Aerial of Almannagja fissure, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
By Michael Mountain
I was in the middle of a hurricane once. It was nothing remotely like what’s been unfolding in Japan, but it was enough to give me at least a faint understanding of the helplessness that people in Japan are feeling as they try to relate to forces of nature that dwarf us into insignificance.
It was 1967, and a group of us were camping in an old stone ruin, open to the sky, just a few yards from the beach on the Yucatan coast of Mexico. The consul in Merida, about 60 miles inland, knew we were there, and drove down to warn us that Hurricane Inez was coming and that we should get out NOW.
We decided to stay, and the consul threw up his hands in dismay, got back in his Jeep and hurried back toward the city along the muddy trail that passed for a road.
We built a lean-to at one end of the ruin, and assumed that this would be good enough shelter. I guess we felt we were invulnerable. In fact, we were simply lucky. If we’d built it at the other end, we’d all have been crushed when tons of stone wall collapsed at the height of the storm. Around dawn, the storm had apparently passed and we went outside to look around. The beach had moved; trees had blown away; the whole landscape was unrecognizable.
About half an hour later, just as we were getting our bearings, the wind started blowing again. The hurricane hadn’t passed; we’d just been in the eye of the storm. At that point we realized that with the wind now blowing the opposite way and getting stronger by the minute, what had happened at the other end of the ruin was about to happen at this end. Any minute now, we were going to be crushed under tons of rock. We evacuated to another small roofless stone building, and huddled, soaked and shivering, for another eight hours.
Compared to what’s transpiring in Japan, our brush with the forces of nature was, of course, minuscule. The coast was battered, villages were damaged, and people were hurt – a few had been killed. We spent the next few weeks helping to rebuild the houses in the nearby village of Chuburna, about a mile down the coast.
But I still remember the sense of utter powerlessness, peeking out from our makeshift shelter and seeing coconuts, and then entire trees, flying by at 100 miles an hour.
As we helped rebuild the village, the people there became our friends. When I first met the mayor, he drew a map of the Gulf of Mexico in the sand, with Chuburna on one side and New Orleans on the other, and asked me to point to where we were from. I took a couple of steps back and drew the island of Britain on the other side of the Atlantic. “Where you live,” he asked, “does the sun rise there, too?”
The villagers didn’t know very much about our modern civilization and technology, but they could sense a hurricane on the way and they were attuned to the cycles of nature because they had kept a connection that most of us today have lost. To them, hurricanes were a manifestation of Huracan, the prowling jaguar of darkness and destruction, who was the brother of Kukulcan, the winged serpent of light and life. These two great powers, light and dark, life and death, were constantly pulling at each other, and we mortals would always be caught between them.
We humans are a precocious species, comparatively young in the annals of Earth history … big brained indeed, but not yet as wise as some of the other animals who have been around a lot longer than us. Unlike them, and perhaps unlike our friends the villagers, whose daily lives depended on their relationship to the natural world around them, we have not yet learned how to live well by living in harmony with each other and with the planet that’s our home.
We want to be masters of the universe, but we’re not even masters of our own neighborhoods. And so, unlike other animals who can listen to the Earth and bend to its tempests and tremors, those same tempests and tremors are, for us, catastrophic.
Instead of taking up a way of living that’s in harmony with the Earth, we’re always busy trying to take dominion over it, seemingly oblivious to the simple fact that it can toss us back into our infancy with a twitch of its skin or a puff of its breath.