Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Montana, Fires, and God

Day Five

Today's drive was ornamented by thick haze and smoke from the thousands of acres of fires burning south of Missoula, Montana. In many ways, so I read in that morning in the Missoula Independent, this summer's fires are, in part, products of fire fighters doing their job a bit too well in years past. By putting out so many fires rather than letting them run their natural course and necessarily burning the forest's deadwood, Western fire fighters inadvertently created a forest overrun by dry, dead trees and brush. Or, in other words, fire fighters created a fire hazard. Talk about job security.

My point isn't to point a finger at the Forest Service, though it's often quite easy and often justifiable to do so, but to harp on a point that's bugged me, in these latter days of a diminishing religious faith. The saddest part of this summer's fire is that it really didn't have to be a disaster at all, but like so many 'acts of God' that destroy so much property and take so much life, an unfair share of the blame is accredited to an ethereal notion like God -- this without any significant recognition (i.e., anything that requires any significant behaviour / belief modification) that much of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of God's most blessed creators, humanity. I obviously don't say this to defend God, for if God indeed is, would s/he need my defence? [ed. I know that, like jokes, irony is ruined when it has to be explained, but I really really hope everybody sees the irony in that link. Amazing what happens to a person in five years, huh?.]. It just seems to me that a humanistic society like ours [ed. One must remember, I wrote this in America, not Europe] should be willing to face the stark reality that we very regularly foul up, or at least magnify the consequences of, the ordinary, quotidian processes of nature and then pull out our dehumanising, it-was-out-of-our-hands appellation of choice: 'disaster'. For example, when Hurricane Andrew struck the coasts of North Carolina and Florida several years ago, the destruction was damn near total. What once was luxuriant beachfront property came to hearken the broken image (if only that) of a third-world country. What was lost in much of the ensuing talk of disaster is that much of the damage was due to contractors building very sub-par houses and buildings, in spite (because?) of their knowing the acute threat of hurricanes each spring. In other words, greed took precedence. Just as notorious, and far more deadly, is what happened in northwest Turkey this past year, when an earthquake claimed so many lives -- some 18,000 people -- primarily because many the country's (poorest) people were forced to live in cheap buildings that had been condemned, some repeatedly, as structurally unsound. The same is true in Argentina, where floods and mud slides trapped and killed over 30,000 people, once again most of them among the poorest, who, despite living near one of the largest cities in the world, could only afford living in very unstable and dangerous locations along mountain-sides. I'm not suggesting I have a cure for the social reality of poverty or the right method of urban renewal; I'm merely saying this is humanity's reality and problem, not a natural disaster. Nature is not compelled to work in confluence with the socio-cultural systems we've constructed, be they corrupt or legitimate. Perhaps instead of building a case for or against God, which in the end is only proving or judging the God of one's own image, we (esp. the survivors and/or those relatively unaffected) might be better served in always first assessing our own culpability before throwing up our hands with a sigh and saying, in essence, 'These things happen.'

Ahem. Our drive today was short, as if I really needed to type that again. From Butte to Seattle isn't really that far of a drive, a bit over six hundred miles, but J. and I, having realized we were still a day ahead of our schedule, decided there was little sense in pushing ourselves. Plus, I think we both get a little kick out of staying in a hotel in a strange town. So, not-so-long story even shorter, our Butte-stained eyes were set for Spokane.

After lunch in Missoula, where, I might add, I had one of the best cups of potato soup I've ever had, the highway very quickly led us into Idaho. I don't know about the rest of the state, but the narrow northern thoroughfare of Idaho is flat out gorgeous. Forest-green mountains outline the highway that weaves its way lazily through the lush forest. J. can tell you, I was giddy the whole through. The experience culminated when we reached Coeur D'Alene Lake, near the western border of Washington. Golden wisps of light sparkled off the lake like it was an oversized lamé. I've seen larger lakes, but none nearly as pretty.

Sadly, I learned in Spokane that this very same lake is threatened by pollution from the nearby mines in Kellogg, Idaho. Of course, the cleanup is now a political effort, as the Republican governor is claiming that because the EPA has done an inadequate job in the cleanup the state should take over. The only problem with this is that the state has had nearly 100 years to clean up the mining pollution and its only ever gotten worse. In the end, I don't care who funds the project and can but only hope that we avoid another piece of evidence against us as a species if we make it yet another Berkeley Pit. Birds of Idaho beware.

Just west of the Idaho border lays Spokane, and it was a much-needed reminder that cities do in fact still exist. The last thriving (?) city we saw (at least to our road-weary eyes) was in Iowa, with the possible exception of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, so one might understand our excitement and surprise when we actually, finally, got stuck in a god awful traffic jam. With great relief and sadness, simultaneously, it almost felt like home.