A new year has begun, one of the arbitrary boundaries we set in order to measure the passage of time. It's a time where we reflect backwards and look forwards, and doing so is socially shared. We all do it, and even if we don't, we are conscious of the fact that we don't. Even the rebels among us who treat New Year's as just another day do so fully aware of what they are not doing.
New Year's, arbitrary though it is, nevertheless has a stunning significance.
For me, it almost marks my first year since I've moved much closer to my beloved Yellowstone. In fact, the day I moved here was December 23, 2007; however, it's close enough to the magnetic pull of New Year's that it might as well be a year today. What a neat year it has been, watching my little baby boy grow, watching the seasons change, adoring the mountains, co-founding an activist group, moving into a new house, learning to ski, and taking every opportunity I could to know Yellowstone.
Who knows if next year will be as fortunate? The impermanence of our experience is in part what makes it so compelling. That it might be otherwise or might have been otherwise, whether by luck or our own control, the possibility of what might have been or what might still be certainly is part of the drama of our existence. We never know whether the moment we live might be our last or whether bad times might be better or worse yet. We'd like to think that what goes up might go down, but we wonder if it mightn't just keep rising forever. The odds that I would be here right now writing this essay in this place are almost impossible. That I am when I might not have been, that I am here and not there, there is nothing that can amaze the mind more than imagining all the possibilities.
Perhaps, that's why people are so drawn to doom. In recent days, a ridiculous number of people have been drawn to reports of a large swarm of minor earthquakes in Yellowstone. There have been hundreds of small quakes within the Yellowstone caldera, one of the world's largest volcanoes (supervolcanoes). There's nothing unusual about small or even large earthquakes in Yellowstone, but what made this newsworthy was the sheer number of earthquakes all at once mostly in the same area. And, once that became a national story, it has drawn out dozens and dozens and dozens of blog posts about it, a great many of them with apocalyptic predictions of what might come, or in the words of many, what surely will come.
It has been almost absurd to see that my newspaper on all things greater Yellowstone has had more unique visitors the past couple of days than any other day of the online paper's existence. That's more striking because we are not in the main tourist season, and in fact we are in the holiday season. It's been particularly hard to keep up with the sheer number of blogs posting opinions on this. Like New Year's draws us in right now, for me, the fact that so many people are obsessed with news about the very common occurrence of earthquakes in Yellowstone is something that I cannot avoid thinking about.
So, impermanence is our lot. We will die. The Earth one day will surely be gone, at least when the sun finally explodes, perhaps sooner. What we work to protect, what we fear of losing, we all will lose. Just as today passes into yesterday, we will lose the possibility of what might still be into a merely what might have been. Doom, whether it comes in a spectacular ball of fire, or dying quietly surrounded by hospice caretakers like my partner Genevieve cares for, is certainly our lot, at least in terms of our lives here on Earth.
Old Faithful will be gone one day. And, yes, one day, that supervolcano will indeed explode.
However, the fact of doom is perfectly normal, the essence of mundane. However, no one is interested in something simply because it is perfectly normal. No one is interested about my sleeping schedule, when I choose to eat, when I choose to relieve myself. Few particularly care whether I live or whether I die. The inevitability of doom isn't what's attractive to people; what is attractive is thinking the possibilities of what might happen. People are attracted in particular to the manner of their death - or perhaps the death of others. If someone is murdered, they care more than if they happened to die a slow, agonizing death overcome by dimentia, or perhaps Parkinson's--like my grandmother. The unexpected--the death of a young child, the sudden heart attack, perhaps a suicide that was a surprise. And, the more bizarre and unusual, the more attractive. If we all go down in a fire of ash, suffocated by chlorine gas, and an ice age, caused by the most beautiful place in the world, now that's a story. That's something people can buy into; that's really an attractive way to die or to cheat death. That's drama, and that's the kind of possibility that people dream about.
