Archive for April 16th, 2010

The Ash Cloud

Friday, April 16th, 2010

I know thousands of people have had travel plans disrupted. I know airline flights have been cancelled across the globe. I know there will be an economic hit.

But putting that aside for a moment: there is something sublime in the huge high-altitude volcanic ash plume spreading across Europe; something the makes you stop, and take a breath, and think about things a little bit differently.

Here we are in 2010, surrounded by jaw-dropping technology that would have seemed Jetsonian just a few years ago. Our cars talk to us and tell us where to go.  Our phones link us to the farthest reaches of the planet in seconds. Manned space travel? Ho hum. We just built a machine that is smashing atoms together at an energy of 7 trillion electron volts per particle, so that we can get a bead on how our universe came to be.

And, yet, for the past 48 hours, tens of thousands of people across several continents have been stopped in their tracks by a small, cantankerous Icelandic volcano that’s been around since the Ice Age.

This is only the fourth time the volcano has erupted in the last 1,100 years; the first time was in 900 A.D. The resulting cloud of minute silicon particles has lit sunsets on fire across a half -dozen countries.

Say it with me: Eyjafjallajokull. That’s right. Eyjafjallajokull. For the record, it’s pronounced EYE-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl. Sounds like something you’d get at a Greek restaurant, over rice, or maybe a new marketing campaign by Volkswagen.

These days, we regularly bend nature to our will. We send airplanes into the eyes of hurricanes to monitor wind speeds. We chase tornadoes. We hike the highest mountains and traverse the oceans and deserts. Our surfers seek waves that blot out the sun.

We live in houses that protect us from harsh elements in four seasons, and when bugs come in, we call the exterminator. (Or, if your house is like mine, you stop what you are doing and gather round to ooh and ahh, and then your kids demand you catch the critter in a Dixie cup — yes, even during dinner – and set it free outside.)

And then a volano erupts, and one after the other, all the great airports of Europe shut down. Heathrow. De Gaulle. Frederic Chopin. Closed. Closed. Closed.

In the end, perhaps, reminding us that despite what we might think, we’re not really in control. Reminding us that still today, the most powerful, the most terrible, the most beautiful forces driving our lives were here long before us, and will be here long after we’re gone.