Irma — September 11th
Hurricane Irma just passed over Gainesville, having only just hours ago finally downgraded to a tropical storm. I am hearing of impacts all over town, with downed trees and dangerously dangling limbs, power outages, flooding from Lake Alice, and so on.
The second hurricane to hit people I know and love in less than a month. It feels cruel. I know that it is something we humans have done to ourselves. Now more than ever I have looked for someone to blame — and at times it is tempting, seems most proper and the easiest, to blame myself.
My girlfriend and I left on Friday (today is Monday) and came to Atlanta to ride out the storm. I cannot escape a certain creeping sense of cowardice in that. Hardly anyone else I know left. In the end, I think if I were alone and not with her, I would have stayed. But it doesn’t matter — this was the first time I ever “evacuated” from anything, the first time I have been anything resembling a refugee. I now think of all the displaced people we have heard from and seen over the years of this new century and wonder how my own experience compares. Then the guilty feeling increases because I know that, like every other aspect of my life, my experience of displacement has been among the top few percent, opened up to privilege and comfort because of the periodic access I have to my father’s wealth — the irony, as ever, is that that very wealth has been skimmed off the top of oilfields.
What have we done? What have we done? We have participated. We have participated, and we knew, and we know. More and more I sense an open resignation to things. Those who, before, simply ignored the anthropic catastrophe known as climate change, the anthropocene, the industrial era in general — now they cannot ignore it. But instead of at long last asking “what can we do?” they seem to have instead decided that it is already too late. I know some of them are blaming themselves. Others have still managed to avoid thinking about it for very long. Others are doubling down on denial. I’m afraid many people in my own family may be in that group.
But more than anything I feel a macabre consensus forming — whether we can, or could have, done anything or not, we won’t. We will watch it burn, and tremble perhaps, and some of us will die, but at first probably not anyone we know, and we will know in our hearts it did not have to happen, but it will happen, and then it will be over, and the long unending dark age will fall down upon the earth.
Such a fate! Such a fatalism. Did the architects of civilization, those first power-crazed men and women in the first grand palaces — did they see it ending this way? What did they see in the future? Larger and grander palaces, I expect. More and more bountiful harvests, larger and larger nations.
They were right, in a sense. The internal logic of the whole project has not changed in some six thousand years — maybe longer. Build, rebuild, rebuild, rebuild, till after the millennia have gone by, your town sits on top of a hill in a flat landscape — sits, in fact, on top of the all the rubble of the ages gone by, ruin atop ruin atop ruin — and never ending, I suppose, till the hill itself falls over and collapses into a more diffuse heap. But then I suppose it will be that much the easier to go ahead and rebuild yet again.
Will we rebuild? Houston is already rebuilding. My friend’s parents have gutted their house, the rubble has already been carted away to…. God knows where. Probably less than twenty people on this spinning rock know where. But it is there anyway. Where it came from still fewer people know.
Drywall is gypsum plaster, and gypsum is mined. Thankfully, it is a common mineral. In New Mexico there is an uncommonly huge deposit of gypsum sand, enough to supply the construction industry with plaster for “a thousand years.” This sand was washed into the dry valley some infinitely long time ago and has remained there in the dry basin. The parent material could be a billion years old for all most anyone knows. It is a designated national monument though, protected from mining. Too bad for the construction industry. Think of all the suburbs you could build! Or rebuild. Or re-rebuild.
While we are at it, why don’t we see if we can put a subdivision on a platform over Sigsbee Deep in the Gulf, just to see how long it could last? I’m sure the sun is shiny and gold there, and the waves blue and crashing beautiful. Hell, you could even turn a profit on such a place I would wager. Just sell it to people who don’t believe the atmosphere exists, or something. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched. Why should Dubai have all the fun?
Florida will rebuild too. South Florida cannot exist in its current form without industrial technology — flood control, wetland draining, water divergences and dikes, paved highways and dredged ports and power cables and communications cables and gas lines and rail lines and sewage lines. The panthers and the manatees have never seen so many people. The peninsula has never seen so many people.
