"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Eng. 150: What is a Natural Disaster?

This morning, the weather changed. Where it's been unseasonably warm for January in Nebraska, barely requiring a jacket, let alone mittens, this morning was chilly and windy and made me regret leaving the house with wet hair. There was Pepto-Bismol pink of the sunrise reflected on the buildings I passed on my way to campus, but strangely, it felt as if the light came from somewhere else, because it didn't feel like the sun was actually rising. Very odd way to start the day.

Today was the second time I've met with my new English 150 class and I went into class thoroughly caffeinated and energized by what we'd talk about today and hoping that my enthusiasm, my very large Stanley thermos of Earl Grey Supreme, and what we'd read would somehow translate to my students. Since we don't know each other very well, I didn't have high hopes for getting them to talk about two scholarly articles on topics they had little knowledge of. But it was a great class, so exciting that it's given me the push I needed to get out of the First Week Worry that this brand new class on a topic I hadn't taught before and now I'm just straight-up excited for the rest of the semester. My students are talkative and willing to be interested, which is more than I could have asked for at this early date.

I had them read Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?" and Mary Warnock's "What is Natural? And Should We Care?" I started off the class with a short free write, a space for them to define for themselves--and then we would construct a collective definition--of what constitutes a Natural Disaster. They offered things like death, destruction, caused by nature, unexpected, out of our control, affects a group of people (rather than an individual), affects an area, involves the elements (water, fire, land, etc.). From there, we complicated those definitions, because the point I wanted to make with Steinberg and Warnock was that defining such things is not as simple as it sounds. Death is not the only way that humans can be scarred by a disaster. In the 1997 Red River Flood, nobody died, but that didn't make it any less horrifying. Caused by nature--what does that mean? Because Steinberg starts his article with a reference to the 1889 Johnstown flood, which was partially caused by spring rains, but it was the faulty dam that failed that caused the catastrophic flood. We'll talk about Erik Reece and mountaintop removal--that's a human thing that's causing catastrophic environmental damage. So it's not just nature--people are involved. Unexpected works in some areas, but we saw Katrina coming, we saw the 1997 Red River Flood coming--that doesn't make them less a disaster.

From there, we talked about both articles and the way both authors worked through natural disasters by bringing in the human component. Culture is a very influential filter of disasters, how we think of them, how we understand them. Natural disasters as morality tales is one of our oldest forms of storytelling. Plato's telling of Atlantis was a morality tale. The biblical flood is a morality tale. But even more complicated is the way that both authors discuss "natural" and "unnatural," how disasters are either Acts of God and something completely out of our control or they are completely explainable as to how humans contributed--and both authors' arguments culminated in "it's not that simple."

Trying to understand natural disasters is our earliest form of trying to figure out the world around us. It's how we get the Greek myths, how we get Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. And once we start to understand the place we come from, we understand how it works, how the way that that the Red River floods can be explained by its geologic history and the soil composition around it. Warnock also made the point where the environment stopped being just nature and became political nature and economic nature. I said that nature wasn't just what Thoreau went to find at Walden. What keeps nature natural is a matter of politics and economics. A very interesting moment.

One of the greatest moments that came out of class today was one of my students, when we were briefly talking about the Dust Bowl: why didn't they leave? An excellent question--why didn't they leave? Those who left Oklahoma and went to California left--and what happened to them? What other things might be in play that people wouldn't leave? What would prevent them from leaving? He also said something about cloud seeding and such as being crazy and why didn't they just wait out the drought, have faith that once you hit rock bottom, things will come back up? Another truly excellent question--but how did they know that things would get better? How are things not that simple? At what point, when the drought has been going on for ten years and your children are dying from dust pneumonia do you try anything and everything in your power to make it end?

The point of class today was to complicate--and yet somehow come to a common understanding--of natural disasters, how we would be talking about them with relation to understanding a place where we come from, how they might form personal identity as well as a community identity, and more. On Friday, we're going to Morrill Hall, to the museum to specifically explore "What don't we know about this place that we should?" My purpose is to further disrupt what they think they know, because the assumptions we make about place don't help us to understand it and how it affects us.

No comments:

Post a Comment