The six of us—myself, my wife, our little Black Lab, a poet friend, and two friendly gearheads—are off to a late start as the packing of effects and food and water drags on and then it’s a puzzle of how to fit our backpacks into the hatchback. The drive into the mountains north of Tucson tacks on an hour. The hike into the canyon adds another. Unburdened, the dog scrambles ahead and we arrive to find her already sprawled out—wet and panting—on the polished granite that cradles the creek that flows year round along the foot of the cliff, the cliff we’ve come for. It’s almost 10 a.m., but this side of the stream is still in shade and is cool, though the forecasters assured us a 100˚ day. Somehow, we are the first climbers here.
Neill and Ty are the gearheads, and the rack of climbing tackle strung from Ty’s harness hangs like a bizarre heavy-metal kilt, a skirt of chimes that clack and jangle as he bends over and stands up. The various accouterments—carabiners and cams and nuts and quickdraws and alpine draws and more belay devices than he’ll need—add another twenty pounds to his person.
With cropped blond hair and a smallish, wiry frame, Neill looks uncannily like a younger version of the actor William Sadler (otherwise known as the guy Bruce Willis fights on the wing of a moving plane in Die Hard 2). He is outfitted the same as Ty, and the rest of the gear—several thousand dollars’ worth—is laid out on top of an emergency blanket spread orange-side-up across the rock.
When they’re ready, we move as a group to the base of this suddenly towering cliff—granite straight up, its face pocked and cracked and impressively vertical, with a number of overhangs near the middle. Despite the frightening height of it, the route before us doesn’t look so tough from here. In fact, it’s an easy-to-intermediate route that Neill has picked to lead first. Ty belays him, which is to say Neill knots the rope to his harness and Ty loops the other end through a belay device, which attaches to his own harness via a carabiner. They exchange looks, nods, and then Neill sprints up the first fifteen feet before pausing to fix in a cam, an ingenious mechanical wedge that pinches closed when you pull a trigger and expands again when the trigger is released, and which can be fitted into tight spaces, like cracks in the rock—or wherever possible—as you climb.
When you fall, this is the gear that keeps you from falling very far. In a very real sense, this is the gear that keeps you alive, and as such, cams are often referred to as “pro” as in protection. The more protection a climber puts into the rock the less force each piece will need to bear if that climber falls, reducing the likelihood that any individual piece will fail.
After giving the cam a good yank, making sure it’s dependably stuck, Neill snaps on a quickdraw, clips the rope through the open end, and, safer now, scurries up another ten feet.
Neill will only lead-climb this route once and then he’ll run a rope from the top. Top-roping, i.e. climbing with the rope fixed from above, is generally safer. If you fall, you won’t fall as far, and so the force of that fall will be less and will pull directly against the anchor at the top, which is bolted securely into the rock. Neill is kindly setting up this route for those of us who are much, much less experienced.
Another friend, Steve, finally arrives in the canyon by himself and joins us, watching Neill. He’s late because he wanted to spend the morning playing Civilization—the classic 90s-era computer game—on his PC. In his early 30s, Steve resembles a stocky, somewhat balding bear, and has been climbing rocks for twenty years. While we chat, the dog noses through his backpack, eventually discovering a greasy takeout bag containing a Five Guys burger and fries, which Neill—watching from on high—threatens to eat when he gets down. Steve buries the sandwich back among his things.
Notably, he’s already wearing his apple-red, thoroughly scuffed—and very tough looking—climbing helmet. In fact, I have never seen him in this canyon without it.
Last year, Steve was at a nearby wall belaying a young college kid who was lead-climbing a difficult route—and who, per his youthful swagger, didn’t put much protection into the rock—and just as he reached the anchor at the top of the route, the kid slipped. The last cam he’d put in was ten feet below, which meant a twenty-foot fall, plus the stretch of the rope. The force of his weight amplified by this distance ripped that cam right out of its crack and added another ten feet to his plummet—which ended abruptly, as falls like this tend to, when he landed on an outcropping. In his bravado, the kid also wasn’t wearing a helmet, and as he smacked down he cracked his bare head against the much harder granite, leaving him unconscious. Steve and another climber went up, brought him down, and—somehow deciding an airlift wasn’t necessary—carried him out of the canyon to their truck, a trek of almost two uphill miles. So the story goes.
