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Jon Horton

Monday, December 19, 2005

This I Believe—An NPR Essay


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by j. r. horton

may 2005

The only thing that will save this planet's sentient life is a fortuitous population crash of Homo sapiens sapiens, that scientific term that has become so ironic.

During my research for a new novel i had the occasion to do a lot of reading on the biblical apocalyptic literature, messianism and the End Times in general. If one reads the material as metaphor and the fount of ancient knowledge it doesn't take much to see that there is a lot of practical experience at the heart of the story. i am particularly impressed by the story of the 17th century German philologists who first studied the legends and literature of the Hindus. They came away impressed by the scale of the fantasmic myths of the culture. There were references to kalpas and other measurements of time that translated to billions of years, and this in a time when Europeans nominally measured the time span of the universe in the low thousands of years.

The professors quickly discounted the stories of consecutive births and deaths of the universe as vaulting myth. Now, of course, we routinely hear accounts of events measured scientifically in the several billions of years. And while the global community at large disputes the idea, that hoary culture maintains that through it all, unimaginable apocalypse after apocalypse on a breathtaking scale, the spirit and soul that animates us is preserved unchanged. And that even at the heart of complete material nothingness.

In the face of that possibility it is easy to say, "Then let it all go, we need a new start." But that doesn't take into account the tenacity of the human race, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Let me tell you a story from personal experience that may illustrate that trait as a source of hope.

I worked in Yemen once as an oil explorationist and as a child i lived in tiny, isolated desert communities in Nevada. To my limited mind it was a scant, hot world of rock, greasewood, rabbits, sand and snakes. However, my first impressions of Yemen beggared that world. Here was a landscape blasted of almost everything, a land of sand desert and rock desert, of ancestral savannah dried to hardpan littered with ostrich egg remnants and projectile points, of rivers now wadis of sand and boulders. Petroglyphs on sandstone monuments erect in the hot desert testified to a world once populated by the ostrich, lion, cheetah, and various herd animals. It was a time of plenty that supported the ancestors of the Queen of Sheba, mistress of one of the richest kingdoms of the biblical world. But now it is the home of some of the toughest, most tenacious people on the planet.

One time, after a scouting foray, i was waiting for a helicopter in the shade of a rock ridge atop an escarpment that rose above the desert almost a kilometer. Suddenly, a small Toyota pickup hove into view and moved to a point about a hundred meters from me then stopped to discharge four women, a stack of burlap and a bundle wrapped in cloth. The driver, a man, then drove away by the way he had come, following the tire tracks that were the only thing to mar the dirt waste.

I stood and walked a few yards toward the women, wanting to get a better look. They were frightened by my appearance and took knives out of their waist bands, the knives worn to little more than crescents by hard use and sharpening on sandstone rocks. i raised my hands in a gesture of peace and retreated to my shade as they each took a square of burlap from the stack and walked down into the undulant catchment lips of the escarpment.

It was three days before i returned to the spot and got out of the helicopter to wait for operations to begin. i noticed that there were four large round objects, perhaps a meter high, set in the place where the women had been let out. i walked down to examine them and found they were tightly packed bundles of grass a meter in diameter, apparently forage for animals. The grass was not the hay of our experience but dry and wiry bunch grass that grew in scattered clumps to a height of, perhaps, three or four inches. Beside the haystacks i saw where a fire had been built and tea brewed, the remnants of English Rose tea cartons tossed aside near the bundle I'd seen days before, now holding only the teapot and a gallon plastic jug that had held water.

It is hard to imagine the labor expended by those women. The clumps could have yielded no more than half-a-handful of grass each but the women had, in three days of labor in 125-degree heat, harvested four square meters of hay for their goats and sheep.

The women were nowhere to be seen but i suspected that the arrival of my helicopter had sent them scurrying away to hide somewhere in the blasted landscape. And, sure enough, as i heard the Toyota laboring back toward the site and retreated to my landing spot, the women appeared and hurried to their rendezvous spot to be picked up. They were apparently the four wives allowed by muslim law to each man and their husband was back to profit from their labor.

As for the children of that rocky, heat-addled world, the living were most often stigmatized by noses running with thick mucous, testament to their immune systems trying to fight off the viral diseases common to that almost merciless world. While i was there a plague of meningitis and flu had moved up the Hadramaut valley from the distant coast and as we passed the rock villages there was almost always a funeral cortege carrying one or more small coffins to join other fresh rock mounds of the graveyard.

This is a cautionary tale, of course. But it is also a testament to those of us who will remain after the devastation of the environment, the reality of which is no longer a real debate. If you examine all the problems and plagues of the planet you will find very few that are not directly attributable to the crush of over-population. The historical brakes on that problem — war, famine, and disease — now galvanize an almost instant and effective response by well-meaning armiesbent on succor in the name of charity. And they obviate the attempts by a weary earth to rid itself of the debilitating itch turned septic that humans have caused. It simply cannot go on forever. Some day, some time, there will remain only a few of of us and we will be tough, self-reliant survivors living in the little that is left. And that is not an if but a when, mind you.

This is not a message of dismay but one of hope for the re-efforescence of a changed world. We are survivors even if, as the Hindus know, it all squeezes down to less than nothing and only our spirit, our souls, remain.




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