And, even if it's not likely, that the notion that the supervolcano is overdue is based on a very weak inductive generalization of the fewest instances, the sheer possibility, the knowledge that maybe we are the lottery winners in a game of the most sensationalized doom, is enough to keep hope alive for those who don't want their lives to be merely normal, their doom to be like all the others.
That it's sadistic to the hilt is of no matter; I imagine many thousands of people were thrilled at first when Hurricane Katrina struck hard. It's disgusting and revolting but no doubt true, or else why would cable news outlet after outlet send reporters down to the eye of the storm? They don't do it because they are concerned; they do it because people have a fascination with disaster. When terrible disaster struck, the sensationalism couldn't last but a few weeks even though the problems for the people of New Orleans still remain. But, at that point, it was mundane. People were used to it; the drama of the true tediousness of life no longer concerned them. Perhaps, people felt a little guilty for wishing such doom, but then the thought creeps in, "What if it were to happen again?"
In fact, disasters are happening in Yellowstone right now that are apparently not sensational enough to matter. Wolves are caught in the crosshairs of political disputes and land wars. Buffalo were slaughtered in record numbers in 2008 by the government. Unexploded ordnance, all to keep Sylvan Pass open during winter for a few snowmobilers, litter eastern Yellowstone (oh wait, you didn't know about that, isn't that a disaster waiting to happen?) No doubt that all around Yellowstone, you won't have any trouble finding hundreds of people whose obituaries are being written and thousands of animals who die in the life and death struggle of the ecosystem (oh wait, you really dig that - that's what National Geographic or an Anderson Cooper special are for or perhaps all the spotting scopes in the Lamar Valley). But, how can any of that compete with supposedly impending planetary doom? One person's year, one person's possibilities, one blade of grass's hopes and dreams cannot possibly connect us so powerfully. Just as New Year's connects us all, we are connected by really big, unique notions of doom.
There might be no helping our sensationalistic tendencies; how can we tell anyone not to imagine doomsday scenarios? We are drawn magnetically to considering what might be. However, I think sometimes our imaginations aren't brilliant enough. That might seem odd considering some of the apocalyptic nonsense that you can read online right now about Yellowstone or the Mayan prophecy and 2012. It seems the imagination is doing well, but is it? Actually, it's pretty dull and predictable. People are drawn to the same kinds of disasters - volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors, plagues. It's particularly dull to see so many people running to my Web site looking for the same thing. Rather than evidence of a vivid imagination, it's evidence that people are basically trapped by the same societal paradigms. Those who are accused of having overactive imaginations in fact are just guilty of bad reasoning, and those who spend all their time debunking them - while just as lacking in imagination - at least have the good sense not to be totally trapped.
What I mean by a lack of imagination is that we seem unable to understand anything close to the full range of possibility so that we might empathize with anyone or anything caught in any situation. There's absolutely no reason that we cannot wonder at the situation of a single pebble in our backyard. Now, that we don't wonder about these things isn't always surprising, but it would be far more interesting to live in a world where we at least are making the effort. Every time the wind blows over the surface of our lands, an entire universe is displaced. One breath of air is doom for an infinity of molecules. Just the wonder of such a reality where disaster lurks around every keystroke can compel us, can help us reach new levels of empathy for our world and for our own situation. The what might be and what might have been is infinite; there's no reason to fall back to the same scenarios of doom.
Right now, we are stuck in a New Year's state of mind, not that there's anything wrong with that. What's wrong is that it's so dull. It's all very much the same, lacking in the critical variety of experience that our five senses demand. So, this New Year's, I don't resolve to be rid of it. How can I? But, I do resolve to wonder just that much more at what's not being wondered about, to care just that much more, and if in the process, I'm forced to consider a lot of doomsday scenarios about things all too familiar - like the Yellowstone supervolcano - so be it. At least, I'm not going to confine myself to just the same kind of essay. Hopefully ... hopefully ... there is something new under our weary sun.