Whether this is directly related to that incident, I don’t know, but these days Steve wears his helmet to eat lunch.
Hanging out in our living room this morning, waiting for things to come together, Nicola, the poet, browsed our bookshelves, eventually coming upon a collection by Anna Świrszczyńska (a.k.a. Anna Swir), who during the Nazi occupation of Poland joined the resistance movement, worked as a nurse in the Warsaw Uprising, once waited an hour to be executed before being spared, and who finally died (I can find no account of the last bit of her life) in 1984—after crafting some nine collections of splendidly bare and sensual and provocative poems about her experiences in WWII, motherhood, the female body, dogs’ tails, and life, such as it is, in general.
“This is one of my favorites!”
“Me too!” I said, toothbrush in mouth, kettle whistling, Angie slicing pepperjack onto slabs of baguette, Olive the dog pushing her tennis ball into Nicola’s hand. I told the story of finding the book in a thrift store in a retirement town in Florida, of not knowing who the author was (or how to pronounce her last name), but buying it anyway because I liked the cover—then I went to the bathroom sink, spit, rinsed, and went to help assemble the vittles.
“I used to read a lot of that stuff—” I said around the kitchen wall.
Angie threw in, “And write it, too.”
“—but no more.”
“What happened?” Nicola asked, the dog now licking her sandals.
“I don’t know,” I said, my head in the fridge. “I just have no time for poetry anymore.”
I do read a lot of nonfiction—nonfiction books and articles and essays on everything from cetology and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and 19th century sexual mores in New York to mortality and Wikipedia and the perils of saturation diving, on lynching and Ebola and the nearly-impossible-to-fathom emptiness of the ever-expanding universe, and woodland beetles ravaging spruce trees in Canada, home-grown opiates, the rise of Unitarianism, Wiccan orgies, Truman Capote’s alleged collection of Asian robes, methyl mercury poisoning, the distillation of Sarin gas at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal through 1970, and, of late, how best to prevent the perineum from tearing in childbirth. Artist Chris Burden once had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen, rakish Tolstoy found God, teachers are packing handguns, we’re stockpiling antibiotics, and lawnmower fumes are officially carcinogenic. And why doesn’t anyone date anymore? Why don’t kids read books anymore? Why doesn’t anyone drive Dodge anymore?—and suddenly I am so, so tired, need a shot of something, of espresso, which is fine, coffee will make you live longer, says the New York Times—and all of this at a rate of consumption which, in the words of one whirling David Foster Wallace, “tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that’s also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.” So there it is. Total Noise. Total fucking noise. TOTAL fucking NOISE. The seizuratic orchestral roar of so much mashing of info and context—and my head has spun right off.
It all gets to be a bit much—so much it feels like being water-boarded, a state of perpetual drowning, and I’m treading water just under the surface of all these tickers and updates and must-reads, perpetually gurgling, and if I stop huffing air for a second, for the time it might take to consume, say, a poem, that brine will go straight to my burning lungs—that’s how it feels anyway. I’m adrift in this unfathomable lightless ocean of information, just trying to stay afloat.
“And that’s why,” I told Nicola, “I have no time for poetry anymore.”
Angie, Nicola, and Olive are back by the creek. Neill is almost up the wall. I confess to Ty, “I’ve never actually fallen out here.” I’ve let go of course, I’ve sat back and let my weight pull against the rope, I’ve trusted my life to the knots I’ve tied, but I’ve never pushed myself to the point of actually falling off the rock. I don’t know what that might feel like—to think you’re okay, and suddenly slip, and drop. To throw your weight at a hold, and miss, and… In truth, I just don’t trust the rope completely, or the person belaying me. And I say to Ty, “I think I need to get past this fear.”
“For sure,” he says, his eyes on Neill.
