earthweal weekly challenge: BIG WHEELS TURNING

Nasa astronaut NASA astronaut Megan McArthur shot this picture of Hurricane Henir swirling towards Long Island on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, from the International Space Station.


Sorry this is getting a late start, I was traveling back from Baltimore where I attended a nostalgia convention as part of my duties as the editor of a magazine whose mission is to delve joyously into the recent past.

A terrible time for such an event, airplane travel is even more of a stress with everyone masked, the Delta variant blossoming and airlines struggling to find enough pilots and flight attendants, not to mention having to contend with a soaring incidence of in-flight mayhem. At the convention the air conditioning was out, the hotel waiting for parts to ship in from Europe; enormous fans had been rolled in, but unless you stood in front of one they didn’t make much difference in the rising swelter.

And yet the faithful were there, gobs of money in hand as they bought vintage lobby cards and James Bond board games and pulp magazines from the 40s in plastic sleeves. The convention had been cancelled the year before due to the pandemic, so the faithful came out in droves,  devoted to their fanciful (and some might say obscenely selective) past. Past issues of my magazine sold like hotcakes. In my mind’s ear I still hear those giant fans like the propellers of B-17 bombers ambling down run runways as geek legionnaires slowly peramubulated the hall’s circumference, walker- and wheelchair-bound Herculeses harrowing Hell.

Fans line up for photo ops with long-ago celebs.

I flew in with the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred petering out over Baltimore after dumping oceans on Tennessee, and Hurricane Henri roiling up the coast for a New England-y spin. Neither storm had gathered much magnitude of wind but both were lumbering rain-giants. The city of McEwan, Tennessee recorded 17 inches of rain on Saturday, and much of the Northeast is still under flash-flood warnings as Herni devolves and pours.

When Superstorm Sandy came up that way in 2012, the windfield circled from Canada to West Virginia, dumping massive snow in the holler for Halloween.

While these events pressed in nearby, a research station at the top of the Greenland ice sheet, some 2 miles above sea level and 500 miles above the Arctic Circle recorded rain for the first time ever; just a few drops or a drizzle but in a steady stream that lasted for hours as temperatures hovered above freezing. Ice core samples dating back 2,000 years show that above-freezing temps at that location are exceedingly rare – only six times — yet in the past decade, it’s happened three times. The warming event which occasioned the rain this past week melted about 50 percent of the sheet’s surface.

And while one extreme soaks, the other burns: the great wheel of megadrought in western North America has California fighting 11 massive wildfires. Authorities have had to close 9 national forests. Small towns in Nevada, California, Oregon and Montana are facing evacuation due to the fires. The Lake Mead reservoir has shrunk so low that the federal government announced the first-ever Colorado River water shortage, implementing mandatory consumption cutbacks which will drastically affect farmers in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Last week in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reported on taking a boat trip through this shrinking spectacle. The damming of the Colorado back in the 1950s which created Lake Mead drowned miles of sublime canyons and waterfalls. Edward Abbey was one of several writers and artists to float through Glen Canyon before its inundation, and called the closing of the dam’s gates “a crime.” “Imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible,” he wrote. Just 75 years later, the naturals cathedrals are returning, along with ecosystems that had been drowned for human purpose. Lake Mead recreational boaters aren’t happy (the reservoir sees 4 million visitors a year, collectively spending $500 million), alfalfa growers in Central Arizona are giving up the ghost and the city of Las Vegas is tearing out “useless turf” in medians and along sidewalks. The forces of megadrought — whipped to greater magnitude by global warming — are pitting Great Nature against Grand Humanity. Our engineering feats begin to resemble broken wheels wobbling in their mounts.

Earth returning in Glen Canyon as Lake Mead evaporates.

The emptying of Lake Mead just decades after it was dammed reminds me of when a new pressroom was built for the Orlando daily newspaper back in 1980, just after I stared working there. For months huge pilings were pounded into the sandy soil to stabilize the concrete pad which would hold 100 tons of roaring presses. It was a wonder to behold that titanic effort; for months I rolled my mail cart around the buildings hearing the ka-chung, ka-chung of those merciless drills. For more years the whole building throbbed when the presses were printing their 300,000-paper runs. Then came the Internet and just 40 years later all those presses are gone, sold off to a paper in South America after print circulation fell below 50,000. The emptiness of that building is just as impressive. Human ruin is like that, here today, gone tomorrow, leaving ghost landscapes still turning and visible from space.

Flying back from Baltimore yesterday on a filled-to-capacity Southwest Airlines jet — flights to Orlando are always packed, with many families headed to the Disney imaginarium — I re-read some of Patricia Anthony’s World War 1 novel Flanders in Kindle while listening to Lyle Mays 1986 solo album on iTunes (the jazz piano legend died last year at age 66). An odd combination — jet roar in packed consumerism mixed with modern horror and the hopelessly sublime. Jets are an annoyance on my morning walks around my small Central Florida town, leaving those vast contrails of carbon exhaust in the sky’s first light; now I was aboard one, carving the sky and heating the atmosphere for petty capitalist reasons — selling nostalgia soap, seeing the world, visiting Disney.

In Flanders, the protagonist is a Texas farm boy who joins with British forces to serve as a sharpshooter in the killing fields of Flanders, trenched in such awfulness as only modern warfare can summon. (As Theodor Adorno said, the Kantian sublime of human mastery led not to loftier peaks but rather the ovens Auschwitz—stopping, en route, to fester in the trenches of Flanders). The young Texas soldier cowers in bunkers with his mates as shell after shell after shell of an unending bombardment explode up and down the line. Every tree in the salient is but a charred splinter and the whole area reeks of death for miles — soldiers, horses and rats rot amid piles of human waste. All for the dream of nation-states spinning madly in the minds of monarchs.

I was listening to “Mirror of the Heart,” Mays’ masterpiece, as the plane slowly lowered toward Orlando, cutting through puffy clouds and the nearing a green expanse scarred every whichway by roads, farms and subdivisions, all preterit of the living earth they cut into. How beautiful the music, how gentle the falling, how inexorable the sense that the wheels we have set into motion cannot sustain the Earth they were extracted from. “There is no questions of artificially separating the time of the Anthropocene from the human time of our lives and history,” Dipesh Chakrabarty writes in The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (University of Chicago Press, 2021, p. 11). “In many ways, our capacity to act as a geophysical force is connected to many modern forms of enjoyment.”

This morning I got back out with my local trees walking as I usually do from my house down to Lake Dora and back, a preamble of several miles. Trees are the whales of my local habitation, sprawling trunks of truth with canopies blent with late starlight. It was very warm and humid, as you might expect for Florida mid-summer, and made me think of standing hours in the sweltering confines of the past just days ago. How different the big wheel of the American Dream to trees in massive standing silence up and down the street, their flukes heavy with summer leaf. How at rest the lake was at that early hour, so devoid of the engines of growth. Overhead a passenger jet was crossing, angling down for the Orlando airport 40 miles away. That was me up there, spinning fast around with the blade of human irruption; I was also making the circuit of a local habitation, a green man who believes the work of the earth is my work.

And then I was here, tapping out the last words of a challenge I post late (apologies), cats mewling around in the kitchen while my wife brews coffee for her first cup. One house on earth waking to its next daily round.

For this challenge, write of BIG WHEELS TURNING, however the metaphor moves you.

— Brendan






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