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08/04/2003 Archived Entry: "Thoughts while tiling the floor (volcanos)"

IN 535 C.E., SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENED. The sun lost its brightness and its warmth for 18 months. Crops failed worldwide. The climatic upset affected rodent populations in Africa. Mice and gerbils spread from their normal habitat and transferred their fleas to rattus rattus, the common rat. That triggered a global outbreak of bubonic plague every bit as devastating as the more famous one of 1348. And for the next century, the whole human world -- physically weakened and suffering cultural, religious, and political displacement -- boiled with political turmoil that, in the end, overthrew the ancient order and gave birth to the new.

That's the thesis of David Keys in his interesting (if not entirely convincing) 1999 book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the origins of the modern world. He and Ken Wohletz, a volcanologist at Los Alamos labs, say that a volcano that they identify as "proto-Krakatoa" was responsible.

Other scientists also say that another volcano -- a "supervolcano" called Mt. Toba -- erupted with such force 74,000 years ago that the resulting climate disruption reduced the human population on earth to about 10,000. Today, we've got the world's potentially biggest supervolcano sitting right in the heart of America, crawling with tourists who admire its marvelous geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, and boiling mud pots. Yellowstone is geologically due, or overdue, for its next eruption.

It doesn't take a supervolcano to create superchaos. When Mt. Tambora (a near neighbor of both Krakatoa and Toba) blew its top in 1815, the following year became known as "the year without a summer" because high-altitude volcanic dust blotted out the sun and caused snowstorms in August and worldwide crop failures.

Volcanos, meteor strikes, stray comets ... not to mention the ordinary, yet mysterious, upturns and downturns of climate that can bring ice sheets into England or spread Saraha sand over a once-thriving kingdom. They make the silly, superficial history that people of my generation learned in high school (with its endless emphasis on the power of kings, generals, presidents, and the occasional inventor) look ... well, silly and superficial. History is so much bigger than us all and so complex that no king or general (or global treaty on climate change) can can have much more than a token effect on the course of life -- however much devastation they may cause in the short term. And every one of today's certainties, or today's vital issues, can become dust tomorrow.

As historian Will Durant said, "Civilization exists by geologic consent - subject to change without notice."

I've been tiling the floor of my cabin for the last week. It's one of those backbreaking, heart-gratifying, and mind-freeing jobs that brings the world back to basics. That -- and a stack of library books about volcanos -- have pulled my thoughts away from guns and politics and privacy and all the things that usually seem so vital (and will seem that vital again tomorrow or next week). The greater reality is the incomprehensible power of the planet on which I kneel as I work. And the greater personal reality in my life is the cool, heavy porcelain tiles in my hands and the sweaty, heavy work of spreading mastic or grout.

Thinking of tiny, foolish, arrogant (but valiant) little man seeking security and certainty in a world that offers none, absolutely none, of either may seem depressing. In a way it is. Contemplating the mindless violence that periodically wipes out everything we little humans love and need, I want to shout to the gods, "Unfair!" (as if they cared). And yet, there's powerful serenity, too, in knowing that the worst human injustices, the worst dictatorships, the most horrible suffering, the most ominous laws, the most grimly unrewarding tasks are as evanescent as the greatest pleasures or the greatest triumphs.

Posted by Claire @ 02:46 PM CST

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