Friday, August 13, 2010

When It's Already Beyond Repair, You Wear it Broken

Even as the deadly threat of oil Armageddon in the Gulf recedes, along with my own self-appointed role as its Anne Frank-style diarist, new nightmare scenarios arrive in rapid succession to take the spill's place: the hundred-mile chunk of ice more than four times the size of Manhattan, for instance, which has broken loose from the southeast side of the Petermann glacier in Greenland, that is now drifting across the Arctic Ocean. Should it collapse, it would raise global sea levels by a devastating twenty feet. Should it follow a certain trajectory, it could pose a serious threat to waters busy with shipping activities and off-shore oil rigs along the Newfoundland coast. The same waters in which, years ago, the Titanic was struck by an iceberg.

All in all, it has been the summer from hell, weather-wise, for many countries like Pakistan and China, who have been afflicted with the worst-ever floods in their history. As my local paper expressed it, the whole planet seems to be having a midsummer nervous breakdown. The worst-case scenarios, long predicted by climate-change scientists and environmental experts, are suddenly coming to pass and wreaking havoc. The Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization (WMO) compiled a list of some of these devastating weather-related events:

* The heaviest monsoon rains on record have sent rivers rampaging over huge swaths of countryside in Pakistan, flooding thousands of villages, and leaving twenty million (the latest updated number) of Pakistanis homeless. There is now great concern that hunger and destitution, along with the destruction of roads and bridges, could spark political unrest on a scale that would destabilize the government and make the country even more vulnerable to a takeover by Islamic extremists allied with Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.

* Rains in northwest China have increased by up to thirty-three percent since 1961, and still more frequent flooding is predicted for this century. Similar increased precipitation is also predicted for the U.S.--except in the Southwest--with more extreme rainfalls causing flooding. As the wheels have fallen off of the world, however, the U.S. government remains the only major industrialized nation not to have legislated caps on carbon emissions.

Sometimes an artistic image can be more powerful than words. It must have been Virgil, my missing-in-action alligator muse, who prompted me to look for this painting by Vermeer on the Internet, after I'd read the following short poem in the New York Review of Books:


So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn't earned
the world's end.

[by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from Polish]

What struck me immediately about the Vermeer painting--in contrast to our own era of traumatic disintegration and destruction--is its haunting embodiment of steadiness, containment, and stability. As the poles melt and the forests burn and crops wither and seas heave uncontrollably, we are now having to inhabit a world that, in Bill McKibben's words, is "an inhospitable place." And, we are having to contemplate, for the first time in human history, our own untimely demise in it.

The woman in this painting belonged to a world that was still a hospitable place. But during the several centuries that have passed since then, our propulsive drives toward growth and expansion, excess and destruction, greed and overreach, have destroyed the gentle balance between pitcher and bowl. Somehow we have allowed the waters to escape from their containers--and may well have succeeded, beyond our wildest imaginings, in earning the world's end for ourselves.

"When you return to something you love
it's already beyond repair.
You wear it broken."

[by James L. White, from a poem called "Lying in Sadness"]

1 comment:

Katherine Zsolt said...

Deeply grateful ... You have put into words what I have longed to be able to put into form.