A naive observer might suppose the abandonment of Florida would start as of now. Maybe a million people — maybe even more, clogged the two northern interstate highways even on Thursday and Friday, fleeing the storm in a genuinely apocalyptic frenzy. I was worried about being stranded by stopped traffic and went along dark backroads at four in the morning. We reached Atlanta after nearly twelve hours. I struggled to keep flashbacks to the chaos and needless death of Rita from growing up in Houston out of my mind.
What kind of a civilization is this? Where more people than lived on the whole earth for the first millennium of recorded history, now live in a soaked, sandy wetland peninsula, in houses whose walls are made of water-soluble minerals mined from I don’t know where, whose only means of escape from ever-intensifying superstorms is to retreat to some miserable bunker-like building and sleep on a military cot with “twenty feet of personal space allocated to each person” according to a University of Florida communique, or otherwise to get into a car and risk becoming stranded by a shortage of petroleum fuel, or by a bottleneck on the limited geography of north-south paved roads leaving the area — just what kind of civilization? Houston fell victim to it — they simply could not appropriately evacuate for Harvey. And Florida, an entire state, seems like it barely can.
Of course Irma is not the end. There will be another storm. Maybe even rather soon. It doesn’t seem to matter. Those millions of people who flooded north to Atlanta and elsewhere will almost all go back. Maybe the next storm will start to turn the tide. Eventually.
But as of now it appears that even the leftists are defaulting to the idea that a planned economy can evade the problems we are watching unfold, the slow collapse we are feeling grow like a gnawing feeling in your stomach, like dying of a chronic disease. Some others, the green-types, are resorting to the nonsense idea that the government is intentionally manipulating the weather. Easier to stomach, I guess, than the idea that the lifestyle of the colonial West and increasingly the whole global industrial culture is just impossible to continue without a series of disasters punctuating eventual collapse, no one person’s fault — an entire culture’s fault, an entire lifestyle’s fault, an ideology’s fault.
In Atlanta on Saturday the sky was clear and blue, looking almost like a false backdrop to the city, like a digital fill-in. My girlfriend and I decided to take some acid and went to explore the city where neither of us had been before. It was explicitly intended as an escape, though we knew that mentally there was no escaping Irma and the dark future she represents. Still, we took the opportunity to walk along what in Atlanta they call “the Beltline,” one of the many new-fangled linear greenspace parks built along old, abandoned railways, with New York’s High Line being the paragon.
It is interesting that this jewel of urban planning is the result of what began as abandonment of economically obsolete industrial technology. A few urban explorers began to transiently inhabit the overgrown unused rail lines and called them their own green spaces. Somewhere along the way some hip, forward-thinking city planner decided this should be monetized, brought into the light, co-opted into the megamachine and made to benefit it, rather than contradict it. It worked beautifully well.
Boosters will tell you it is a sign of the innovation and resiliency of vibrant urban centers. Perhaps it is that — but “innovation” does not always have to be seen admirably. The many-headed Hydra beast who never dies but always has another head to snap at your heels with is an innovator too — no one ever said that an innovation has to serve a good cause. There is always an answer, some new approach that can be taken, a new plan that can be implemented on top of the ripped up pieces of the old plan that is no longer workable. Build, rebuild, build, rebuild. They call it “New Urbanism,” apparently starting sometime in the 1990s. I guess the Old Urbanism was the one from 4000 BCE to 1990. Or maybe there are also Old New Urbanisms.
Eventually we reached Piedmont Park, which is like Atlanta’s Central Park. This itself was at first owned by some gentleman as a country estate near the new city, then became a fairground for cotton expositions, and was later redesigned by the Olmstead brothers under “the Olmstead Plan.” Even now it is being redesigned. No word on when, if ever, they will give it back to the Cherokee, or give it back to chaos and nature. But one day they will.
The trees here are unfamiliar to me. Even the species I know, like laurel oak, are strangely thick-trunked, and the hills of the city made it all look as if in a mountain valley, some ageless glen or hollow, yet all around were the signs of dominion. A jet high in the flat blue sky, or children laughing, or a stereo system far away.
