On Earthquakes, Blowups, and Other Wonderful Disasters

Gina Welty

Writer’s comment: I have a split brain. One side loves literature and the liberal arts; the other loves science. Throughout college, never able to choose, I’ve tried to hold on to both. It hasn’t been easy. Most of the time I feel like either a frustrated scientist in literature classes or a frustrated writer in geology classes.
        Dr. McLean and his Comp. Lit. 20 and 120 classes were different. Suddenly I was reading great nature literature by scientists and poets alike. I found that in the natural world, the difference between myth, scientific theory, and story aren’t as great as I once thought. (There may be hope for my poor brain yet!) This gave me the encouragement and inspiration to keep on piecing everything together, and I’m very grateful for that.
        As for my fascination with chaos,what can I say? In this modern era of serene Sierra Club postcards, well-groomed national parks, and stylish sportswear, I find reassurance in knowing Nature is a wild, messy force as well as a well-ordered, peaceful one. It helps to keep things balanced and human beings in their place.
—Gina Welty

Instructor’s comment: For anyone familiar with the literature of the American West, Gina Welty’s title situates her analysis: within the matrices of John Muir’s embrace of wild nature as seen in his celebration, one Yosemite morning, of an earthquake. Few are able to dance, as Muir did that morning, the earthquake; and few are able to face, Empedocles-like, the fire that is at the heart of creation. For to confront the fire that consumes and destroys all is to confront our tragic circumstance—transient lives lived-out before a seemingly implacable nature.
        It is the steely willingness to face fire, and our tragic condition, that Gina takes up in discussing Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, a book of hard-won, deeply insightful reflections on the tragic Mann Gulch fire, in which thirteen smokejumpers, members of the Forest Service’s airborne firefighting crew, died.
        In her insightful essay, Gina relates Maclean’s work to Darwin and Jacquetta Hawkes, draws in Goethe and Alexander Pope, and makes a series of stunning, often brilliant associations.
—W. Scott McLean, Comparative Literature and Nature and Culture Program

"I now feel brave enough to venture forth and bear earth’s torments and its joys, to grapple with the hurricane.” (Faust, lines 464-66)

Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death? Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? . . . Declare if thou knowest it all. (Job 38:17,18)

        Human beings are prideful creatures, and we have good reason to be. We have subdued a planet, changed the course of rivers, watered deserts, written poetry to make angels cry, and wrapped the world in a network of electric impulses and digital displays. We have created and killed not one but many gods. We can make a cloud rain by shooting heavy metal into it, and we can create a lake by pouring concrete in a canyon and damming a river. Most days, it seems that we human beings have everything under control and that if we miss wild nature, well, we can grow it in our gardens. (We can even genetically engineer the plants and animals.) Every so often, however, the universe spins out of our control. Forest fires rage. The earth quakes. Chaos descends like a great modern Zeus hurling thunderbolts and reminding us that nature is not ours to manipulate. In a great universe shaped by raw power and force, human beings are only small, easily crushed, organic structures. We need the reminder. Chaos and destruction are nature’s great gift to human kind because the realization of our frailty and insignificance leads to enlightenment. We learn something about ourselves, how we are here, where we want to go, and what we have to say about it.
         Chaos spoke to Darwin in the shaking of the earth:

A bad earth quake at once destroys the oldest associations: the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, has moved beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid; one second of time has conveyed to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never have created. (229)

Darwin’s earthquake shook not only the houses of Concepcion on a March afternoon in 1835, it also contributed to the rumblings in Darwin’s brain. In his journals, he recorded: “The most remarkable effect (or perhaps speaking more correctly, cause) of this earthquake was the permanent elevation of the land. . .” (237-38). Darwin was forming an image of a land being thrust up and then sinking, creatures trapped by the terrain and beginning to change in their isolation, sea shells left to be found at the top of a mountain.
         The physical earthquake touched off intellectual aftershocks. Like the houses of Concepcion, Darwin’s earlier ideas of the earth’s inability to move were destroyed, and his imagination was fired by real experience:

I feel it is quite impossible to convey the mixed feelings with which one beholds such a spectacle . . . yet compassion for the inhabitants is almost instantly forgotten, from the interest excited in finding the state of things produced in one moment of time, which one is accustomed to attribute to the succession of ages. (235)

Darwin learned that the earth could change, and quickly. It was only a matter of time before he concluded that if the earth could be altered, so could a species, and the theory of evolution took shape.
         Darwin’s theory revolutionized science. People adapt to change quickly, however—one of the benefits of natural selection. So we adjusted our perceptions and pressed forward in our advancement of technology. Science grew into the dominant line of thought in the modern Western world, and it is a useful, powerful tool. Yet we should not be deceived by delusions of our own power and control. As Norman Maclean writes:

It is easy for us to assume that as a result of modern science “we have conquered nature,” that nature is now confined. . . . But we should be prepared for the possibility . . . that the terror of the universe has not yet fossilized and the universe has not yet run out of blowups. (46)

         According to Maclean, “a blowup to a forest fire is something like a hurricane to an ocean storm” (33). It is huge, beyond human imagination, and brings death in a swirling vortex of flames. Like an earthquake, it is a force of nature untouched by all our powers of modern science. Like Darwin’s earthquake in Concepcion, the blowup of Mann Gulch, Montana, on an August afternoon in 1949 was a chaotic, tragic event that challenged preconceptions and inspired creative human response.
         In Young Men and Fire, Maclean writes of the Mann Gulch Fire, and of the thirteen smokejumpers who died, because