“My goal for today…” I say, also watching Neill work—looking for hints to the route, though really he makes it look so easy (he climbs like Spiderman, his vertical movements entirely fluid; he never seems to hesitate; he looks so comfortable) that it’s like he’s climbing another wall altogether (an overhang that I’ll later huddle beneath for ten minutes barely slows his ascent)—“…is to climb until I fall.”
“A good goal,” Ty says, and Neill calls down that he’s there, yells, “Slack!” and slaps two quickdraws onto the anchor at the head of the route, then clips the rope through both of them. “Tension!” he calls to Ty, and I watch him fearlessly, it seems, sit back. Ty lets the rope flow against Neill’s weight and in a few seconds he’s standing in front of us.
Over by the backpacks, Angie has a book out and Nicola and the dog are nowhere to be seen, so I corral Steve into belaying me. We set about tying in, and I don my bright green skateboarding helmet, aware that I look slightly ridiculous. I am resolutely okay with this.
I start climbing.
And suddenly everyone crowds around. I hear Neill say, “It’s super exposed up there by the crux,” and not knowing what that means, I pause and look down and ask him. “It means that to get around that overhang you need to step out over empty space. You’ll feel really vulnerable.”
“Awesome,” I reply, and continue up, in no real hurry.
“It’s not so bad really,” Neill says. And then he adds, “When you’re up against it, just laugh a little. It’ll help you relax.”
Those first few vertical steps on the rock are worth twenty feet of distance from the people below you. Climbing—though your life depends, literally, on the person belaying you—is a remarkably solo activity. It’s really just you, the rock, and the empty space (that so desperately wants to suck you down into it) below.
I work my way up another ten feet, find a ledge large enough for my toes, and I stop to take stock: nothing but rock—sun-warmed and smooth-looking, but vaguely rough to the touch—in front of me. Looking down, I see that Steve has taken a seat facing away from the wall. He might be sleeping, but as I move up the rope pulls taut above me. He is belaying by feel, which in theory I am fine with, though it doesn’t do much to assuage the stifling air of loneliness, and fear, that hits me as I realize I’m stuck here, not knowing which way to go, with no handholds that I can see, and no way to move my feet up, as everyone on the ground chats and laughs and doesn’t seem to notice my predicament.
“Hey, Steve!” I call down. “Any thoughts here?”
Steve doesn’t move, but looks over his shoulder and yells up, “I don’t know.”
I hear Neill laugh, and say, “You’re a big help…”
Ty calls up, “Reach high with your left!” I reach but my fingers can’t find a purchase. “Higher!” Still nothing. “More!” I push onto my tiptoes, only the thumb and forefinger of my right hand pinched inside a small crack, holding me against the rock. Reaching hard, I feel a small ridge with my left hand and secure a hold. Stepping my right foot up to the crack where my right fingers are, I wedge my toes in as tightly as I can, then move my right hand up to meet my left at the ridge. And just like that, I’ve progressed upwards another three feet, with maybe forty to go.
In truth, all the nonfiction I’ve been ingesting lately is really weighing me down. It’s a lot of the psychopathic-history-of-humanity stuff and a lot of facts-and-figures-behind-global-warming-and-the-impending-apocalypse stuff and a lot of nuclear-war-doomsday stuff, and the other day our landlord admitted to me that he keeps a kiddie pool in the backyard (to lie in after long hot days of working, but also) because he thinks it’ll be good for a month’s worth of water when the city’s wells dry up, and all of this leaves me anxious because at the end of the day I still don’t know how to answer the most basic of questions: What to do when the proverbial bomb, the Big One, falls—fill up the bathtub? Or run out and try to catch it?
Filling up the bathtub is a bet on survival, and we love the idea of surviving the apocalypse, don’t we? Writer Rebecca Solnit plays psychologist: “What, after all, is the American idea of Armageddon but that of the preservation and reinvention of the frontier. America has been without a past before and seems ready to be without one again.”
