Disaster Porn

I’m standing at my desk looking out at heavy rain that’s coming down at about a 45-degree angle thanks to the strong winds that are tossing the trees. The rain batters my windows and streams down them, blurring the view. From time to time, I check a webcam set up in the Methow Valley on the other side of the Cascade mountains just to see the snow piling up. I’m also sparing a thought for my friends who hoped to drive over to the Methow today, because at the moment all the passes are closed because of high avalanche danger. In other words, we’re having a doozy of a storm.

Like many people, I have a love/fear relationship with the power of nature. I adore storms but when the wind rises, I can’t help but remember that the house I grew up in was destroyed by trees falling on it in a storm (fortunately for us, after we’d sold it and moved next door). I’ve been through some big earthquakes, the largest a 7.1, and continue to live where ‘the big one’ (a 9.0) could hit any minute–but I’m terrified of tornadoes and don’t understand how anyone could choose to live where they are common. I was taught how to drive in snow as soon as I got my learner’s permit and have been through some really hairy situations in the mountains–yet the only time I ever got stuck was two blocks from my own home (the snow that falls in the lowlands west of the Cascades is the worst for driving–as a Chicago-born friend learned to his cost after sneering at us all for leaving for home as soon as a few flakes stuck; he worked until 5, flexed his muscles and went out to his car, and promptly slid right into a ditch).

When it comes to movies, I’m addicted to disaster porn. Movies about Yellowstone blowing up, super earthquakes, class 5 tornadoes . . . I love them. “2012” has to be my favorite because everything that might happen by itself in another movie happens in this one and it happens all over the world. A tsunami big enough to reach Mount Everest! All of California sliding into the sea! Hawaii totally overrun by lava! I never tire of it.

These movies let me indulge my love of/fascination with the power of nature from my warm, dry living room–just as I’m enjoying this storm outside right now. But it’s more than just a fascination. When I watch these movies, particularly the ones that attempt to be as accurate as possible, like “The Perfect Storm,” I experience awe.

Awe is a rare experience for most of us today, I suspect–precisely because of those nice warm, dry houses. Back when we lived outdoors all the time, there was no ignoring rain or cold or heat, earthquakes or hurricanes, tsunamis and eruptions. No wonder our ancestors personified such forces as deities whose power had to be acknowledged and respected. We’re fragile. These powers only have to shrug for one small moment to wipe us out by the thousands. Even though I’ve watched many videos of the Asian Tsunami, I still really can’t get my mind around HOW MUCH WATER came pouring over the land. That’s what awe means, to me: I cannot comprehend or understand what it is I am seeing or experiencing; I only know that I am in the presence of something huge.

Yet my awe isn’t reserved just for the power of nature. I’m also in awe of the people who willingly or willfully put their fragile bodies into the hands of these powers, who dare to walk in the realm of the gods knowing full well that they could be snuffed out in a second. Anyone who ventures into unknown territory, especially those who sailed or walked or dog-sledded thousands of miles across oceans or a new land or a polar region, has my awe.

But the people I’m most in awe of go into these dangers not to explore or for a thrill, but to rescue those who are in trouble there. I recently visited the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon, where I was riveted by the exhibit dedicated to those brave souls who rescue people from the Columbia River bar, where waves can reach 40 feet and so many ships have sunk that it’s called “the graveyard of the Pacific.” (Check it out here.) They risk their lives for others–sometimes people who have been so stupid that I am tempted to think “maybe the gene pool is better off without them.” The rescuers are not so judgmental as I. They feel called to rescue no matter what the situation, and off they go.

I’ll be seeing “The Finest Hours,” the new movie about a daring sea rescue by four men in a 36-foot boat of the crew of a tanker that had been broken in half by rough seas. The rescue boat itself was repeatedly smashed by huge waves, and when they got to the tanker there were far too many men for the smaller boat to carry safely, but all but one man were rescued. I know I’ll be terrified for most of the movie, but I also know that the terror I’ll feel is, in fact, awe: of both the power of the sea, and the courage of those who went willingly out on it to save others. That’s huge, too.

 

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