[a] story that honors the dead realistically partly atones for their sufferings, and so instead of leaving us in moral bewilderment, adds dimensions to our acuteness in watching the universe’s four elements at work—sky, earth, fire, and young men. (144)

Chaotic events disturb our perceived order of the world, bewilder our sense of right and wrong, turn our lives upside-down, and take our loved ones from us. Exploring the events of a catastrophe—through stories and science—in an attempt to accept the universe as it is, rather than to control it, can give us a better understanding of the world and our place in it.
         We need natural disasters so that we can define ourselves. In natural phenomena we glimpse new aspects of human nature, which we can use to build our identity. As Maclean writes, “Identity is always a problem, not just a problem of youth” (145). For him, the Mann Gulch Fire went “beyond legality and morality and seemingly beyond the laws of nature, blown into a world where human values and seemingly natural laws no longer apply” (289). The fire consumed all conceptions and judgments, leaving only the wills of the young men to battle their way to death up a steep hillside. “Beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment,” Maclean writes, “there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever what we last hoped to do on earth” (300).
         So blowups, earthquakes, and other disasters destroy our preconceptions and pretenses. They also crush our pride, making us feel helpless, small, and mortal. Such an understanding of our own mortality takes us a long way toward enlightenment. Alexander Pope called death “the great teacher” (line 92), but learning from death requires putting aside human pride and being willing to be wrong. Chaos helps make our mistakes obvious to everyone, and, more importantly, to ourselves. The young men in Man Gulch, however, were not thinking about death the afternoon they died. “As the elite of young men, they felt more surely than most who are young that they were immortal” (Maclean 298). They were young and good, and confident that they could control whatever crisis came their way. They were much like us in our modern world, ready to go out and alter nature, to confine it and control it with a pulaski and a strong back.
         The young smokejumpers can be forgiven their pride, for it is a trait that runs deep in all humankind. At the same time, they can be held up as a warning, for they so perfectly embody Pope’s observation that “In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies; / All quit their sphere, and rush to the skies” (124-25). The answer, then, is to quiet our pride and learn to observe nature closely and honestly. As Pope urges, “Go, wiser thou! and in thy scale of sense, / Weigh thy opinion against Providence” (113-14).
         Nature is powerful, a force beyond our reasoning, the closest thing to a deity we can touch, see, and fear on earth. In Goethe’s Faust, the Earth Spirit declares:

“In the tides of life, in action’s storm, I surge and ebb, move to and fro! As cradle and grave, as unending sea, as constant change, as life’s incandescence, I work at the whirring loom of time and fashion the living garment of God.” (lines 501-08)

Yet in our age of modern science, how tempting and easy it is to stand up and say, like Faust, “I stand my ground before you, shape of flame! I am that Faust, I am your peer!” (line 499). It is a challenge to which nature will gladly respond, “Your peer is the spirit you comprehend; mine you are not!” (line 512), and then send the earthquake, the fire, the flood as proof.
         We must listen to nature to know it. Yet sometimes it is hard to really hear, and it is easy to make mistakes. Goethe, in his scientific writings, notes: “When in the exercise of his powers of observation man undertakes to confront the world of nature, he will at first experience a compulsion to bring what he finds there under his control.” He then adds, “Before long, however, these objects will thrust themselves upon him with such force that he, in turn, must feel the obligation to acknowledge their power and pay homage to their effects” (Scientific Studies 61). In observing nature we try to dictate the processes we are watching, and it is natural for us to want to do so. It is just as natural to be caught in a blowup. Perhaps life is most fully lived between the two, between total control and complete helplessness.
         Storytelling finds the balance between the blowup, the earthquake, and the carefully controlled laboratory. Maclean calls it the reaction to the id, or “whatever name is presently attached to the disorderly, the violent, the catastrophic both in and outside of us.” The reaction, or “counter impulse to the id,” is a “craving for sanity, for things belonging to each other, and results in a comfortable feeling when the universe is seen to take a garment from the rack that seems to fit” (44). We want to be in control of what is happening around us, what is happening to us, but the universe will not allow us complete control, and so we tell stories in an attempt to understand our inner and outer natures. Our stories calm the terror a blowup can inspire. The art and science that can result convey truths that connect human beings back to the nature from which they came. As we tell ourselves a bedtime story of universal law and order, however, “we should also go on wondering if there is not some design, shape, form, design as of artistry in this universe we are entertaining that is composed of catastrophes and missing parts” (Maclean 46).
         Human beings need disasters. We need blowups, fires, floods, earthquakes. We need the raw violence of nature to save us from the blindness of our pride, to force us to extremes, to teach us about ourselves, and to inspire us to tell honest stories. Most sciences, such as the study of fire behavior, arise from the human hope of bringing a frightening force of nature under control. Science, too, is a method of telling a story about nature. In the struggle to make sense of the raging universe, we sometimes discover art, an art purged of all pretense by the extreme elements of which it was born. When all is said and done, the disaster that brings us death also brings us an opportunity to find hope and compassion, and a chance to transcend our own blindness and limitations and find peace.

Works Cited

Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Scientific Studies. New York: Suhrkamp, 1988.

—. Faust. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1990.

Maclean, Norman. Young Men and Fire. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Pope, Alexander. “Essay on Man.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1960.