I know all about natural disasters—up to a point. The New Madrid fault runs through the small Missouri town where I grew up, and I spent many a nervous evening in the basement of our house when I was a boy, listening to tornado warnings on a transistor radio. Still, it’s been my good fortune never to be physically present when the sky fell or the earth shook.
Perhaps for this reason, I always feel a special kinship with those whose luck has run out. I was, for instance, transfixed by Hurricane Katrina, so much so that Our Girl and I temporarily turned this blog into a clearinghouse of links to Web-wide blog-based reports about the hurricane and its aftermath. Our improvised “stormblog” was one of the first such ventures to be undertaken in the youthful days of blogging, and it astonished us to be told after the fact that we’d written ourselves into the history of a new medium.
Now that the Web has grown up, of course, such homespun efforts have become quaint. Like the rest of the world, I’m using Twitter to keep up with breaking news from Japan, Hawaii, and the West Coast. But as I read the latest reports of the growing devastation, I thought of the only earthquake I’ve ever experienced. It took place early on a summer morning some twenty years ago, back when I was living in a hilltop apartment in Bronxville, a suburb not far north of New York City. I didn’t have an air conditioner, so the windows were flung wide to the breeze. I was awakened by a slight jerk and a strange noise that I suppose in retrospect must have been the creaking of the building’s skeleton. It was over in a moment. I jumped out of bed, looked around, and heard a second, even stranger noise: the leaves on the trees that surrounded the building were all fluttering at once. I still remember with the utmost vividness the thought that flashed through my mind: It’s a car bomb.
It says something ugly and revealing about the world in which we live today that a man born a stone’s throw from the New Madrid fault should have jumped reflexively to such a conclusion about a tremor in the earth. And it makes me wonder whether there might possibly be some utility in being reminded from time to time that nature needs no help from humankind to wreak havoc in the blinking of an eye.
Things are in the saddle,/And run mankind, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously claimed, but that which runs things also runs us, and eventually it runs us into the ground. “Sooner or later you’re either going to be a caregiver or a caregetter,” a friend of mine told me last night over a glass of wine. That is a sobering thought, reassuring only in the unforgiving way that hard truths give cold consolation. But there is comfort in it nonetheless, just as there is comfort—if only of a bleak and chilly sort—in the undeniable fact that while bombs are made by fools like us, only Mother Nature can make an earthquake. May it always be so.
UPDATE: It now seems that humankind has found a way to heighten the havoc of an earthquake. No matter how strong your sense of irony may be, life will usually find a way to top it.
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A Seventies TV commercial for Chiffon margarine: