Water Water Everywhere

You could be forgiven for mistaking the network evening news for the Weather Channel these days. Night after night scenes of devastating flooding somewhere and everywhere. Hurricanes, cyclones, torrential rainfall, storm surges, rivers overflowing their banks, whole towns inundated, homes lost, islands disappearing, glaciers and polar ice melting. Here in Washington D.C. alarming scenes of stranded motorists crouching on the roofs of their submerged cars awaiting rescue. Dire warnings from climate scientists ignored, even suppressed, by our government.

I learned more about the watery world that awaits us in Robert Macfarlane’s marvelous new book Underland. The book is not specifically about climate change or rising seas. It is an exploration of all that lies beneath the earth, from plant life to fossils, ancient burials, prehistoric cave art, mines, and even nuclear waste storage facilities. But no contemporary study of the natural world can fail to come upon signs of climate change. 

In one particularly harrowing episode in Greenland, Macfarlane and his hardy companions climb the hazardous surface of a disappearing glacier. They are in search of a moulin, recently observed holes in the surface of glaciers that whirlpool meltwaters into the depths where they trigger more melting from beneath. Readers have already seen Macfarlane descend into treacherous cave systems where explorers before him have died, but descent into an icy hole with slick glass-like sides and a gushing waterfall is a particular kind of horror. He is lowered down by rope until the tube becomes too narrow, the bottom still nowhere in sight. As cascading water knocks him into a spin he sees the entrance to a lateral tunnel and feels a curious urge to enter its mouth. The reader as well as his friends above are relieved when he resists this temptation and signals to be pulled up. 

The group are staying in a small Greenland village where residents are already experiencing the effects of climate change. The cycle of seasons is disrupted, ice is melting on land and sea, a traditional lifestyle is no longer in harmony with their environment. The moulins are a sign that glaciers are melting, not just on the surface, but from within and beneath at a much faster rate than scientists first thought. Water, water everywhere. Could the story of Noah’s Ark be read as a premonition or warning to the future? This may not be an idle question, as suggested by another episode in Underland. 

In 1981 the U.S. Department of Energy set up the Human Interference Task Force to come up with a means of warning future generations of the dangers of nuclear waste facilities. The warning signs would need to communicate with humans or even another species up to 10,000 years into the future. In addition to nuclear scientists the group included engineers, language and communications experts, anthropologists, and even a mythology and folklore scholar. Macfarlane recounts some of the ideas they came up with. A physical barrier bristling with spikes was rejected as perhaps signaling that what lay inside was precious treasure. Various warning scripts were developed to be translated into all UN written languages and warning pictograms, some with the inevitable skull and crossbones, were designed. But the most intriguing idea came from the mythology scholar. He suggested that a folklore tradition should be invented, stories and songs about the dangers of the place that could be passed on in the oral tradition if written versions did not survive or were indecipherable to future generations.

Radiation warning sign

With this in mind we join Macfarlane on a visit to the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel depository in Finland. First he takes a tour of the Visitor’s Center where exhibits and a guide explain how the spent fuel rods are stored. They are placed inside cast iron canisters within copper cylinders which are then buried deep underground in gneiss and granite rock.  

As Macfarlane waits for his journey down into the storage tunnels he passes the time reading the Finnish epic the Kalevala. This is Finland’s equivalent of the Greek Iliad and Odyssey or the Icelandic Sagas, their own regional mythology. It tells of the hero Vainamoinen who is given the task of descending to a cavern far underground. Macfarlane paraphrases:

“In that cavern are stored materials of huge energy: spells and enchantments which, when spoken, will release great power. To approach this subterranean space safely Vainamoinen must protect himself with shoes of copper and a shirt of iron, lest he be damaged by what it contains.”

Underground Vainamoinen meets a buried giant who warns him “not to bring to the surface what is buried in his caverns” for he will “end up visiting terrible violence upon humans … he will become a wind-borne disease, water driven, shared out by the gale, carried by chill air.” The giant threatens to imprison Vainamoinen “by means of a containment spell so powerful that it is unlikely ever to be broken.” The entire Kalavala, a lengthy collection of stories and songs, is obsessed with the theme of safe storage of dangerous materials. As Macfarlane himself descends into the underworld of Onkalo to see the dangerous materials encased in iron and copper and buried deep under the rock, the words of the Kalevala haunt him with their uncanny premonition of this place. In fact they seem to be the very invented folklore envisaged by the Human Interference Task Force scholar.

The Noah’s Ark story in the Bible is only one of many flood myths from cultures around the globe that go back as far as Neolithic times. There is the epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia, the Unu Pachakuti of the Incas, and many Native American and African versions of the tale. Some have striking similarities to the Noah story suggesting a common tradition. In the Matsya Purana of India Manu is told to collect all the grains of the earth into a boat to save them, while in Hawaii’s tale of Nu’u he builds an ark which rises with the flood waters and lands on the top of Mauna Kea. Whatever god or higher being these different cultures believed in, a common theme is that the flood is a punishment for some human transgression. 

Perhaps in the far distant past humans did endure a worldwide sea rise whose memory is preserved in these stories. Or perhaps they come down to us as a warning of what floods our hubris could unleash, a warning implanted in stories created by some Human Interference Task Force of the prehistoric world.

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