Walking up the mountain this evening after work, I’m met by spires of black cohash, long swales of bark and fern, shags of astilbe. The light cuts through the cover of poplar, oak, beech, as well as the dusty white limbs of hemlock. I’m greeted by blackberries, dancing patches of jewelweed and nettle, by new thickets of bittersweet vines. I look in the usual places for mushrooms, the few I recognize, the many I don’t. Names I know, names I forget and must learn again, familiar beings that I’ve only ever known by sight, each of them call to me as I walk. Everyone has places like this.
In a recent article about the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, novelist Junot Diaz relates the three definitions of “apocalyptic”. The first definition is the actual end of the physical world; the second is any event that stuns our capacity to understand it, thus reminding us of that end. The root of the word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek apocalypsis, meaning to uncover and unveil. The third definition is, then, “a disruptive event that provokes revelation.”
It’s never hard to summon worry about what I can’t control, but it’s hard to feel the physical world is precarious here in these mountains, the oldest in the world. The best I can summon is recognition that I’ll never know it as it was for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, thick with chestnut, a forest that wasn’t contained between interstates. Yet even this is a dull lesson from a textbook, nothing to write home about.
From an easy chair in the living room that night just after dark, I was rereading Diaz, when I heard a violent clatter that seemed both inside and outside the house. Our aged dog, once our faithful first responder, snored. Had something fallen? Was someone here? I was home alone, and couldn’t call out what I wanted to ask: what’s going on? Another crash, this time clearly from the front of the house, and I saw the bird as it staggered blearily from the windowpane. Too dark to make out its color, I saw only a shadow of a shape, and then another clash of feathers and bill as it flung itself into the glass. There was a lamp lit nearby, so I turned it off, but not before the bird threw itself again.
Please stop, I whispered, and simultaneously thought: No one’s ever going to believe this. I looked at the dog for witness. He rolled over in his sleep. I begged the bird, please, stop. A thousand directions that bird could have flown, directions I couldn’t even imagine, views I could only wonder about. Yet still it persisted, buffeting the glass as desperately as if a gale-force wind were blowing it straight there, as if any other direction were impossible to fathom.
I turned on the porch light, hoping that would create a distraction, and when it didn’t, I walked out with a bell, ringing as if to wake the dead. The bird’s flailings were fewer now, and it seemed tired. It crouched within the boxwoods, quivering. As I finally went to bed, I heard a few more efforts, the window receiving its feathered body.
All you had to do was look around, birdbrain! I wanted to cry. All you had to do was turn your stupid little bird head. You don’t have to fly into the glass. You can stop any time. I tried every way I knew how to make you stop, I whispered, furiously. You just wouldn’t stop.
I’ve never been to Haiti, to Japan, or even to the flooded plains of Joplin, Missouri. Anything I might imagine about apocalypse comes from this moment: a small bird, unable to do anything but the apparently absurd. Nothing short of devastation will alter its course. Of course, I’m like that bird too: I don’t know what else to do.
I don’t know what to do about climate change, or even how to think about it. The scale of destructive human activity buzzes all around me: mountaintop removal, offshore drilling, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Guantanamo. Neighbors don’t have enough to eat, can’t afford health care, let their prescriptions go unfilled. Jails fill with the homeless, disabled, unemployed. I’m indelibly embedded within a culture rushing pell-mell past its present moment into the hard edge of future with apparently unswerving direction, albeit little in the way of genuine conviction.
“There is no such thing as a natural disaster,” Diaz writes softly, quoting geographer Neil Smith. He explains that those events we name so are in fact “social disasters” in that they are caused, directly or indirectly, not merely by forces of nature over which we have little control, but by societal policies that have both thrown the natural world into a state of imbalance and placed human infrastructure in precarious, unsustainable positions. Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake, quickly followed by tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the early summer flooding along the Mississippi river were social disasters, for which we’re all among the culpable. Indifference, as Dennis Kucinich so succinctly put it, is a weapon of mass destruction. And yet we use it casually, as if it won’t bear consequences. We don’t know what else to do.
Diaz doesn’t claim that disruption slides glibly across the tongue, a bulleted list taken from a powerpoint outline. What disruption looks like is Haiti: one morning, the buildings are standing, people moving through their lives as best they can. The next morning, that life is gone. Disruption comes as the glass shatters, and we’re stunned into stillness by the empty air that flows from all directions, finding ourselves in a revelatory place from which all directions are possible again.