Up ahead there was a bridge that we walked under, the cement covered in mural paintings, one huge one was of a woman taking care of a houseplant. She seemed to move. She was a good stand-in for Atlanta, and for the young people driving the New Urbanism. My own contemporaries. She was a black woman, which made her a good fit for black millennial Atlanta, and, of the houseplant, I thought of a headline I read recently: “Young urbanites are filling their homes (and the void in their hearts) with houseplants.” It is part of what seems to be something of a spate of these articles in the last few days. That was from the Washington Post. I see another from The Guardian: “How to grow a ‘house jungle’: Why millennials are looking for something to nurture.”
The explanations for this run on leafy houseplants? Millennials are poor and live in denuded, empty apartment boxes in the hip, or maybe the not-hip, parts of cities, without gardens, with only a few parks maybe (and those are apparently increasingly one dimensional lines rather than two dimensional areas). They can’t afford kids, certainly. Some can afford pets and look to those for their solace. But the rest of us get plants.
I have one, but it is dying. So much for my green thumb I suppose. I know what a lot of inexperienced kids my age don’t — you can do everything right, your plant will still most likely die within a few years. Even the house-adapted houseplants would rather be somewhere else, just like you would rather be somewhere else, and they ultimately die of the stress. But in the meantime they give our souls a little comfort, as if the soul of life has not been completely ripped from the body of the gray landscape.
The “public” park was hard to navigate, because everywhere you went there was a fence with no public access. Some kind of festival had closed off one half of the park. And the rest of it was dog parks, or private parks, or I don’t know what, I just knew we had to walk around the fences. Parks within parks within parks. It all reminded me harshly of City Park in New Orleans and the proliferating fences there. Ultimately, the open spaces never last, they seem always destined to be fenced in, mined for whatever specific resource the patriarchs think they contain, whether space for festivals or a source of drywall for houses, or prairieland or swampland for those drywall houses themselves.
We did eventually end up near the Atlanta Botanical Garden though. We could not enter — that cost too much money — but we did walk near the fence. In one section the trees were truly inspiring — taller than much of anything seen in Florida, creating a complete canopy. They had hung a bridge and some strange red metal circles from the limbs. It all appeared very fairy-tale like. I had to hand it to them — the landscapers and planners in this particular section of park had done a remarkable job. After working in the New Orleans Botanical Garden with the water lilies I knew a little of what kind of labor goes into constructing the beautiful natural areas a city has — the Hanging Gardens, the botanical gardens, or the Royal Gardens.
A large shade forest such as this was the result of generations of landscape planners interlinking their concepts and designs into a final integrated result, spontaneously manifested in front of us. It was beautiful, and made me wonder what the mountain forests around here looked like when the Cherokee took care of them, or before any human being got here, how that compared.
All cities are Constantinople, are Babylon, are Jericho. I am in a class about irrigation management. We were taught about Aztec aqueducts built to bring water to a hilltop where a king could grow every kind of plant. Lowland plants on the upland because of the massive movings of stone and the domination of men and women to carve it and hoist it. The water doesn’t flow there anymore, of course.
By contrast, most cities are actually built next to water simply because of the longstanding impracticality of aqueducts. Most empires are only so ambitious in their glory days. We have our Las Vegas, yes, but for the most part what we have are cities on the bays and inlets and rivers, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa. It is hard to tell anymore which is now the more precarious, the artificial desert cities, or the littorals perched precariously beside the churning ocean.
The water cities will all flood at some point. Whether they are re-inhabited afterward is largely an arbitrary matter, depending on social and political matters than extend far beyond the city. No city is self-sufficient enough to rebuild itself to anything like its former glory without the extended help of the surrounding country people and their natural resources, and these days, the surrounding planet.
Yesterday I watched disturbing videos of people walking out zombie-like onto the floor of Tampa Bay. Irma had drained it halfway down, leaving whole fields exposed of wet earth. The sky in the video is gray and menacing, you sense a vicarious unease for the people walking out so far from the baywall. The water will come back, surely, as it does with a tsunami. How quickly? I was sure a number of the people walking out there had no idea. I certainly didn’t, and don’t. People had been sheltering, but came out spontaneously to see the spectacle. It had a creepy quality to the whole thing. Dogs were playing obliviously on the seafloor. Solitary figures were seen far out to sea, but standing on soaked, unnaturally aqueous land. The waterline was not visible.
