How do you talk about the passing of ages? Imix to Ahau, there are 20 named days in the Maya calendar—not seven, like our own days of the week—and together they make up a winal, a cross between a week and a month. The winals cycle through, again and again. They’re grouped into three different sorts of “years”—the tzolkin, the haab, and the tun. Placed together, tzolkin and haab allow each day to be situated, a little like a point within two axes, within what’s called in English the calendar round—analogous to a century. That way, a day becomes a date, a specific point in time.
In Quiché Maya, you might say chi b’e q’ij, chi b’e saq—when I study each syllable in a Maya-English dictionary, I parse it out literally as something like “old road of days, old road of white.” And in several places on the Yucatán peninsula, I’ve walked along what’s called more simply a sacbe, an ancient road through the forest’s vines and trees, linking distant ruins with the sustained effort of purposive thought. And I, a tourist slathered with sunscreen, half-ecstatic over this weeklong tour of ruins and landscapes, can forget for hours at a time what’s happening across the globe.
In a satellite photograph of the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear power plant taken before the March 11 earthquake, the reactor buildings stand geometrically square and trim. The image records mid-afternoon light: boxy shadows angle to the right of each structure, indicating that the sun is setting in the southwest, sometime in late autumn. They look greenish-blue on my computer screen, the same shade as the pixilated sea visible just before it foams against the breakwater.
And in fact, as I study the image, sliding the cursor as if to pull a curtain back and forth through endless scene changes—before and after—I see that the photograph is labeled in tiny, pale font. Before was November 15, 2009. After is March 18, 2011. In the later picture the shadows huddle directly beside the ruined concrete buildings: that shot must have been taken shortly after noon, just three days before the equinox. By then we were a week into the realm we could call After Disaster, though the catastrophe continued to ripple destructive shock waves through both air and stone. The coastal roads running north and south along Japan’s eastern shore were inundated by seawater and wreckage, making it difficult for rescue and emergency workers to travel.
Before; after: 481 days. But who’s counting?
Meanwhile, the sun shone down, impersonal, universal, on the planet whose rotation and weather patterns were already draping trails of radiation around the northern hemisphere, dropping invisible lassos of half-life decay and carcinogenic damage, ringing the world from west to east with isotopes of cesium and iodine.
“We will have to continue cooling for quite a long period,” an official said. “We should be thinking years.”
The tour group’s van zips along the asphalt roadway south of the city of Mérida. Village to village, ruin to ruin; it’s hard to keep the course of our route clearly in mind, but we’re skirting the edge of the Chicxulub crater, where the meteor famously slammed into the sea to snuff out an entire geologic era and most of the life on the planet. Cenotes mark that crater’s outer edge, a sinkhole ring along the bedrock’s Cretaceous scars. “Ojos de agua”—eyes of water, they’re called in Spanish. Even out in the Gulf, beyond the splash of the surf, fishermen know where to find these portals to the aquifer, fresh water pooled within the salt.
Still water always draws us toward contemplation—doesn’t it? At Xel Ha’, we watch a painted bunting drinking from its own reflection. The bright bird dips to the water’s edge, lifts its tiny throat skyward to swallow. Lily pads float on the placid surface; eroded limestone descends, like well-worn steps, to the water’s edge. Strangler figs send down their balustrade roots; blooming bromeliads perch in the trees like still birds. Fat iguanas pose in profile on the stone ruins, watching us, always, with just one eye.
Here’s a piece of fossilized Yucatán coral. Gray, no larger than the end of my thumb, it looks like a paper wasps’ nest. I hold it up to peer into the miniature chambers. Most are blocked with—what is that stuff, anyway? I imagine carbonate blood clots, ash-colored stars. But along the edge, three of the coral’s shafts have been weathered to emptiness, and through them I can glimpse the sky’s pale blue refraction.
The black tsunami bores over the highway. Suddenly, boats and cars cascade together over the road’s embankment. I watch, horrified, as motorists and pedestrians pause on an overpass, the water washing buildings and ships against the bridge pilings. Click to replay the video, the fires burning in what seems to be a field of floating roofs. Click to see the Sendai airport terminal surrounded by the flood. Waves rush inland, looking like enormous cumulous clouds. On a stretch of road parallel to the shore, cars speed across the field of vision, but the film stops before they can exit the frame. They can’t possibly have made it to safety.
Like thousands of others, I play these images compulsively, registering repeated hits on the websites. Then I find that one has been removed, a notice left that the poster violated copyright. Where can it be found? I have no idea. In memory, I revisit the wash and breach of the petroleum-colored water; I lay those recalled images against the details from the news. Statistic and picture; story and gasp. Some of the waves were more than 100 feet high; some washed up to six miles inland, at the speed, I read, of a jumbo jet. Something like 800 feet per second. How is it possible that even more didn’t die along the thickly populated coast?
Think of all the grainy film-clips you’ve seen of 1950s atomic tests in the desert. There’s a double salvo: first the detonation’s outward blast, and then a backwash of smoke and dust when the winds careen back to the test site’s epicenter of disaster. A similar two-directioned tempest whiplashed the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago. When the Chicxulub bolide slammed the planet in the shallow sea that would, much later, become the Yucatán coastline, the impact’s sudden blast would have been 10,000 times the energy spewed if all the world’s nuclear arsenal were detonated simultaneously. Language strains to register such devastation.