“It seems to have been for this reason,” she writes, “that the explosive power of atomic weapons is exaggerated, their radioactive aftermath downplayed: rather than the bomb as a lingering disease, it is the bomb as phoenix fire.” Doom then, but then a heroic re-birth in the gloom—and what could be better? Deep in our clobbering American hearts, don’t we all kind of long to be Daniel Boone, or Kit Carson, or Natty Bumppo, or Mad Max?
Really though, annihilation by detonation seems less likely these days than mass destruction and social breakdown as the result of quickening climate change. Think of all those tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes. And it’s only going to get worse, most experts agree. Where will it end?
With our oil reservoirs fast burning up, author James Howard Kunstler forecasts the combustion of civilization as we know it. Much of Craig Childs’s writing, too, seems to suggest that all ever-expanding societies eventually collapse. Self-styled “social entrepreneur” and “advisor on sustainability” Paul Gilding predicts total social disintegration will begin by 2018, unless we forgo growth for a steady-state economy. James Lovelock—inventor of the electron capture detector, the machine that first alerted us to the presence of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in our atmosphere—has put his money on outright human extinction. Or something thereabouts. The earth will recover just fine from this bout of warming, he says, but “as the Earth heats, dries, and loses land to the ocean, 7 billion people will be squeezed into ever-decreasing regions of agricultural fertility. The result will be a massive cull of humanity. Like the foot of an elephant on an anthill, global heating will crush life from the continental places. The human population will be reduced to prehistoric levels, or less.”
Important to remember, too, is that this isn’t just about us either. Homo sapiens is but one of some nine million species on the planet. And we’re all threatened. 245 million years ago, the Permian extinction event extirpated 95% of all known animal species on Earth, and more recently the great Cretaceous extinction booted not only the dinosaurs, but 75% of all other species as well. In the context of his renowned essay “Planet of Weeds,” first published in Harper’s in 1998, conservationist writer David Quammen offers this: “The consensus among conscientious biologists is that we’re headed into another mass extinction, a vale of biological impoverishment commensurate with the big five [mass extinction events]. Many experts remain hopeful that we can brake that descent, but my own view is that we’re likely to go all the way down.”
So make no mistake then—the future, it seems, looks glum for everyone. At least according to what I’ve been reading lately.
I should note that as I climb the scenery behind me is quite breathtaking—a stand of ponderosa pines has grown thick and tall beside the creek, one of which has died but not yet fallen and I am only now on level with the first of its high, skeletal branches. The creek is lined with rocks smooth and white like well-brushed teeth. The other side of the canyon stretches to twice the height of the cliff I’m on, its slope draped with scree settled like an old ash flow, its promontories bold and hard, yet round and worn down. And there are subtle colors all around, browns and blues and greens, and there are oaks and manzanita and yucca and the occasional columbine, blooming orange—though it’s fair to say that, in this particular moment, I notice exactly none of these things.
I can hear snippets of the conversation following my progress thirty feet below me. A couple of other climbers—two women and a young boy who belongs to one of them—and their Golden Retriever have joined the party. The group shouts up a few more hints and I use them until, once again, I’m stumped.
Ty to one of the women: “He’s terrified of heights.”
Angie: “He is. It’s true.”
Woman in orange tank top: “So is she.” I can’t see, but presumably she points at the other woman. “I don’t understand why you put yourselves through this!”
Chuckles, en masse.
Me: “Hey, I’m a bit lost up here!”
The consensus is that I need to get my feet up, starting with my left leg, which is fine for them to say, but I truthfully don’t think I can do it. The thing about climbing is that even when you’re stopped on the rock, your body is still working hard. Ideally you find a position where you can really rest, where good body mechanics will minimize the stress a bit, but if you can’t find such an ideal niche you end up like me, here, my weight resting only on the toes of my right foot, which I’ve wedged onto a ledge the size of a quarter, and only the fingers of my left hand holding me against the rock face, while my right hand and left foot float free with nothing to grab onto.
Somebody: “Just get your leg up!” But my hold on this wall is frickin’ precarious, and the idea of lifting my dangling leg and throwing off my center of balance terrifies me.
