Lately, I have been attracted to stories about disasters, both real and imagined. I am currently reading Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, about the disastrous Galveston hurricane of 1900, and learning a lot about hurricanes in the process. Recently, I have watched the films Everest (2015), about the tragic expedition of 1996, and In the Heart of the Sea (2015), about the shipwreck of the whaling ship Essex, a story that perhaps might have you rooting for the whales. From my reading on Everest–I also recently read The White Road by Sarah Lotz and I have Thin Air by Michelle Paver on deck–I can only conclude that just attempting to climb into the “death zone” is a disaster in the making. (Death zone is the mountaineering term for an altitude so high that there is not enough oxygen to breathe.) Why would anyone do it? I wonder from the comfort of my living-room sofa.
Disasters have always fascinated me, as evidenced by my lifelong preoccupation with apocalyptic stories. Climate change affords us all the opportunity to live through a global disaster in the making, but with the headlines this summer–of wildfires literally driving people into the sea in Greece, of unprecedented heat waves and nonstop flooding rains–my tolerance for fictional disasters has decreased. Still, fiction reminds us that it can only get worse.
The word disaster means “a sudden, calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction” or, more broadly, “a sudden or great misfortune or failure.” A disaster can be either manmade or natural. However, disaster implies something bigger than ourselves, something beyond our control. In the midst of a disaster, we are forced to surrender to our fate and either survive, or not. I prefer the obsolete definition: “an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star.” The word comes from Latin, the prefix dis married to astro, meaning “star.” Our fates lie in the stars.
The current president uses the word disaster a lot to describe things that most certainly aren’t disasters, I’ve noticed. Such misuse robs the word of its power and distracts from the actual disasters all around us: the personal disasters of parents who have lost their children, perhaps forever; the looming disasters of nuclear annihilation and a climate out of control. And yet, reading about disasters can be comforting. The stories remind us that despite the worst, we persevere.