Catastrophe did not envelop
the Northeastern United States today when a fierce winter
storm failed to live up to expectations. In contrast to the predictions of our nation’s most
enthusiastic telemeteorologists, the storm dumped a paltry few inches of powder on the New
York metropolitan area. Commuters were delayed only minutes by slightly slower-driving
automobiles, while natural selection was again demonstrated correct when the faster driving cars
slammed Earnhardt-style into trees, medians, and other vehicles. But we did get some cool sleet.
The March 2001 storm -- probably
our last of the season? -- was the storm the news
media wanted you to see. They’d been caught unawares by the real Nor’easter which hit before
New Years. That one counted. We got a couple of feet of snow, and because most people
weren’t really prepared for it, commerce actually slowed. People stayed home. They worried if
the real greeting of the millennium (at least, the one greeted by pedants) was going to go off as
planned in Times Square, or whether the snow might pile so high as to drown even the strobe-lit
ball up on its perch.
Come to think of it, catastrophe
didn’t really hit then, either. In fact, that winter storm
brought out what’s best in nature, human beings, and the way the two play together. Nature
surprised us; it knocked us off our balance. We wobbled a bit, but we’re industrious creatures.
We dug out our cars, salted the sidewalks, and went on with life. Activities that without the snow
would’ve seemed absurd -- climbing over barriers, gliding down streets -- became permitted. The
city was clean. I’m sure there were some miserable people around, but I didn’t see them.
Why, then, all the deep-voiced
rhetoric of gloom and doom before this March’s non-
event? Wouldn’t it be nice if, for a change, the weathermen actually said “You know what,
there’s going to be a big storm. You should plan for it. But, don’t get all tense about it. It’ll be
fun.” Winter storms are fun. We get to play outside, no matter our age. We are forgiven for
taking pictures of trees. We wear the heavy sweaters. It’s like being a child again.
And that’s really what
we are, all of us, when a real storm hits: children. We get to
become more playful -- and yet, more vulnerable as well. The vulnerability is real -- if you don’t
watch out, you can get hurt pretty easily when the roads are slippery and the visibility is poor.
You can catch a cold, too. But this vulnerability is to me almost nostalgic in feel. Nostalgic for a
time before I was born, probably before the turn of the century in most urban areas, where people
really were at the mercy of the universe. Mother Nature was a mean woman. Rainy seasons
mattered. When it was summer, you sweat. When it was winter, you shivered. And when things
really turned sour, you might have died. This wasn’t the idyllic, Rousseauian man-living-among-
Nature idiocy you sometimes see replayed in the fictions of naive environmentalists. It was rough
living. When the crops failed, you starved -- or at least lacked in some luxury. And people were
less happy than they are today. Sure, they might’ve had a better sense of belonging and a stronger
moral compass. But they might also have had consumption or TB.
For all that, though,
one has to wonder whether, at least biologically, that’s not closer to
the way things Ought to Be. We aren’t supposed to be able to control the climate (in our houses
as well as in our world); it’s supposed to control us. We’re supposed to know that there exists in
the world a Higher Power than humanity -- we shouldn’t have to take it on a leap of faith because
we’ve so erased the indicia of that Power in our lives. Now, I don’t say ‘supposed’ in any real
moral sense. To say there is something morally supposed of us that transcends humanity is a
religious tenet so irrational as to be utterable only in an act of proselytization. I mean only that
human animals seem well-adapted to a world in which they are not in control, and poorly adapted
to a world in which they are.
Think again of the snowstorm.
When a snowstorm hits, people band together; it’s all of
us against this. We are more resourceful than our pandering government and media suppose us to
be; we figure out how to deal with stuff. And simple pleasures are so delightful -- when else are
we really grateful for having heat in our homes, stew on the stove, and (if we’re lucky) someone
we love nearby? Are we ever this kind, clever, and grateful when there isn’t something larger
than us in our consciousness?
When we have everything,
when we have perfect control, we have no one to fight against
but each other or ourselves. There’s no struggle, no wrestling match between human and world.
And of course, we all know that the snowstorm is just an interlude. A tease. The real wrestling
match has long since been won, with Mother Nature pinned to the mat by clever, scheming homo
sapiens. That this snowstorm seems independent of our mischief is an illusion. Global climate
patterns have already changed, and will change with more severity in the years to come, even if
the oilmen in control of the American government find every weaselly way to deny it. In our
hearts, I think most intelligent people know this to be true. We know that the Earth is getting
hotter, that the glaciers are already melting, and that even apart from climate change we have
messed around with the Earth’s ecosystems so severely that there is no pristine wilderness left --
no wildness -- no Nature. Bill McKibben was perhaps prophetic when he wrote “The End of
Nature” a decade ago, but now, you have to be willfully blind to think otherwise.
So snowstorms are, for
me, rather sad as well. I love what they bring out in humanity,
and I love being subject to the vicissitudes of the weather. I love that my meeting tomorrow
might be canceled because, well, there’s just a lot of snow on the ground and you can’t do
anything about it. But I know that this is an illusion; and that there really is no other Force out
there to be cherished, or conquered. Not anymore. It seems an almost tragic loss, that for the
sake of our own self-invented dreams (power! competition!) we’ve destroyed our greatest friend
and foe, Nature. There are parks you can visit, and in some of them you don’t hear the hum or
cars or the blabbering of pale, fat tourists. But I think the reality is seeping through the thinking
people of America that these, too, are either last, futile stands of wildness or Disney World. The
rest is as artificial as a 70 degree sunroom in summer.
Is it fear that makes
us want to hear warnings of the strength, the power, the danger of the
coming storm? Or is it, against all odds, hope?
March 7, 2001
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