I could not tell how far this drowned world extended. One could not help but think of Lovecraft’s R’lyeh or some other unseen ocean world being out on that unnerving horizon, the storm exposing and churning up “a coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror — the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh — loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.”
Who was out there? Did anyone know who those people were in the video? Where they had come from? What they were doing in Tampa Bay? Literally, in the bay? How long would the water stay down? When would it come back, and when it did, how high would it reach? All of us now live like Pharaoh’s army on this land — the land between the waters of the parted Red Sea.
We were walking quickly once we passed the Botanical Garden, because we wanted to reach the High Art Museum. Not the museum of High Art, though it purported to be that, but named after some dowager called Harriet High, in what used to be her mansion that she generously donated to the arts, said a sign.
Inside we moved quickly to the European art. This was not because I have any real respect for European culture — quite the contrary, but rather because of a well-known ability that those paintings seem to have to come to life when in our current state.
A famous Renoir hung together in the impressionist room. It was of some apples on a table. A meaninglessly mundane scene depicted in a startling way, even more startling for observers like ourselves that day — which is to say that the colors that he had impressionistically drawn out of the apples began to flow around their edges, the very thing was alive. So much for “la nature morte” — the “still” life. Renoir clearly had no time for that. He seemed to say, “there is no such thing.” We could hear him.
There is something about a museum. Museums, universities, and other places of “high culture” have a strange insulation from the complex civilization which they ride atop. It is such an irony. These things are generally wheeled out in a well-worn routine as the apologies for civilization, the fruits it bears that make the poisoned land bearable, I guess. Look, a Monet, a Beethoven! Surely now you won’t mind as badly that the lion has been driven from Europe and Asia long since, because look! We have this beautiful Rodin sculpture of a lion instead.
Amazingly, that seems sufficient for many people. Indeed, for many people, there appears to be no need even to go into the museum, but simply to know that they are sitting there, and that’s it. And even alongside that, they — the artists — are constantly having to perpetuate themselves by going around hat in hand and begging patrons to keep them from shutting down — these places do also exist in the free market, after all, and don’t you forget it.
But Rodin named his lion sculpture, the “weeping” lion. Something is not what it seems in this well-worn apology. One thing that caught our eye was a bizarre bust of a faun. His head was sideways, as if sleeping, or otherwise on the ground. His faun-like features surrounded his face, but that was not what made him stand out. The plaque explained what we were thinking: this faun, in a “domestic setting with low light” where it would have been displayed in its time, would have had eerily life-life features. It seemed almost like a wink to my girlfriend and I on our consciousness-altering journey.
It was not the last wink from the unseen museum curator. And it was something I had noticed before. Despite the fact that these museums are always in rich neighborhoods, and always have the most impressive and urban-modern architecture, as if to directly state the case that they are the keystones of civilization itself, they contain within them works that are thinly veiled attacks on the very substance and assumptions of civilization itself. Sometimes even then, they are not “veiled” at all, but more or less openly stated to anyone who bothers to, I guess, read the plaque.
Further along was another Monet, Autumn on the Seine. He had got into a boat onto the placid river outside Paris and painted what he saw, reflections of the trees in the water in their brilliant oranges on the left, probably in the sunlight, and the green purple shady bushes on the right — both as vibrant in reflection as in the open air world. The curator says: “Monet’s use of brilliant colors is mirrored in the water below, resulting in a remarkable symmetry that makes it difficult to distinguish between the reflected colors and their sources.”
Difficult to distinguish between the reflected colors and their sources. I too, once dreamed I was a butterfly and a faun, but now I dream I am a man. This is the inner sanctum of civilization, but, over the centuries, it has been the place where there has been a great undoing going on under the noses of the rulers. Or maybe permitted knowingly by the smarter ones as some kind of safety valve. Whatever the apology for its continuance, it is there for those who listen. Some are dangerous, like Breton and Debord, and others are simply striking, like Renoir and Monet.
As if to state the case, they also had a painting by Camille Pissarro, a winter scene with two peasants ambling along the road — they are tiny next to the bleak landscape but they are the clear centerpiece — their dignity makes the whole painting shine. Pissarro, explained the curator, was an avid anarchist, and made his anti-capitalist critique by insisting on the sometimes quiet but always indomitable dignity of the lower classes.
