It was an unseasonably warm winter day some years ago, and for some reason, the elementary school was out which meant I had the kids for the afternoon. My wife had been minding them earlier in the day while I was teaching my class up in Gailor Hall, and now we were down below Gailor Hall, in the playground—not the nice one that’s there now, but the old sad playground, with the wooden structures made of extra-splintery wood like the one called The Ark that served as a delightful home for hornets’ nests. Mostly the boys wanted to play in the muddy stream by the parking lot. A girl I recognized from Joseph’s class was also there with her mother, and off they all went to float sticks down the stream and gather rocks up to make a dam.
This was in the time before iPhones and so, rather than retreat into my device to check the Facebook accounts of people who had been friends of mine in middle school whom I would not recognize if they were sitting beside me, I struck up a conversation with the person who was in fact beside me, the mother of Joseph’s classmate. I wonder if you have ever had this experience? To begin a conversation with not exactly a stranger, but a familiar stranger, or familiar enough that you feel like you occupy in some respect similar stations in life, perhaps even similar perspectives on the world and its ways, only to realize a little way into it that the person you’re talking to is either completely nuts or something of a genius?
The conversation didn’t start out that way. We introduced ourselves to one another, talked a little about the kids, the kids’ teachers, the weather, things like that. She then asked me what I did.
“I teach at the University.”
“Really, what do you teach?’
Now, what I teach is Classics, which to most people means stuff like The Scarlet Letter, so I usually don’t say “Classics” to people when they ask me what I teach. But I also have found that if I say “Latin and Greek,” that will be the end of the conversation. This can be useful, of course. Go ahead and try it on a plane sometime if your seatmate happens to be the chatty kind. Some folks will muster a brave “Huh, that must be interesting” or “My grandpa once did that” but in short order you will be able to return to your book or your iPhone in blessed peace. But today I wasn’t looking to shut down the conversation, or at least not yet, so I mentioned that I had been teaching Mythology just that morning.
“Mythology? Whoa. Like the gods?”
Yes, the gods, I replied, though it was the beginning of the term, so I was still on Creation myths. The kids were by this time well on their way to having the stream dammed. They had tossed in lots of little pebbles and were proceeding like little Sisyphuses (Sisyphi?) to roll bigger stones over to the bank.
“So do you talk about the flood story?” she asked. I do, indeed, I answered, and she wanted to know what I thought about it. And I guess at that point I probably switched into lecture mode, recounting the details of the Greco-Roman flood myths of Deucalion and Pyrrha, and the Babylonians, and the Chinese, and probably was rounding onto Noah when she interrupted me.
“Do you want to know what I think about the flood?”
That is not a question I often get asked, and so I told her I was all ears. This was clearly a topic she was eager to discuss.
“Well, you know how God punished the world for its sinfulness by flooding it? Everything in the world was sinful and wicked. Everybody was really fucking bad, killing each other and raping each other, and being evil in every which way. And it wasn’t just people. It was everything. The animals were killing each other, all the dinosaurs were being evil. Man, I think even the plants were acting fucked up. And God said, fuck this shit. You fuckers are all gonna get punished for behaving this way.”
I remember the swear-words well. My wife and I not particularly careful with our language at home, but I suppose we hadn’t ever actually ascribed the F-word to God and the dinosaurs before. The kids, though, were busy with their engineering, so I turned back to her and her earthy analysis of worldly conditions.
“Yeah, so God just decided fuck it, fuckers. And he made it rain and rain and rain until every last one of those evil sons of bitches drowned in their own tears wishing they’d never fucked with God.” I’m not sure if she actually mentioned it, but her version of the story—while perhaps saltier in its expression than what’s in Genesis—accorded pretty closely to the Biblical account.
“Well, now we’re all living in this world just fine and all the evil fucks are down there dead and drowned which serves them right. And then, you know what happened next?”
I was thinking that the “what happened next” was going to be the story of the rainbow–or perhaps the fucking rainbow, as she might have put it–but that wasn’t where she was going.
“Yeah, in the nineteenth century, the Rockefellers and rich assholes like that decided that they would drill for oil. And so they built these goddam big-ass drills and they start drilling down into the earth. And they’re bringing up oil out of the ground and it’s making them rich. Well, you know what oil is, don’t you?” She paused and we glanced over at the kids, who were getting pretty muddy by now.
“Oil is made up out of all the carbon remains of the things that lived on earth a long time ago. So what Rockefeller and them are bringing up with their drills are all those plants and animals and dinosaurs and people that were so fucking evil that God had to kill them by drowning them. And now all that evil that God buried under the mud is now coming up like a bunch of goddam zombies emerging in liquid fucking form. And we’re putting it in our houses and our cars and in planes and just all over the place.”
My eyes were pretty wide now. I did not look over at the kids.
“Yes, we are taking the all stuff God hates so much that he had to kill it in the worst and most final fucking way he could think of, and we’re extracting it and putting it everywhere we can think of. And you know what, it’s coming back to haunt us. You can’t pump all that shit up out of the ground and not expect it to make everything it touches just as evil.” She gestured toward the cars in the parking lot. “Those things.” She pointed to the large HVAC unit on the top of Gailor Hall. “That fucking thing.” She glanced up at a passing plane. “That too. Do you know what they all are? They’re supposed to make the world a more convenient place, a more comfortable place, but really they’re just delivery systems for primordial fucking evil. All those things are destroying the world, and eventually they will destroy every fucking last one of us.”
By this time, the kids had finished playing in the stream. They were covered in mud, and were looking for something else to entertain them. She and I continued to talk in a lighter vein for the remainder of the afternoon, about what I can’t entirely recall, though I do recollect her telling me at length about an acid trip she’d once had in Oregon. I have to say, however, I have not heard since that unseasonably warm winter day a more convincing case for the human causation of global warming and climate change. My scientist friends tell me that our underconsidered overdependence on fossil fuels is wreaking havoc with the planet. Or, as I once heard a prophet put it, You can’t pump all that shit up out of the ground and not expect it to make everything it touches just as evil.
Read at IONA Art Sanctuary, September 19, 2017