Deep History and the Rhythm of Catastrophe

Written by: Louise Westling


The relatively brief geological time span of our species’ existence has been punctuated again and again by catastrophic events–volcanic eruptions, devastating climate changes, melting glaciers and consequent rising seas. The eruption of Mt. Mazama in Southern Oregon around 7,700 years ago resulted in Crater Lake forming in its caldera, and still figures in Klamath oral histories. The Strega Slides of 6225-6170 off the coast of Norway caused a megatsunami that engulfed the marshy land bridge of Doggerland where the North Sea now flows, and left traces on the coasts of Scotland, devastating Mesolithic populations. More recently terrible droughts and epidemics devastated whole populations from Sumer to ancient Greece and Rome. The Sumerian “Lament for Akkad” described scenes of death from starvation during a drought around 2200 BCE that dessicated the whole Eastern Mediterranean region.” He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,/He who slept in the house, had no burial/ People were flailing at themselves from hunger.” Soil samples show that even the earthworms died. The Old Kingdom of Egypt collapsed, and villages in ancient Palestine were abandoned (Kolbert 72).

Humans have died in myriad ways during such events, but many have also survived and restored or reinvented their cultures. Disease washes over and winnows populations regularly. The Bubonic Plague killed 30% to 50% of the population of Europe in the 14th century, and it continued with periodic ravages during Shakespeare’s life and later in 1665 as Daniel Defoe later described it in his Journal of the Plague Year. However, nothing is likely to have been more devastating and horrific than the epidemics of European diseases that destroyed perhaps 80% of the native populations of the Americas both before, and continuing with, colonization, enslavement, and deliberate murder through the nineteenth century. Historian David Stannard describes microbial pestilence and purposeful genocide working in tandem. Smallpox, measles, chicken pox, typhus, bubonic plague, and influenza met people with no inherited immunity; whole villages and tribes died terrible deaths. After having been taken to England by explorers, Squanto returned with the Mayflower settlers to find his Patuxet village deserted, all its inhabitants dead. Similar horrors occurred widely across the continent at varying times, most leaving no clear evidence. Thus estimates of deaths are unstable and much debated. Still, the Spanish successes in crushing the Aztec and Peruvian empires may well have been made possible by prior devastation and weakening caused by disease spread before actual invasions. The fall of the Mayan city-states may also have been influenced by such disease. How do the survivors of plagues continue their lives? How did they keep going after such catastrophic losses? We see some of the results today, as Covid-19 deaths spiral on Indian reservations across the United States, as well as in densely populated urban areas where people of color live, and among largely Latinx groups of workers in industrial meat-packing plants in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa who are the descendants of native peoples in Central America. Similar dynamics continue, but people survive and keep striving. Maya Angelou, speaking for her African-American ancestors and contemporaries, has the last word: Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise

The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment By Louise Westling
The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment By Louise Westling

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About the Author: Louise Westling

Louise Westling has been teaching in the English Department at the University of Oregon since 1977. She served as a visiting professor at the University of Tübingen and a Fulbright Professor at the University of Heidelberg, and as a president and founding member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. She is the author of T...

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