“I think I’m cashed!” I shout down. The calf muscle in my right leg twitches. My left arm is quivering. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to pick up a gallon of milk. “I think I’m done! Steve, wake up!”
Woman in orange: “Oh c’mon! Just man up and do it!”
Thus spurred, with everyone watching, I step up on my left foot and reach as high as I can, blindly, with my right hand, expecting any second to slip free. Instead my fingers crawl around a chunk of stone the size of a baseball—a good hold, a real hold. I let go with my left hand, shake my arm out and step another few feet higher.
“I can’t believe that worked,” I hear the woman in orange say. And with that, I knock my big green helmet against the overhang, the crux of the climb.
My wife intends to run out and catch the proverbial bomb—why would she want to live in an apocalyptic, crap world anyway? To be with me, I say, and then she tells me I’d probably just die, get killed somehow, and then she’d be appropriated by someone else or by some group of deviants and would probably be raped again and again until finally they’d kill her and eat whatever flesh they could scrape from her long-suffering, starved bones. And would I endorse such a future for her, my beloved? “Of course not,” I say, “but that won’t happen.” I—which is to say, the aspiring archetypal apocalyptic hero—won’t let that happen.
I would fill up the bathtub, I tell her. I want to survive. It’s a matter of toughness maybe, this not wanting to give in.
“It is not a matter of toughness.” She is adamant, and clear: “You are not Charlton Heston. You will be dead, or dying. I will be dead, or dying. No amount of crazy survivalist preparation is going to change that. We’ll all be dead or dying. What kind of life would that be?”
And of course the voice of reason sides with her. Be it an atomic blast, an earthquake, a meteor, an imminent ice age, or more likely a steamed-up hot world, or whatever combination of whatever it will be that wipes out 99% of humanity, it’s unlikely any of us will survive. And even if I personally happen to, it’s not like I’d kick as much ass as Denzel in The Book of Eli, or be as dogged as Viggo in The Road, or as suave as Will Smithilicious in I Am Legend, or even prove as stoic as all those stiff-necked Navy guys in On the Beach. No, I’d probably end up as one of those shit-muckers in the underground methane factory in Beyond Thunderdome, or maybe if I’m lucky, I’d just be an extra in the back of the crowd that watches Mel Gibson fistfight his way out of Bartertown, and then, if I’m lucky, I’d go home to my girl, and we’d eat raisins, or whatever, and crank out some offspring to perpetuate our genes, and soon after that I’d break an arm in an accident and die a fortnight later of infection. And that’s probably a best-case scenario.
I’ve always imagined I’m the kind of guy who would stick it out no matter what, but maybe my lady has a point. Truth be told, I am a smidge crazier than she is, and the idea of needing to fight to survive in an apocalyptic world actually does appeal to a small (10%ish?) part of me—no doubt the same part of me that claims to enjoy doing pushups—but seriously, at what point should we consider giving up on surviving? How bad would it need to get before we give in?
I’m at the crux of this climb and I know what needs to be done, but the required move seems impossible and I rest for a minute debating which would be worse, to keep going (to push myself that much higher into this nightmare of rock-chafe and panic and fear), to ask to come down, or to settle in there on that tiny ledge and try to stay there forever. If only I’d brought provisions.
This crux requires a move I’ve never done before, called a “layback.” The overhang extends out over my head, but there is another outcrop abutting the overhang at a right angle, and in that space between them is a crack big enough for my fingers to pull against. The trick is to lean out and wedge the fingers of my right hand into this crack, then lift my right foot up to where my fingers are and press it hard against the abutting rock—pulling against my fingers and pushing with my foot, and in this way I should be able to hoist my weight up and around to the exposed front of the overhang. From there, I should be able to walk my feet and hands up the wall, until I reach the top of the crack and can find some sort of more holdable handhold. Of course, my body will be laid out nearly horizontal, there will be sixty feet of empty space directly below me, and if I let up one iota on that pulling/pushing pressure my feet will slip off the rock, and I will fall.