These artists, at least some of them, seemed to know something no one else in the whole city knows. They know that the city isn’t necessary. And neither is the museum. That is its paradoxical lesson. We sat outside on their lawn after the place closed, sitting on the grass, next to a two-dimensional sculpture of a cartoon house by Roy Lichtenstein, House III, it was called. Across the street were what appeared to be cartoon sculptures of more dwellings, House IV and House V maybe, but these were inexplicably actually real and lived in. Towering over us on one side was a neo-neo-Gothic black-glass skyscraper. An exotic little tree with red fruit pods grew next to us and we sat in the chilly sunlight. You could hear city sounds all around us — but, there, up high, was a hawk, large, circling far overhead.
No city is really complete, never really shuts out true nature. They subconsciously, even overtly try, but it doesn’t happen, and the careful observer sees the signs everywhere. The trees remain oases of wildness as Thoreau saw them, even in the ninth largest metro area in the United States. I ended up reading from Thoreau’s “Ktaadn” essay because of what he said about museums:
“Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it while coming down this part of the mountain… I found myself traversing [it] familiarly, like some pasture run to waste, or partially reclaimed by man; but when I reflected what man, what brother or sister or kinsman of our race made it and claimed it, I expected the proprietor to rise up and dispute my passage. It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever — to be the dwelling of man, we say, — so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, — not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in, — no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there — the home of this Necessity and Fate. There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites, — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we… What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, — that my body might, — but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”
He was writing about what he perceived as the vast, inhuman wilderness of Ktaadn. But you can read it for the lawn in front of the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia just as well. It is eerie how well it works, how well it subverts everything.
Sitting there, kicking my shoes off, freely talking with my girlfriend about whatever came to mind, it reminded me so much of my hours spent doing the same in Lafayette Square in the middle of New Orleans’ central business district. I long felt that, as much as the intense urbanity of that city bothered me, it was as good, or should be as good, a vantage to view the universe as any other. And I used it that way, maybe even as an experiment of sorts, to see what there was to see, to learn what kind of place it was, while it was. To watch the things themselves.
Here we were in the center of civilization, at least the center of civilization on this section of the continent. The nearest comparable centers are Tampa and Miami, Houston, Dallas, or Washington DC. There is not much else of a similar magnitude in the immediate area. So here in the beating heart of what has become of this bioregion, what was the answer, what was the great secret being kept in the inner sanctum, in the belly of the beast? What made it tick, what justified or at least explained all that vast dominion outside the city walls?
Apparently nothing. If it was the museum, the irony was that what you found inside the museum was a criticism of the fundamental assumptions of the museum and of the civilization that produced it. If it was the beautiful parks and the rich people’s houses around them that were just outside the museum, it would seem that those people had no idea, as we walked those neighborhoods, of what they were really doing and why — no “master plan” beyond the one that laid out their landscapes and their architecture — certainly no plan to improve their characters or minds, but instead what amounted to finding a nice place to sit under a tree and have lunch, something you could get better advice about from a Cherokee or Muscogee person I’m sure — with no need for the inexplicably tall skyscrapers or the inexplicably busy freeways and the scarce gasoline.
Diogenes came to mind as we sat on a park swing and looked across the park toward the mansions on the other side — this was surely one Atlanta’s richest neighborhoods. We began to chuckle at a very pastel family, all in pinks, with blonde hair and white skin, all arranging themselves on a driveway. What on earth were they doing? Then came a golf course shuttle that picked them all up. They seemed such bizarre creatures.
A little further along we saw some men sitting around on some benches with the tall trees and rising hills of the park behind them and some of their dogs running around in the foreground. I took it to be an Atlantean analogue to an Orientalist painting we saw in the museum, Fromentin’s Tribu nomade en marche vers les paturages du Tell. Fromentin crossed the Mediterranean in the middle of the nineteenth century to “get inspiration for his works” and was apparently painting something he had actually seen.
It didn’t matter. He could have seen in it from his house’s window if he had sat still long enough. It turns out there was no need for any of this hammered stone, it seems, when it would have done just as well to sit in the forest, and above all, to leave the Cherokee and Muscogee alone.
