If a Man Falls in the Forest...
I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will
become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes,
but spirit will hover over the ashes.
“Culture and Value”
There are suddenly gulls and they seem so very unexpected. And I am not sure why. Because taking stock of things: I am mostly conscious, I am near water, and it is winter. What other ingredients did I need? Ahead of me it looked more like an unexplainable wind had flared up from the roadside waters and waved a great white flag at me: the inlet in surrender, the broken lakeshore giving up the battle to us, to the little houses lined up on the shore, to the incursors. Is that a word? The creators of the incursion?
Closer and stopped beside the bird activities, I see that the white and gray lace the gulls weave when they flare is so dense that I can make out very little sky through all that birdwing and breast as they slip back over me from the bay. It is a fast feather artistry. Something below the reflection of the bare trees on the water has the concerted attention of the white birds. And they hammer at it, throwing themselves into the shallows, battering at some knowledge I don’t have, some power of the eye just beyond mine. The water smacks in the rhythm of the birds giving themselves to this need, to this food, to some sort of shad monster moving where I cannot see it. The sun is beyond them and it dazzles me as they break apart. No doubt I am alive with gull shadows as they wheel and fall. If there were only someone else to see me break apart in gull shadow. This is what I think. Too bad. Across the icebreaks other gulls step and tiptoe on barely frozen water by the thousands. The far shore is snow powder and trees. The breast of a Bonaparte’s Gull is the exact color of new snow taking afternoon light.
Things haunt me. Unpredictable things. And recently this singular thought has stayed with me: before the great wave came out of the rumbling tumult of the earth the elephants ran away; the dogs ran away; the antelope and even the anteaters ran away (I guess). It is a complex image. Okay, I suppose it is both an image and a thought. And not all thoughts are images when you press toward the truth. Though even words in the head are images. Aren’t they? Jeesh, this is a tangle for Wittgenstein to sink himself into. He probably did. But not once in my middling-length life do I remember stopping to consider this image/word duality. But anyway, what started this is what I heard later after the Tsunami, this thing about the fleeing beasts, and it stuck. It seems to have been known even among people that have no other interest in animals. The animals of the Sri Lankan coast and the Indian coast and the African coast ran, they ran like hell, but the people stayed and just drowned and drowned. People played on the beach. People had weddings. They carried their sandy flip-flops in from the sun just before they drowned. They peered out under the small shade of their fingers at the beautiful sea. And then they drowned. Though, to be fair, I cannot be sure the people of the flatlands of northern Sumatra had any really good or safe place to go. If you had blown a great whistle and waved madly to the whole Sumatran world after the quake it still would have been fearful chaos shortly after. Or not. They might have just pointed at the whistle blowing madman and laughed.
“Look at that fool. What does he think he is doing?”
“Hey, where the hell are all the dogs going?”
The satellite photos make it look like Bandah Aceh is a city jutting out into the sea. Like it is a city that is just barely terra firma standing as it is so close to the place where the earth folds itself down into the greatest recycling event ever in our local celestial neighborhood. As usual, it seems that paradise sits on the edge, right where the monster dark seafloor buckles down toward the molten and ancient heart-heat, the hothouse core. Occasionally the doomed edge of the pancake catches at its own going and burps out a signal of its massive demise. Plate tectonics indeed. Some of the birds in one Sri Lankan video image seem to break up only after the water is already arriving on the shore there. This did not look like foreknowledge to me. They are crows or some semblance of a crowbird from the tropics. They flare towards the man holding the camera and vanish behind him. The man goes on jiggling out his record of the events afterward. The birds, of course, would turn and fly back to feast and feast in the coming days on the things we cannot talk about.