I can’t hear the conversation on the ground anymore. I look down and my brain doesn’t register anything but the carpet of rocks below, and a nearby patch of yucca plants with their bright green balls of shin-dagger fronds that look comparatively soft. “I don’t think I can do it!” I yell down at whoever might be listening.
Angie yells back, “Then just come down!”
Steve: “I’ll let you down if you want, whatever.”
Then Ty calls up, “Remember what you said! This is it! Climb until you fall!”
Reaching around the top of the overhang my fingers find the crack. They pull against it. My right foot goes up, pushes against the opposing rock. My weight is held there, and my left foot finds its place by my right, pushes in cadence with it. I am virtually horizontal now, need only to swing my left hand around, grab the crack, and start walking up.
“Get your feet higher!” someone shouts, and I want to, I do, but I can’t. My left arm is stuck beneath the overhang. I can’t swing it around without shifting my weight. And I feel this would be bad. I need to shift my weight but my stance here is so precarious I don’t think I can.
At this point, I know, I’m reading just to feed my anxieties. A friend of mine suggests a break from all of these climate change doomsayers would do me good. Our outlook need not be so cynical, she tells me, and by way of example cites activist-author Bill McKibben who believes we people are like cockroaches, capable of enduring any upheaval. Even David Quammen, she adds, acknowledges that Homo sapiens are as bombproof a species as any, ultimately destined to survive anything. “Sure,” I reply, “people will survive, but you and I? Probably not.” And even if we do somehow outlast the cataclysm, life for survivors will be awfully hard—what with the starvation and the pillaging marauders and the utter lack of social order—and if that’s the case, who would want to survive just to survive anyway?
I read a lot of nonfiction, but I like a good story, too. I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the third time.
Remember that scene in which the father and son stumble upon two men and a recently pregnant woman spit-roasting a baby? Something about that scene (besides the fact that it’s gruesome) has always bothered me. We’ve all read Swift’s modest proposal, but seriously, eating babies just doesn’t make much sense, at least not when considering the ratio of caloric intake-to-growth. The situation might be different if we lived in 18th-century Dublin and the gutters were overflowing with little bambino edibles, but we don’t, and in an apocalyptic future, babies (in fact people of any kind) will likely be hard to come by. And the idea of growing your own child just to eat it is the most ludicrous kind of ridiculousness. At least when the Donner Party resorted to eating itself they knew that if some of them survived they would eventually escape back to civilization—but that trio of gone-savages in this story, what could they possibly hope to accomplish by roasting (and splitting three ways!) a newborn baby? And I think that’s why the idea of it is so horrific, because it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no reason to it. It’s primal, in the worst primevil kind of way. It’s the unleashing of a person’s pure animal instinct, and we’re used to that animalism being safely hidden beneath a veneer of humanity. And the apocalypse, as Cormac suggests, will rub that veneer clean away. (Recall the original meaning of “apocalypse”: the lifting of the veil.) Would you really want to stick around for all of that?
What-ifs abound, and I admit, I am afraid of many of them: What if a band of debased, sadistic beast-men take my daughter? What if she’s taken by zombie cannibals who rape her to death, tear her apart, and then eat what’s left?—kind of an outlandish fear sure, but admittedly a real fear of mine nonetheless. And so in all seriousness, I ask you, wouldn’t it be better to help her die peacefully, to just watch the fireworks and then go home and settle into a warm tub and open a vein? Wouldn’t that be more humane?
“Are you finished?” my friend asks.
“No!” I say. “I am not!” Then, with a sigh, “Yes. Yes I am.”
“There won’t be any fireworks,” she says. “It’s not that black and white. Nothing is going to happen overnight. And there’s no such thing as zombies.”
Everyone is shouting, “Keep going! Climb until you fall!” I want to yell back, “I’m trying!”—but I’m somehow completely out of breath.
I can’t get my left arm around. I shimmy one foot an inch higher, but I’m afraid to move the other one. My fingers verge on giving out. I feel like I’m cresting the top of the first plunge of a rollercoaster and I’m in the last car and the first car just went over and there’s no going back.
