I’ve been on a particularly intense Apocalyptic bent as of late. In the past month Kelly and I have watched Melancholia (planetary collision extinction event), Contagion (flu virus pandemic), and the second season of The Walking Dead (zombie apocalypse); I’ve reread The Road (nuclear winter); and been buttonholing more people than usual with my “the-thin-fabric-of-civilization-is-soon-to-be-ripped-asunder” litany of global climate change, peak oil, phosphate depletion, ocean acidification, and associated and wide-spread geo-political instability.
I’m a blast at parties, let me tell you.
But I’ve always had this dark strain. In my Grand-Canyon-Manuscript-That-Will-Never-Be-Fucking-Finished, I attributed this love for post-apocalyptic narratives to the San Andreas fault, which haunted my childhood as a sleeping-dragon-like force that could, at any time, unleash “The Big One”: the earthquake that will destroy LA.
But on the other hand, I can’t blame it on plate-tectonics: I don’t see how any rational human being who pays even infrequent attention to the news could not harbor the same fatalistic views. Perhaps he or she finds it easier to ignore such views. Perhaps he or she simply has more faith. My intrinsic lack of any such faith is a blessing and a curse, but seems especially unfortunate now that we are to bring a baby—a helpless babe!—into this doomed world.*
(The Onion, as usual, is a step ahead of me with this one, and came out with this humdinger:
(Click here for the full article: it’s truly good stuff.)
Not that I believe that faith could save us, but my own philosophical cocktail of cynicism, curious anticipation, and good-natured fatalism is probably not the best thing to serve to a young girl needing guidance in an unsettled and possibly far crueler world than ours.
But that’s why I go hiking.
Take my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. We walked for forty miles through a barren desert that, besides the searing oxygen in the lungs, could well have been the surface of Mars. There was no water. There were millions of potholes in the slickrock and every single one of them was dry. There were thousands of drainages ripped through the sandstone shelf on which we walked and for twenty miles they were dry. But then, dangerously low on water, we came upon that blessed spring and threw down our packs and spent hours drinking and rejoicing that we were alive. And, my thirst quenched, my fear subsided, I realized that I could walk up the drainage and stop and take deep draughts of blooming cliffrose; that I could enjoy watching the frogs slip out of the cracks in the rock and plop, one after another, into the small reedy spring and open their throats in search of evening love; that we could sit in the shade and drink that water and talk and laugh with ease, without worry. Even later, when our stomachs began to clench and rumble and we began to shit, incessantly, when we finally allowed ourselves to comment about how disgusting and mineral-laden and barely potable was the water, even then we weren’t truly complaining, as that water was life.
And that’s what I want to hold on to, that’s what I want to impart to my child: that in the harshest of times in the most inhospitable of places even the most bizarre clumps of thorn-ridden vegetation will blossom with delicate yellow flowers in which bees roll in delight. That, no matter what, we can find beauty.
It’s not much, really, but it’s enough.
Perhaps it’s even enough that if we humans had been able to extract enough pleasure and appreciation for these simple ecological beauties to begin with, we’d have not brought the world to the present brink. Hard to say. And perhaps it won’t be enough—if, say, Cormac McCarthy’s charred future comes to pass, there will be no beauty at all, sorry. No scummy desert springs to save us. But I don’t believe it will come to that particular bleak end. That’s not faith, just a calculated guess.
I guess the only thing to do is teach her of both Cactaceae and archery.
*No, really, doomed. Did you see today’s Op-Ed in the NY Times? “Game Over for the Climate?”
**Oh, and the “world of wounds” reference in the title is Aldo Leopold’s: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”