Herculaneum and Pompeii, 79 A. D. No one seems to remember the first town’s name. It would make an excellent Jeopardy question. Everyone knows the second town’s name. But in reality it was the whole countryside that died in the event. Everything south of the great angry mountain of Vesuvius. Not just the towns. Every small town and hamlet, all the farmers and their villages. They all disappeared. Pompeii was just the largest city. It was August 24th. It was summer. Two days later Pompeii was gone. The eruption lasted more than 24 hours. This was in an area that was frequently jolted by large earthquakes anyway. Seventeen years earlier a massive earthquake had broken the whole place up. Repairs were still being made from that major quake when it all became irrelevant under the new ire of Vesuvius. The little town of Herculaneum was buried under sixty feet of super hot mud. It took only four minutes for the boiling mud to flow from Vesuvius to Herculaneum. The population was totally unprepared. But who can prepare for that? Death by pyroclastic flow.
This image of Pompeii unearthed seems unreal, unbelievable. Pliny the Elder was there at Pompeii back in the day. He had written a thirty seven volume treatise on the local world and its natural phenomena. He was out on the open water when the eruption started. I think he thought of it as luck. He could have turned toward safety. In an eyewitness report it was said that the great “column of smoke was like an umbrella pine.” He went toward the tremendous cloud and thought about trying to save some people. But then he apparently grew bored. Or hypnotized. Maybe some Vesuvian gas of some sort. The whole sky was blackened. Great stones were flailing down on the cities and towns. And in the midst of this Pliny got a blanket and went out under the bleak and stone dark heavens to take a nap. He slept. He died there. Some think he had a quiet heart attack.
The full length hotel video from Sri Lanka, or one of the many, is the footage you want to watch again and again. Most of the other videos are shot from on high, on floors that are well away from the wave action. But not this one. And I wanted to ask its maker if he could hear the water in the distance before he saw it? Does the sound catch the attention of the videomaker? I think not. I think it was a quiet monster. I believe he saw the thing first. It was a dark wall everywhere out there between the support beams of the open restaurant that the man runs around in looking desperately for the videomaker’s grail: the unobscured view. I saw that dark wall in my head for several days. I can see it now. The place itself, the hotel looks thatched, it is an upper floor patio setting or some such. The angles are very jumpy as he runs from opening to opening. And I believe there had already been a smaller wave that came ashore earlier. But for this second wave, the serious one, once the water started hitting shore, it was all yelling and screaming and roaring water and breaking glass. A boy walks in almost casually from outside right before the first mass of water rolls over the pool area just below the cameraman. It is sunny. The cameraman keeps cutting from the outside, where people are being visibly washed away, to the inside of the room where the water comes up to swirl around his feet and legs. You can see a Christmas tree rise and lurch and then go down. Photos sit on desk tops and then the desks themselves rise and drift towards the filmmaker. Eventually he is pointing the camera mostly at his feet and at the dark whirls of debris and furniture as he tries to climb up on a podium of some sort. The yelling comes from all directions as the image stutters and then becomes a frozen series of interlaced bars. Watermark and white noise is what we are left with.
I have seriously envisioned those elephants stopping and staring off into the distance, raising those great heads and ears. The order of thought being: “Something is not good. Hmm. Where are my kids? To the jungle. To the jungle, we must away.” Many of the working elephants in the mainland actually broke their chains to move away from the coming disaster. A few of them carried their owners. Days later the animals had not returned to anywhere near the coast. They all vanished into the inland jungles. Keeping their eyes turned away no doubt. Perhaps they even had some ingrained understanding of what happens to the water resources after these great salty waves come blasting ashore. I suppose many of the elephants have lived long lives and seen several earthquake aftermaths. In the matriarchal elephant’s ingrained knowledge apparently there is a detailed section on Tsunamis.
I also suppose that many of the people in the countries surrounding the earthquake were down there awaiting the New Year. It was that time. The Swedish apparently go there by the tens of thousands to escape their own deep winter climate. More Swedes were dead and missing comparatively by population than in any country except Indonesia itself. One Swedish woman was there to celebrate her wedding vows with a ceremony of renewal. They did this on the day before the wave. She was on the beach with her son the next day when the water went out and out and out and then started coming back in again. In many places people stood fascinated as the water went out. As though they did not know what this meant. I don’t live there but I think I would have known that if the water is really, really going away then it is not time to collect colorful starfish. Perhaps I overestimate myself. I do know I would have located my daughter and my wife very quickly. The Swedish woman’s husband was up at the hotel thanking all the staff for the wonderful day they had on the previous day. When the water started coming and coming the woman pulled her son behind a house. Thinking, as I certainly would have, that hiding behind a house would surely be good for something. But the water came on and the house collapsed. When its structure failed she lost the hand of her son and she never saw him again. She never saw her husband again. She never saw her mother again. She lived somehow. But they all drowned and drowned.