When I was a kid, my older brother used to play a game with me that involved one of those hand exercisers that people use to strengthen their grip, and any spare quarters I might have had. He showed me how to squeeze the thing closed, and where the two grips came together at the bottom, he would stick one of my quarters. If I relaxed my grip at all, the quarter would fall, and if this happened in less than thirty seconds my brother would win the round, and the twenty-five cents.
“Keep going! Climb until you fall!”
To keep the quarter stuck between the two grips you need to squeeze the thing closed as hard as you can, and keep squeezing as hard as you can. You can’t let up at all, not one bit, or the quarter falls. You squeeze as hard as you can, and then suddenly, you’re still squeezing as hard as you can but it doesn’t matter. Your grip slackens, almost imperceptibly, but enough, and the quarter drops to the floor.
My right foot slips off the rock. It happens so fast that I don’t feel it slip, I just know that it does, and then my fingers follow suit, and suddenly my brain goes blank, empties itself of all thought, all thoughts, everything—and I am aware only that I am screaming as I fall.
All of this end of the world racket just feels right. Or it’s total crap. Or I just want it to prove true, because if it is all true and we’re already doomed then I’m off the hook in terms of lifestyle—I can drive my guzzler and fete on corn-fed beef and bananas and Coca-Cola and all the Chex-Mix I can eat, and I can put up ten Christmas trees, and wear polypropylene underwear manufactured in sweat shops in Cambodia, or whatever, so long as I’m adequately prepared, with canned goods in a bunker, a charcoal filter in the yard, a lifetime stash of size 10½, Vibram-soled boots from REI, and an AR-15 (and a stockpile of brass-cased .223-caliber Federal ammunition) within easy reach. A couple of Glocks, too. Maybe a grenade launcher. What other options are there? Stop eating meat? Ditch the flat-screen TV? Drive a Prius?
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know what to think. I’m in the murk, sunk to my nostrils, and I’ll say it again: With all this mashed info and context—I feel like I’m drowning.
In truth, I’m looking for a way out of this sepulchral scene, so glum and wearying. I imagine even heroic Sisyphus—the existential champion—would languish beneath the weight of so much hopelessness. So much talk. So many factoids and indices. So much jargon and cynicism.
I’ve worked myself into a real tizzy here, need to calm down, take a breath, remember Neill’s advice: When you’re up against it, just laugh a little. Or laugh a lot. Have a good laugh. Sometimes it’s all you can do.
Remember, too, if the bombs fall, if waves scour our cities, or earthquakes tremble our bones to dust, if a meteor strikes, or the oil runs out, if food becomes scarce and society collapses and it’s neighbor killing neighbor for the world’s last beautiful, scrumptious Twinkie, if all that is left of humanity in a thousand years is a collection of radio waves carrying reruns of Friends to distant galaxies, at least it won’t be the end of the world.
And actually, even those radio waves—I recently read an article about this, too—won’t last forever, will decay before too long in the cold galactic emptiness. Nothing human will last forever, or even a decent fraction of forever, and certainly not us, not me. I’ll be grateful if I survive the workweek, let alone the year, the decade, the century. All we can do is take it one day at a time, one moment at a time, and remember that whatever comes about, it won’t be the end of the world. Whoever’s predictions prove true, whatever happens, it won’t be the end of the world—only the end of the world as we know it, only the end of the world for us.
The fall isn’t far, maybe five feet, and then the rope pulls taut and the harness tugs tight around my waist, and suddenly I’m suspended in the empty space beneath the overhang, sixty feet over ground, hyperventilating. Looking down, I see only Angie and Olive, watching me. Steve could still be sleeping, though the fact that I’m not splattered below suggests he’s not. There is a cool breeze that I feel for the first time, mostly along my sweat-beaded upper lip, and then suddenly the wind is gone, suspended like held breath. I pull myself towards the rock, to have another go at it. Hands and feet find purchase. The rope goes slack again. I start climbing. And as I move, calmer now, knowing what to expect, an Anna Swir poem I memorized long ago comes to mind. So apropos: “The Sea And The Man”—
You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.
was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.
The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.