Colorado hillside. The question is: what do we do in the wake of these disasters? What is the lesson, if there is one? We hear that we should re-build, get stronger, have hope, be patriotic. That is one take. And sure, we will rebuild after the fires, after the floods, since we are, after all, human, stubbornly resilient, and that is what we do. But maybe we can possibly re-think along with our re-building. This re-thinking must start with an acceptance of what we can’t control. That we accept accident and nature’s randomness as a part of our lives. This does not mean that we have to be passive, that we should all become Zen monks and put away our tools and plans. It means introducing humility into our grand visions.
Let me get specific. I was in rural bar in Utah this summer, and a young fracker, a real gung-ho boomer, was going on about what a great thing it was to fracture the earth in search of fuels, and how many jobs it was bringing to the town we were in (no matter that he was from another state), and how anyone who didn’t agree with him didn’t live in “the real world.” He scoffed at the notion that the chemicals used to flush the petroleum, or the petroleum itself, might contaminate the water table. His argument was simple and to him foolproof: the water and the petroleum were both underground, sure, but they were on entirely different levels below the earth, not even close to each other.
Later, in the same bar, I talked to a geologist. He was there to inspect the fracking sites and his take was decidedly less upbeat.
“I won’t even get into any of the back-and-forth arguments,” he said. “But the next time you talk to your young friend just ask him one question: What if there’s an earthquake?”
And there it is. Elemental things. Nature. Accident. The real real world: the world of fire and water, shaking earth and wild wind, beyond the control of homo sapiens.
I do not believe that I could ever convince that young man, high on testosterone and oil money, that we should approach the world with some humility, with an awareness that accidents are a part of how the world works. Perhaps it would be easier today, with his booming city turning to bust. But shouldn’t those leading our country, and making decisions that turn out to affect our climate and weather (ah ha, maybe rhetoric can affect climate), have a slightly more sophisticated philosophy than that of an amped-up twenty-something fracker?
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t give human beings much of a chance of re-thinking in any large way. But these are not normal circumstances, or normal times. In fact the world seems to be insisting that we alter our view of it.
It may seem Pollyanna-ish to some to believe that hurricanes or fires or droughts can really change our thinking. But the fact is that there are plenty of historical precedents of elemental things coming to the table and reminding everyone, politicians included, just which world is the real one. To take just one concrete example, consider the year 1886. A brutal blizzard-filled winter almost wiped out the cattle industry in the American West, followed by three years of drought so severe that even congressmen in Washington took notice. This led to the Desert Land Act and Timber Culture Act, and set off a basic rethinking of the way we were using and settling land in the West. So it can happen: natural disaster can directly lead to changed laws.
This is my hope in the wake of the current drought, of the floods and fires: that the world will force us to see what we are doing to it. That perhaps, at last, we will acknowledge the primal future that we have found ourselves in, a future where we can only control so much. And finally I hope for this: that when we mention “the real world” we know of which world we speak.
Though it is a personal, not political, point, I have found that spending time in the places where these disasters have struck is another way to understand their primal realities, in a way you can’t from reading an editorial. Whenever I visit, I try to get out on the land, to explore the places, to compare them with other places I have been, to feel them not think them. And when I do I remember the lines of Henry Beston’s The Outermost House:
The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.
Some might argue that the world today is sick from elemental things. But at the risk of seeming insensitive to the victims of disasters, I will stick with Beston’s assertion. At times it may seem that the elements are conspiring against us, and there is nothing good about lives lost and homes destroyed. But they do make us face facts. We need to acknowledge the elemental nature of the earth we live on. Either that, or not be too surprised when our illusionary and virtual worlds are torn apart.
David Gessner is the author of 9 books, including the newly-released All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West. He is also the founder of the literary magazine, Ecotone.