What do humans do when they think the world is about to end? They write about it
The end is near. Or so say the crazies who expect either cataclysms or a spiritual game change on December 21, 2012, in keeping with Mayan prophecies. We’ve heard this one before, and often. Even the youngest readers of this column will remember the predictions of disaster as Y2K approached.
The human race has ways of handling apocalyptic anxieties. In earlier times, it built bunkers. Nowadays it buys cases of bottled water. And in all ages the human race has written stories about the end of the world. Or at least the world as we know it.
The world as we know it gets larger as we grow old, as individuals and as a species. In the 1960s and 1970s, we worried about nuclear war. Our schoolteachers, always feeling that the next generation was too complacent, assigned us to read Nevil Shute’s On The Beach and watch Dr. Strangelove. At night we stared at the ceiling, imagining a world poisoned by nuclear radiation.
Unlike those two works, which culminate in apocalypse, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, starts with the destruction of our planet to make way for a galactic express route. It’s all hilariously done, and the earth in this story is only the world as we know it. There’s much, much more out there in the cosmos. But as Arthur Dent, the sole human survivor, follows his alien friend Ford Prefect around the vast universe, we carbon-based bipedal readers can’t excise one nagging question from our innards. Is the earth really gone? This earth, with all its oceans, beaches, hills, caves, rivers and deserts? Our earth?
In Richard Adams’ Watership Down, the clairvoyant Fiver tells his brother Hazel that something very bad is coming to their world, the warren or system of burrows in which their rabbit clan lives. Hazel can’t convince their leader that the entire population will die, so he and a band of rabbits flee to seek a safer meadow.
I know that doesn’t sound like the end of anything. Housing developers will dynamite the burrows in that field, but rabbits, like humans, are not an endangered species. It’s Richard Adams’ prose that evokes a sense of fragility and impending loss. It is thick with love and longing for primroses, milkwort, thistle, heather, peat, gorse. In all, the rabbits cross only a few miles from their doomed home to the high ridge of Watership Down, but Adams inscribes a universe of wildflowers, insects, predators and occasional “man-things” on to every inch of terrain.
That’s our earth. It may not end next week with a bang, but our species has put it on a slow boil. And one day we will feel that spark of homesickness expressed in the satirical opening chapters of The Hitchhiker’s Guide…: “In moments of great distress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.”