The brief Bandah Aceh video is almost too disastrous to watch. There was not the least warning, well, other than that magnitude 9.0 earthquake that rumbled twenty minutes before. There was otherwise obliviousness. There was the happy, sunny world. The cameraman there was supposed to be filming a wedding. Instead we get a monster coming down the street. It is a liquid beast of automobiles and kitchens, trees and flailing humans. I’m not sure I would have known what it was myself. There is no understanding. It has just come. Though it was hard for the children clutching the railing in the video to know what was coming. It looked like the world had liquefied. Prepare yourself, the sight said, for surely everyone will soon die.
I do not live in a place where disaster may strike in such massive proportions. Well, short of an asteroidal bull’s-eye on my home state. We seem to be watching for these space rocks nowadays. The local mountains that surround me are worn down. It has been a long time since they spit fire if they ever did. We have no volcanoes. The closest object of faulting earth is hundreds of miles to the northeast. Though granted, there is an impending local event there of serious proportions. Who worries about it? Well, I admit I do, only briefly, every time I cross the great river bridge into Memphis. Someone will be on that bridge when it goes down. Someone. Whenever I cross it and the bridge structure shakes in the wind, I grip the wheel and listen for the bigger final sound and prepare myself for the gut wrenching fall.
Winter here is the best time we have to ponder disaster though. It is then that the trees, the land itself, look like the leavings of some gray event. Winter here has the look of the remnants of some dark happening, it is the disaster that comes every twelve months. It is the natural consequence of our tilted orbit, of our spaceship earth canting on its way. Of course, the possibilities are quite infinite for all the other elliptical and tilting combinations out there on somebody else’s distant planet. Somewhere there is a warm planet without any tilt. Winter never comes there. It is a world that just burns on and on in a green horrific excess. Like the tropics I guess, like paradise. Here we are saved by the bleak winter branches and the gray, gray sky. It is the chill intermission that I depend upon frankly. Though sometimes my soul cries ‘uncle’ under the wind. Here it is not white. It is brown and muddy. The winter looks post-apocalyptic. It looks so permanently decadent in its tilted hieroglyphics of dormant oak, its leaf rattle and cold pock, at one point every year I lose hope. We can never recover, I think, and then suddenly I’ll come across something like white gulls throwing themselves into the inland sea.
The man on the train in India, in a great flat stretch in Sri Lanka says he knew something was happening by looking in the faces of the other passengers. Apparently the ones who could already see the wall of water stretching from edge to edge on the horizon. He survived by climbing out the window when the train rolled over and then jumping onto the roof of a house that touched up against the train. It was like a disaster dance. The whole train went under after that. Soon even the house was not safe and as it began to disintegrate he had to jump into the water and swim between a blanket of bodies, women and children already drowned and floating like dense dolls.
I waited to hear the stories about all the animals returning from their hidings there beyond the edge of disaster but there were none. Not one story that I saw mentioned this. So I had to just imagine the elephants stalking back up to peer from the jungle at what was left of the broken human world. I could see the wide, elephantine eyes staring at the higgledy-piggledy leavings, the spar and tack, the cavity and crutch, the soiled rope and the sad tangled foot. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Surely they turned back, walked away into the woods again. “God help them. We’ll check on the humans later.”