But we are not done conquering and Orientalizing, or Occidentalizing, or God forbid going in the other four directions, which we are also doing as the ships use the long-fabled, finally-realized Northwest Passage to ferry oil to market, as Elon Musk eyes Mars for development, and as the drywall and the gold and the rare earth continues to be dug up from its interstellar vault and thrown around from person to person, flowing along a river of blood and human waste.
There was one such blood-and-shit river up ahead, “Clear Creek,” they called it. It was a creek in a fairly deep gorge on the outskirts of historic Atlanta. We crossed it as we went back east into Piedmont Park from the museum area with the rich homes. There was a sign — it told us that this geographic feature was key to a Union victory in a skirmish during the Civil War that, I suppose, ultimately led up to the fall of Atlanta. These days it is an urban stream, and smells a little like sewage. There was trash strewn around, and signs warning people not to fish or swim, as there are with most such waterways in the cradles of civilization.
There were still some incredible oases of wildness here. A purple-blue flowering vine grew everywhere, with a transcendent, repeating, conical inflorescence — maybe invasively, and was still in bloom and feeding the bees. There were some incredible wild berries in different shades of ripeness — I could not believe my eyes at all, so I took pictures to prove the colors were true — a turquoise, a deep ocean blue, a magenta, a royal violent, all on one plant. It was something magical. Of course, it was wild and not there by any design. You didn’t have to pay fifteen dollars to be admitted to view this impressionist work of art, but such are the lessons Pissarro and Diogenes and Zhuangzi had to teach.
We sat out on the wide lawn of Piedmont Park sizing up the day. The other plan had been to go to the zoo, but I was glad we had not. If the art museum is civilization’s apology, the zoo is its indictment. I still remember the last time I went to a zoo, and the experience of seeing the gorillas. It felt no different from keeping a human there — and after all, zoos in the West kept actual Congolese people in them less than a hundred years ago.
Yet, amazingly, the zoos still open their doors as if nothing is going on, as if they aren’t doing anything wrong. They excuse themselves and say this is the way to save the animals and educate the public, as if that is enough, and they have no responsibility to ask why these species are endangered to begin with. Irma is barreling through Florida, which is thoroughly paved and converted to human use. The natural habitats of the state are, especially in the south, increasingly marginal. This is to our own peril as well as to the animals’ — yes, I am sure someone around there will say that the panthers they keep in a zoo need to be there for their own protection. If it were me — and I felt this coming from the trapped gorilla I saw a few years ago — I would rather take my chances against civilization and its humans — my true enemy — than allow myself the indignity of being caged by those same creatures for my “protection.”
There is a bitter logic to having a zoo in Atlanta though — the whole city as it turns out is built on stolen land — newsflash, extra, extra. Specifically, and harshly, it is the land that was coveted by white Georgians, the land that precipitated Jackson’s Indian Removal, the Trail of Tears. So here we were, on this city built just because, just because, well, there is land to build on now, so let’s build on it! It turned out that the reason the city is so strangely situated, not along any body of water, is because it is a thoroughly industrial city.
It was built here because it was the point where Georgia’s western railroad to the rest of the growing Empire out west, connected with its existing lines. It was the change-over point. That is the whole reason it is here, and nothing more, no grand or beautiful reason, just economics and infrastructure. Somewhere to offload goods coming out of the conquered zones,
“Terminus” they called it, but it was not really the terminus, because civilization is conquering on and on and on, and bringing back gorillas from Congo “for their protection” and putting them in cages or reservations, whatever little difference it makes, and supposedly no longer doing the same thing to actual people — and yet in Oklahoma the “Sooners” tailgate with beer and burgers every weekend this time of year while actual people, no longer in zoos but rather just forgotten entirely, supposedly already extinct, just watch, and cope however they can.
So we built Babylon here, because the first Babylon was never, ever going to be enough, that is for sure. It is a contrived Babylon, a neo-Babylon, with no real history besides money-making and conquest, but does any city honestly have any other “real” history than that? It seemed doubtful to me sitting there on that vast lawn which was who knows what before it was a driving range, cotton festival ground, gentleman’s resort, and land-parcel. I hope someone remembers. Maybe someone in Oklahoma keeps the story alive. Hereabouts, the trains still run, the city has a rail transit system — the only subway in the South. Such an achievement, we are tempted to say, but why? Do we wish every town had a subway? Why? Because cars are even worse, I guess. But why do we need either? What is the hurry?
