Between the very hot summer—the long predicated effects of climate change beginning—and an article in The New Yorker on a magnitude nine earthquake lurking right off-shore, the summer has had apocalyptic undertones. We started with a dry warm spring and low snowfall in the mountains, moved into an early heat wave the first week of July, followed by a second at the end of the month. For several days, both times, the temperature rose to at least 100 degrees in the valley. We are not accustomed to this dry, bakey heat and the plants and fish are suffering. Already, trees are dropping leaves and turning gold and brown. Fish are dying because river water is too warm and too low. Yards and gardens look September beat in early August. It is not good.
In the middle of the first heat wave the article on the Pacific Subduction Zone was published. Because it was recently discovered, in the late 1980s, we have not really prepared for the potential earthquake. Apparently, over the last few thousand years, the Oregon coast has had a huge, sudden earthquake every three to five hundred years, and we are closing in on the time for the next one. Some people say it is overdue, some that it will not be THAT bad, but there has always been a lurking fear of the earth shaking here. This summer, the article said “everything west of I-5 will be toast.” We live ten miles west of I-5. Most of the state lives west of I-5, to be honest. Because we are not prepared—our pubic buildings are not earthquake proof, our alarm systems are limited, our schools sit on fault lines and in the direct line of tsunamis—civilization will collapse. It was a dire article, not helped out by a presentation I heard one evening while camping on the coast. “We will all be fine,” the official said, “As long as we are prepared.” He followed this statement with the observation that the last tsunami created all of the “haystacks” along the coast by scouring away the softer rock.
Clearly, civilization is doomed. If we are not taken out by climate change or peak oil, then the earthquake is going to end civilization as we know it. And how do we respond to this? How do we respond to any overwhelming sense that our world is ending? I’ve been wrestling with this question all summer, but found an answer, or, rather, several answers in a poem by Clemens Starck that I read to my students every year. We like it because it is about fixing cars, a cool car, and so, even my hands on boys respond to it. But is also about how to deal when someone you love is dying.
Changing the Alternator Belt on Your 504
To do this the radiator
Must be removed. Two bolts on top, three
On the bottom, and disconnect
Four small screws, and the shroud
Comes loose. This leaves
The radiator free.
Lift it out carefully. Set it
Outside the garage, on the gravel.
Contemplate the plum tree.
If the soul took shape
It might look like that—a cloud of white blossoms
Throbbing with bees…
In the rank grass,
Daffodils flaunt their yellow message.
Six fat robins
Skitter across the pasture.
It makes no sense.
Eddie Rodriguez is dying. You know
That you are dying too,
And still there is spring
And fixing cars.
With the radiator out,
The rest is easy.
After replacing the belt, reverse the procedure:
Radiator, hoses, anti-freeze.
Turn on the engine.
Be brave. Be sad. Check for leaks.
Wipe your greasy hands on a rag.
Brother, drive on.
For E.R., 1945-1987
What I love about this poem is the delicate balance between the practical and the philosophical. He walks us through the process of taking apart an engine, carefully and mindfully. When in despair, he suggests, it helps to do something with your hands and mind to repair a corner of your world. A friend of mine, when stressed, would organize the shelf about the sink in the kitchen where we both worked. Something in our lives can be put in order, even when the larger picture is chaos. There’s no point listening to a screaming alternator belt just because your friend is dying. Fix something.
And then, in the middle of the repair, pause. Turn philosophical. Contemplate nature and the soul. Because we need these moments of peace in a difficult time as well. We have lost a great deal and that loss haunts us, but the world still is a very beautiful place. We need to be outside, watching a dipper climb a cliff, eating lunch with friends. We need the deep silence of mountain lakes, the damp breezes of the ocean, the long vines of cucumbers and squashes growing up the trellis in the back garden. We need these quiet times to help us confront the despair that threatens to overwhelm us when we contemplate the reality of death and the end of the world as we k now it.
In section three, he moves on, back into action. He finishes the task, acknowledges the pain, and drives on. I see this a metaphor for life in these times. Rather than give into despair, remember that there “is still spring and fixing cars” and persevere.
My class also loves Starck’s poem about the local Seven-Eleven. There are three in town and we spend about ten minutes every year, after I read he poem, discussing which one he is describing, using lines from the text to support our ideas. It is, to be honest, and English teacher’s dream.