Into the Ark

“We have a hundred-year flood every two years now.” Governor Andrew Cuomo

Hurricane Sandy reminds me of two natural calamities that occurred in Portland, Oregon where I have lived for many years. One was the eruption of Mount St Helens on May 18, 1980. A dense cloud of volcanic ash drifted over the city, covering everything with a thick blanket of dark gray ash that virtually shut down the city for days. We were told not to go out and, if it was necessary, to wear a mask.

Not so many years ago, ice storms descended on Portland each winter, making the roads so treacherous it was impossible to drive anywhere. The ice broke limbs on trees throughout the city and led to power outages that lasted for days. The windows in our home, not yet weatherized with double-paned glass, were covered with ice. We used a Coleman stove to heat our food, flashlights to read, and slept in sleeping bags by the fire.

But we haven’t had an ice storm for years which some say is yet another sign of the world heating up. Can global warming clarify our understanding of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive force? Perhaps so, although, as with any weather related event of this magnitude, it is impossible to attribute it to any single factor.

However, we do know that oceans throughout the world are gradually rising as the ice melts away in the northern ice fields. The effects of this are most noticeable in the low-lying areas as we saw in New Orleans and now New York and New Jersey, as well as along some coastal areas of India and Bangladesh during the monsoon seasons.

When these tragedies strike this country or one of its cities, people come together as a community. They begin taking to one another again. At least, there is something to talk about, something we have in common, and a way to help our neighbor. Why it takes these calamities to engender this spirit is yet another tragedy. In such times, we often turn to the poet:

Into the Ark
An endless rain is just beginning.
Into the ark, for where else can you go,
you poems for a single voice,
private exultations,
unnecessary talents,
surplus curiosity,
short-range sorrows and fears,
eagerness to see things from all six sides.

Rivers are swelling and bursting their banks.
Into the ark, all you chiaroscuros and half-tones,
you details, ornaments, and whims,
silly exceptions,
forgotten signs,
countless shades of the color gray,
play for play’s sake,
and tears of mirth.

As far as the eye can see, there’s water and hazy horizon.
Into the ark, plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
outworn scruples,
time to think it over,
and belief that all this
will come in handy someday.

For the sake of the children
that we still are,
fairy tales have happy endings.
That’s the only finale that will do here, too.
The rain will stop,
the waves will subside,
the clouds will part
in the cleared up sky,
and they’ll be once more
what clouds ought to be:
lofty and rather lighthearted
in their likeness to things
drying in the sun—
isles of bliss,

Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Note: I am grateful to Sasha Weiss on the New Yorker’s online blog, Page Turner, for reminding me of Szymborska’s poem.