That night we ran into a parade, the “Altanta latern” parade on the beltline, which, remember, is an old rail line. It announced itself to us suddenly, we had no idea some event was supposed to happen but as we passed under a bridge there was suddenly a crush of people lining the path, but now there was a crazy guitarman crooning away tunelessly with his voice and the crowd noise echoing closely off the bottom of the concrete. In front us appeared a glowstick salesman, covered head to toe with glowing fluid and accessories — it was dark now and the whole underside of the bridge was alit in these unnatural colors. On the wall was a mural of larger than life goldfish in an aquarium. These were swimming around wildly, swimming with nowhere to actually go, it seemed to me. It all came up all of the sudden before I had seen it coming, it made me confused, afraid. Here truly had we descended into the absolute underbelly of the decadent megamachine, of Babylon, of Jericho.
We asked around to find out what was about to happen and set up somewhere to watch. The parade was appropriated Chinese lantern designs with LED lights in them and different self-made designs all walking down the way, with everyone appreciating the designs. Every one of them was a reference — the only question was how far removed the reference would be from actual reality. The house-with-balloons-on-it lantern is not a house with ballons on it, no, it is the Up house. The dog-lantern is not a dog-lantern, it is the Adventure Time dog.
There was nothing further rarefied into spectacle and the hyper-real than this — so many were referencing movies, and amazingly, nearly everyone understood the references. It was fun, but it did seem uniquely pointless, and everyone admitted as much. It was apparently, literally, to simply “celebrate the beltline” and had only really been going on a three or so years. A contrived tradition for a contrived city then — again, no different from the rest except in degree. I shouldn’t be too harsh on Atlanta in particular.
The next day, Irma had arrived. Gusting winds and a slate gray sky were over everything. We went into town on the metro, really just to see the skyscrapers, get a sense of it. We got off at the central station, a somewhat dilapidated and nondescript main terminal, and out we came into what was cityscape of predominantly trash and homeless people. This is the real heart of civilization, maybe, rather than the art museum. The homeless people probably didn’t feel like it was much of a civilization though. It is always odd to reflect that those people may have been better off, in hindsight, being born in the wilderness to people who know the land. The problem is that those slots are increasingly limited. More and more the chances are that you will be born into one of these Babylons. How many hundreds of these nondescript contrivances now dot the surface of the Earth? More than even the richest and most dedicated will ever care to visit, even the travel show hosts.
A whole area was cordoned off by police. We could not understand why as we wandered around and it seemed that more and more of the downtown area was being blocked off by police. Finally we understood that there was falling debris from a high rooftop, and with Irma coming, they were keeping people off the affected streets. So much for evacuation, I thought. Irma does not care where you are, what kind of buildings you have. In Miami a tall construction crane collapsed under the wind.
It was an interesting tour of the heart of the city, if somewhat unnerving and depressing. At one point with a cold wind gusting strong we stood and looked at a historical marker tucked away behind a subway station and two unremarkable buildings. “The Winecoff Fire.” It commemorated the worst hotel fire in US history, where 119 people died in a fire in the fifteen story hotel in the 1940s. Many of those killed were students in town for some kind of conference. Why were so many people in such a building? Why not? What were they doing that was so important that cost them their lives? I think it was a YMCA conference. I’m not sure. I looked up past it and saw the newer Westin Hotel building, a glass cylinder than seemed almost ten times as tall as the still standing Winecoff deathtrap. I’m sure the business of those residents is equally important, maybe there is some World Trade that needs to be done. The wind kept whistling along and we shivered. The streets, the whole city, felt like no place to be right then. We went on home.
Wednesday we will make our way back to Gainesville and pick up the pieces. I write this at least in the hopes of getting some kind of lesson learned recorded for later. Maybe as if to prove to myself in some coming bleak time that when the tragedies started, I was at least aware of it. Here I am, also in the inner sanctum of the civilization, hopefully subverting it enough to be worth the bread and gas it takes to feed me. Time will tell — but nature’s justice is always done.