April 30, 2011
The spate of tornadoes that swept across the southern United States a couple of days ago brought back some memories as I watched the news reports. I grew up in Tornado Alley. Everyone who grew up in Tornado Alley has tornado memories. They imprint themselves like instincts – swallow, blink, freeze, fight or flight.
My first tornado memory happened when I was four. My sister and I were staying with my grandparents who lived in a small town in southern Oklahoma. I don’t remember much – my uncle pointing at the western sky one evening and shouting at my grandparents, a vast wall of blue-black clouds with a wispy hook along the bottom, my sis and I being grabbed by the hand and dragged into the storm cellar out behind the house where we all crouched in the lamp light for an indeterminate amount of time, listening (for what, I did not know).
Back then, no sirens wailed their warning in those small towns, but to the initiated, there were warnings all around. In the midst of an evening rain, you might notice a sudden “greenness” to the air that raised the neck hairs; the wind picked up or the temperature took an unexpected drop. These put you on alert, made you look around to note the whereabouts of all the children, sent you to the door frequently to scan the sky. Adults became skittish, exchanging looks that said, “Is it time?” Sometimes, a burst of hail or wind-driven debris rattled the roof. By then, the gathering of the children had taken place. If a wall cloud appeared or there came a sudden dying of the wind, the looks between the adults said, clearly, “Yes, it’s time.”
While father or grandfather grabbed the lantern and ran outside to throw back the door in the ground, mother, grandmother or aunt snatched up the infants. Uncles and older children clutched the hands of the younger ones and all fled out the door into the storm, as the men hurried to help the women and children down the stairs and into the solid safety of the root cellar. And, woe to the family who failed to heed the early warnings and went to bed instead of keeping watch.
All animals, over their evolutionary history, develop genetic responses and adaptations to dangers in their specific environment that increase their chances of surviving – whether the danger is from other animals or natural events – the fat stores in a camel’s humps, the thicker winter coats of numerous animals and many other environmental adaptations. Rabbits, for example, have developed protective coloring that lets them blend in with their environment and a freeze response that keeps them still when a predator is near. These adaptations work together. The protective coloring is less likely to protect a rabbit that runs from an overhead predator, so it instinctively freezes. On the other hand, a white rabbit that freezes in place out on the browning prairie wouldn’t last long.
We humans, like all animals, evolved within the natural world and its caprices. Anxiety and fear, and the physiological changes that accompany them, evolved as adaptive responses to potential danger from other animals or the environment, itself. Our heart rate increases, our hearing becomes more acute, we sweat to keep from overheating, we develop focused or “tunnel” vision as our bodies prepare to freeze in place, fight or flee.
For much of our early history, that served us pretty well. As we migrated to new environments, our evolving brains allowed us to create new adaptations to augment those encoded in our genes. We learned to make new weapons for hunting or defense against new animals; we learned which plants and animals were edible there and which were not. We learned to make clothing and found or built temporary shelter in colder environments. As we settled into those new environments, we learned to see, hear, smell, feel, and sometimes even taste the signs of danger – whether they came from dangerous animals, inedible food, or environmental dangers like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards or earthquakes. These warning signs became part of our marrow. Sometimes, we even left permanent warnings for our children and theirs – like the ancient Japanese tsunami stones that warn, “Do not build below this height.” All this because we still lived within nature.
Things have changed, now. Most of us in the developed countries (and increasingly, around the world) live in cities or large towns. We no longer live within nature. We no longer grow our own food, make our own clothing, build our own shelters. And those who provide us with these things, no longer obtain them from within the environment, but increasingly plunder them from without. More often than not, the adaptive measures of anxiety and fear that once warned us of danger in the natural world have become maladaptive in the world we have created for ourselves. We fear much while understanding little.
Nature has always created, destroyed and recreated local environments through time and we – over that time – adapted to nature. Now, we have taken it upon ourselves to change the environments from those in which we evolved and adapted into artificial ones to which, in evolutionary terms, we are not yet adapted.
It always breaks my heart to see the faces of despair and loss during a natural disaster. But we cannot change nature. Nature goes right on creating, destroying and recreating on its own timetable in spite of our persistence in changing our own local environments. We build in flood plains and on fault lines, sow our crops in deserts while plundering the water from fertile soils, plant our cities and homes along the shorelines as if, in doing so, we have somehow adapted nature to our needs and then, are shocked and bewildered when nature goes right on behaving like nature always has, in spite of our best attempts to subdue it.
We create technology to modify or warn us of the dangers and, in our collective illusions of safety, lose the adaptive capacity to hear nature’s own warnings. Our technology is changing local environments around the world and destablizing the climate worldwide. It is not changing nature. With us, or without us, nature will continue its inexorable processes. The environments may no longer sustain us; the climate may no longer support us, but nature will go on.
In nature, it is always our obligation to listen, learn and adapt. Nature has no such obligation to us. If we choose not to, nature will continue without us. In time, we will be replaced by life forms that do learn and adapt as nature goes on with its processes. And we become white rabbits on the browning prairie.
- US tornadoes : The science behind natural disaster (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Tornadoes in Alabama and the South: Is Climate Change to Blame? (thedailybeast.com)