The sea was probably vaporized at once. Shock waves rippled from the point of impact, speeding between 12 and 13 miles per second. Winds raged across the hemisphere, far stronger than any recorded hurricane. With waves as tall as ancient redwoods, tsunamis chewed the coastline and pummeled the continent’s interior. Records of those cataclysmic waves are locked in rocks along the Brazos River in Texas; a slender layer of clay marks the Cretacius-Tertiary Boundary like a kind of geologic fade to black. The hearth fires of photosynthesis that kindle sunlight into sugar must have been snuffed out by dust, Earth’s own emulsified crust.
And yet, such an irony. Eons earlier, the warm mineral baths of older impact craters might have been some of the first spas for the planet’s developing life.
At Fukushima, the rooftop cooling pools for the nuclear reactors are running dry. Is the spent fuel melting its steel containers? Is it catching fire? The press reports attempts at “pumping” seawater to fill the pools, a “desperate” move to avoid full meltdown. I imagine firemen positioning themselves with powerful hoses trained on the damaged buildings; I imagine temporary intakes run from some central pumphouse to the sea. But here’s the photograph of a military helicopter, like some swollen, steroidal dragonfly, lifting a giant bucket of ocean water.
Two weeks later, radioactive water is discovered in tunnels leading from the reactors’ turbine buildings toward the sea. Another week, a crack in a cement wall pours contaminated water directly into the ocean. I want a chart to lay out the half-lives of the radioactive elements and how the amounts detected compare to the releases from Chernobyl. It’s the same order of magnitude, but the unit of measurement—becquerels—means nothing to me. A becquerel measures a single atomic disintegration per second—this is the energy of death, I suppose; the power generated by loss.
Already, the release of radiation has gone on for weeks, far longer than at Chernobyl. Mapping out mandatory or voluntary evacuation zones, Japanese officials rely on medical data collected from the years after the atomic bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, calculating the odds. But that’s only a little over half a century of data. Who knows how long the unwinding of mutation will play out among the generations? How do you count deaths among descendents who won’t even be born until decades—or centuries—from now?
In the Madrid Codex, one of the four almanac-manuscript survivors of the Spanish conquest, one peculiar page was evidently torn and later mended. Patching the ancient fig-bark page is a segment of European-style cotton-rag paper, carefully pasted into place. A few Latin words are still visible—they indicate the paper was a Papal Bull, probably written in the peninsula’s Chancenote province around the year 1600. Astonishingly, a scholar believes he has identified the handwriting—the writer likely was Gregorio de Aguilar, an appointed church scribe who, with outraged indignation, participated in the confiscation and destruction of a number of Maya texts in the early 17th century. History professor John Chuchiak suggests that a Maya daykeeper, worried about the Spanish threat to the sacred text, might have attached the Papal Bull as a kind of magical talisman—to “bless” the indigenous book with the power of the Catholics’ sacred writing.
And I think of that subversive—or desperate—action when I read the 17th century Popol Vuh, the Quiché Maya “Council Book” that extends a narrow, narrative footbridge back from the time of the Conquest to the mythic age of the creation.
“This is the account,” the scribes declare. “Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky. . . . Whatever there is that might be is simply not there: only the pooled water, only the calm sea, only it alone is pooled.” As if murmured story and still water are reflections of the same unfinished state of being.
But then, in the dawn of life, Hurricane, who is called Heart of Sky, consulted with the Sovereign Plumed Serpent and two other sky beings, Sudden Thunderbolt and Newborn Thunderbolt. “Let it be this way,” they said to each other, “this water should be removed, emptied out for the formation of the earth’s own plate and platform. . . . And then the earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth.”
After the creation of animals, the gods consult among themselves. “It hasn’t turned out well,” they decide. So again they get busy, and this time they make people. Yet even the first people are a disappointment to their makers. They’re like manikins, carvings of wood—“There was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds.” As gods often do, the disgusted creators resort to a catastrophic flood to wash away their disappointment. They unloose a “rain of resin”: flood and fire, rolled into one. You can see this scene in a full-page illustration from the Dresden Codex. Against a dark background (“the black rainstorm began, rain all day and rain all night”), a reptilian monster—Itzamná—vomits water in a column from sky to earth. The blue paint pulses, little wave-crests throbbing with the torrent’s force.
In the resulting chaos, inanimate objects rise up to accuse the people. Cooking pots, grinding stones, ceramic water jars—“Everything spoke . . . each and every thing crushed their faces.” The Popol Vuh never quotes the besieged people; only the vengeful, non-human voices speak. Mute, doomed, the people race for caves, they try to climb trees to escape destruction, but the world has turned against them, quickened with rage.
Back home, I return to the classroom where I teach a course in literature and environment, and the day’s reading is a poem by C. K. Williams about the first “disquieting hours” of Three Mile Island. The poem’s speaker remembers a crew of roofers at work his apartment building, moving like men from the underworld amid their labor’s stench and heat. Such a thin layer of shelter they’re erecting—paper and tar, really, not much more. In a grammatical sleight-of-hand, he remembers himself imagining the future:
Someday, some final generation, hysterically aswarm beneath an at mosphere as unrelenting as rock,
would rue us all, anathematize our earthly comforts, curse our surfeits and submissions.
None of my students were alive at the time of Three Mile Island so we talk a little about what happened—and what didn’t. I wonder if they’ll remember Williams’ poem for its convergence with the Fukushima event; this year, like always, I wonder what good they’ll carry forward with them from our brief time together.
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Elizabeth Dodd’s most recent book is Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World (University of Nebraska Press). Catch up with her at ElizabethDodd.com.