On the satellite trackers, the worldwide blipscreens that someone had set up for keeping an eye on the dastardly activities of all the other humans out there, after the whole Tsunami wave event was over, the next week, they said they could measure and see the ripple on the ocean all over their recorded sheets. There it was. The boom, the lift, the running wall of the expanding oval—the teardrop explodes. We imagine it as being born from the start at fifty feet tall. It wasn’t. It was measured at two feet tall. It was a two feet tall wave whipping across the ocean toward Africa and Sri Lanka, scaring the hell, in advance, out of their grazing elephants. Though granted, it was traveling at 500 miles per hour. The problem is that as it approached the shallow waters along our continents and our beaches it rolled up into that terrible wall. Two feet into forty feet and then the hurry-hurry trouble came.
Over a month later the story came out about the team that was searching for bodies on the islands off the coast of India. The team found a group of survivors. Thousands and thousands died there and were just gone. The team had been finding bodies and more bodies. These few living souls had run for higher ground and on that particular island there was enough higher ground to run to. The rescuers were apparently more elated than the survivors. The islanders had survived on wild boar and plant life, they were worn down. One of them was a sixty five year old man and another was an eleven year old child. The old man was just sitting back on his haunches when the team arrived. Apparently he did not know how to respond. He may have been staying alive just for the child. It did not say whether he whooped or wept at their arrival. The old man must have thought that the whole world had ended. Eden had come back. But who wants Eden when you are sixty five? Eden is lonely. The world as it is on its good days sometimes rips and roars a bit too much but island Eden was just lonely. And who wants to live on thinking they somehow were the chosen one. Your life somehow needing to fill the void of all the lives that stopped. Might have been easier to just die.
In the digs at Pompeii, of course, they find remarkable things every year. It is a preservation event of unsurpassed proportions. But the thing they find over and over that impresses me the most are the voids. After two thousand years there is no bone and no tooth remaining, no hair, no clothing, not even, I suppose, any sort of lingering smell. Perhaps there is a puff of dust. But the voids in the debris, in the hot mud of Herculaneum are still shaped like people. The little sheltering and frightened souls left people-shaped pockets in their resting places, manikins of air where the dead used to be.
The dogs in my local winter room sleep atop and around my bed. They are a warning belt of sorts, my whistleblowers, my tidal buoys in the night. Invaluable—they will certainly save me from any mailmen that come in the darkness, from scratchy evil branches that brush strangely against my window, from all those other errant midnight dogs. But that’s about it. Molly lifts her head at some sound of wind outside the room. She cocks her ears. She does not know the greater fears. She has no understanding of the fragility of spaceship earth. I mean, dogs still think the earth is flat. Though I have whispered before in the Red Dog’s ear “the earth is round.” He does not believe me. But then again, I am speaking in tongues. Is it cruel to whisper such things in the ears of dogs?
Most of the time I am afraid of everything. Wait, come on, no, that is not correct. That is grandstanding bullshit. Most of the time we should be afraid of everything but we are not. We are mostly oblivious without the reminders of the evening news. I know I don’t hold with the theory that fear is what makes life worth living—if you are not afraid than you are not really alive. I don’t go there. But men sit somewhere watching the skies for approaching meteors. Men sit somewhere in a room that is full of seismic needlings, with graphs that jiggle and twitch at the restlessness of the whole earth. It was said that the graph watchers in Hawaii knew immediately when the needle jumped from the recent event in Indonesia, they knew there was going to be a big wave out there but they did not know who to call. I would grow quite mad, I think, in the twitching room, so constantly reminded of the big ship’s crusted bucklings. Like wearing eyeglasses etched with a map of the stars. Like reading fortune cookies every day that say, “RUN LIKE HELL. Oh, and your lucky number is 14 23 10 7 6.”
I’ll keep my oblivion. Until the dog’s heads come up again. And I guess I don’t really even know about that. The Red dog’s head is up again now. I stare at him in the shadows. “Percy, buddy, are we all going to die?”
The head cocks. It is a sleepy, knowing look, the pupils are dilated for the night. “Yes, of course we are. Just like last night. And the night before that. Now go back to sleep.”
Hmm. “Dogs,” I say, falling back on the pillow. “When will they ever teach me anything?”
(Images from various amateur sources on the internet.)