As many of you know, I am an avowed non-follower of the news, but the size of Hurricane Sandy might be measured by even my inability to avoid any sign of her coming. She kept popping up on Facebook, and then on The Weather Channel app on my phone. And so for better or worse on Monday, I found myself actually looking at The New York Times page for what was probably the first time in six months. And then, as if my years of being on the newsless wagon could be erased in just one simple breeze from an impending storm, I found myself resisting the urge to turn on The Weather Channel, or CNN, or something that would give me frantic, panicked, up-to-minute news from people standing in the middle of the storm, risking their lives and limb for…something. Perhaps to drive up my own panic until I would willingly admit that I cannot survive without people who are paid to whip me into a constant state of panic.
On The New York Times webpage, things looked bad even on Monday. By Wednesday morning, things looked big Hollywood, blockbuster apocalypse movie bad. So bad that a whole internet industry sprang up in sorting through which photos were real and which were in fact, stills from big Hollywood, blockbuster apocalypse movies. And I’m certain that everyone else out there who lived through a storm that was more than some swirling leaves and strong winds knows how bad the storm was in ways I cannot even begin to imagine. Just reading the accounts of people who died in New York was enough to break your heart: two friends crushed under a tree while out for a walk; a woman electrocuted in her driveway trying to get pictures of the storm; another man swept out of his house by rising waters and through a window pane.
But in Madison on Monday afternoon, none of this had happened yet, and the swirling little leaf storms were beautiful, as was the sound of all the wind chimes around town singing out about the weather. I wondered, as I often do, why we feel compelled to work so hard to prevent the leaves from dancing around our streets? Why do we rake them and blow them and suck them up with large gas-powered machines? Is it really the leaves against us? Are the leaves really our enemies? If we live in a world where leaves need to be so carefully controlled and disposed of, have we perhaps already lost?
I left Christianity in my rearview mirror sometime in the 1990s, but I found myself yesterday afternoon thinking about the Fall. Yes, that Fall, with a capital ‘F,’ as in original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Maybe I was thinking about it simply because it’s more poetic than thinking about the apocalypse. I was driving up to campus, the cloudy doom that is Hurricane Sandy behind me, a sign that the weather is approaching from the opposite direction, that the world has been turned upside down. A sign that something is wrong in the world. There were little flocks of birds swirling around in a dance that echoed what the leaves were doing closer to the ground. I’ve heard that hurricanes and tropical storms can be a boon to bird watchers, blowing hordes of rarely seen sea birds, song birds and tropical birds to unlikely places. Were these rare birds I saw, or just run-of-the-mill southern Indiana birds mildly freaked out by some undetectable sign of the coming storm?
But mostly what had me thinking about the Fall were the deer. There were two standing in the middle of the road as I crested a hill, a doe and her fawn, standing stock-still next to the state park entrance. The car in the other lane had already stopped, and I slowed down, and they disappeared, back onto the side of the road from which they had come. Which was probably best. On the other side of the road is the power plant, and an 8 foot fence with barbed wire on the top. No obstacle to deer, but what do they do once they’re there, inside the power plant? What’s there for them that could possibly be safer or better than what’s in the state park?
I worried about them. I worried about their lives. I worried about the incomprehensibility of cars and roads and power plants. I worried about it even before I saw, just a half mile up the road from the live deer, the construction crew with the bodies of two dead deer piled up in the back, waiting for their own disposal. And I thought, “We are already living in the Fall. It has happened. It has already come and gone and become perfectly normal.”
Leaf by leaf
Meanwhile, a storm was blowing in that would re-acquaint the population of one of the cities that is in some ways so far removed from its status as a natural place that they have an actual dirt museum with the hard reality that none of us will be able in the end to escape the fallout of our environmental disregard. For me, New York City more than any place in the United States is a city, and not an environment. None of your L.A. obsessions with water, or your Denver view of mountains. No history of whole city blocks being filled with cattle headed for the slaughter like Chicago. Before New York expanded beyond the tip that was New Amsterdam, they literally leveled out the landscape that was there, an act which seems in many ways to exactly epitomize the spirit of the city and our country, perhaps. We will drain these swamps, send this river underground, flatten these hills and impose the exacting and oblivious order of our own human grid. It is part of what makes the city such a wonderful and amazing place, this insistence that it is a definitively human place, a world unto itself. New York is always changing, but that change is human in its causes and human in its consequences. New York City, we would like to believe, is no place for nature.
But it is, of course, nature’s place, because every place is nature’s place. Hurricane Sandy gave everyone a view of what the New York might look like someday, remade by an ocean that is not just temporarily surged into its neighborhoods, its city streets, its subways and its high rises. The verdict on whether Sandy was a product of global climate change is out, and will take years for scientists to definitively say, but it is undeniable that images of parts of New York City underwater are becoming eerily more common in the last couple of years.
Here in Indiana, we are trying to forget the record-breaking drought of the summer, but finding it hard in the grocery store, where the failed corn crop has driven up the price of food. We braced ourselves for the second hurricane to affect the state in a four year period, and luckily were mostly spared here in Madison. We have whole systems in place for getting rid of the leaves and the carcasses of dead animals that pile up along our roads.
We are fallen. We are living in the Fall.
They are all of a piece, you see. The need to blow the leaves into neat little piles with our gas-powered leaf blower. The roads we drive on out here in the country every day strewn with the dead bodies of animals. The storm and the panic we churn out in its path. The shocking vision of New York City streets underwater.
It is apocalypse by attrition. And it is not a meteor falling from the sky; it is not random death from above. It is an apocalypse we hasten each and every day. It is an apocalypse we have been urging along for decades now. It is an eventuality we embrace day by day. It is a choice we have made. Is it because we didn’t really know that the apple was bad for us every day when we took a bite? Or do we just not care?
The Fall does not happen all at once, with the vision of a shiny apple when even small children know not to take candy from strangers. It is not as simple as that. It is slow. The apocalypse comes not all at once, but in inches. Bit by bit. Day by day. Storm by storm. Deer by deer. Leaf by leaf.
But we are fooled all over again, each and every time.