Tuesday, August 23, 2016

61 Books: #38

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–37 are below this post.

38. Craig Childs, The Desert Cries: A Season of Flash Floods in a Dry Land (2002) (8/23/16)
This slim, elegant book is both harrowing and exquisite. Craig Childs, conducting research into the dynamics of flash floods in American deserts for his master's degree, visits five places that over the course of one season in 1997 saw tragic devastation, including on three of those occasions loss of life—and in the two instances where no one died, it was as if by a miracle.

The five chapters are written in pairings: a description by Craig of his visit to the place, after the flood; and an account of what happened, based on interviews with survivors and rescuers. In both cases, his language brings to life the unimaginable.

"Seeing a flash flood catches God red-handed," he writes in the prologue. "A flood constitutes an act of such creation and destruction, of such raw energy, that you cannot avert your eyes. Some people travel the globe to witness solar eclipses or volcanic eruptions or the migration of millions of birds to a single waterway. They hope for the same thing I want when I chase floods—to accompany an event that is flawless, humbling, and eternal. Born in the dry country of central Arizona, my love is for water. The stroke of a desert flood across a once-dry floor enslaves my eyes."

The five places he visits are a storm drain running under Douglas, Arizona, where a flash flood took the lives of eight illegal immigrants on August 6, 1997; the Mojave Desert in western Arizona, where on August 9 a raging torrent undermined a railway bridge, causing a transcontinental passenger train to derail (no one was killed); Havasu Canyon, Grand Canyon, where on August 10 a "cowboy" helicopter pilot flew down the canyon ahead of the flood warning hikers (no one was killed); Antelope Canyon, northern Arizona (eleven people, mostly European tourists, killed on August 12); and Phantom Canyon, Grand Canyon (two hikers killed, September 11).

His physical descriptions are lyrical and evocative, of the places both in stillness and ravaged by angry waters. Here he is flying over the landscape where the train had derailed: "The mountains below are studded with fins and sharp spines. There is no sign of humanity, no place for dirt roads or buildings. In fact, I have the impression that a human would be swallowed up just by trying to walk around down there. The jumbled topography goes on for nearly a hundred miles with crooks and stabs reaching up for the plane. Yet there is a constant glimmer of sensuality secluded deep within each range. Floods have left hundreds of wandering canyons that slice like sinuous ribbons into the ground. From up here, the canyons look elaborate, richly decorating the senseless chaos of stone. The mountains are male, the canyons female. And the floods are rare and genderless."

And then there's this, from the Antelope Canyon chapter, part two: "They all stop when they hear it. They do not breathe at the crescendo, as the ground shudders like hoof beats. The moment is as still from thought as possible. A blunt mass of dark water surges into view. It splits around the ladders above them. Streams of water and foam cut through the metal steps into the air. Tangled inside this water is the Frenchman, struggling to breathe, to get out. His face spears through the water, screaming. Bowled over, he tries to keep his ground. He can't. The vision is terrifying. They watch him as he is thrown unwittingly toward them."

This alternation of quiet observation and urgent narration is effective and forceful. And despite the occasional horror of a flash flood, Childs would not want it any other way. "I sometimes think that, in the perfect Eden, there are no floods. In Utopia, a person never dies fighting beneath muddy waves. Then I am glad to not live in such barren places as these. Floods belong to a fertile and dynamic land. We cannot control elements of danger, magnificence, and prowess in the world. To wish them away or to tear them into survivable pieces is to wish for a less genuine Earth."

1 comment:

  1. This has me intrigued for its premise and it's structure. Ordering.