Dust up

"The smaller we come to feel ourselves compared to the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness."Arne Naess

The ground under my feet feels solid now, but they tell me it’s really an illusion and a failure to appreciate the bigger terrestrial picture. What’s actually happening is a highly dynamic process. That apparently solid earth beneath my feet is just a huge tectonic surfboard, floating on a vast sea of molten rock a thousand miles below. I’m not actually standing still, but rather surfing on a vast, slow motion planetary wave, trying my best to keep my balance, my grace and my purpose.

And it’s good to know how to surf, because you never really know what that dynamism will bring and where that tectonic wave might take you. All it takes is one small shift of direction, a subtle change in pressure or momentum, and your world can change, maybe forever.

Of course, I had no thought of any of this as I sat in my window seat at 30,000 feet, staring out at the vast expanse of the North Atlantic. According to my ticket, I was bound for London, where I was to deliver a two-day seminar at WildFitness. I was prepped and ready to share my thoughts and movements. My slide show was honed, my material ready for prime time. Aside from the usual drudgery of air travel, I was feeling good; everything seemed to be in order.

Suddenly, the captain’s voice shook me out of my daydream, but instead of the usual monotonous directive to keep my seat belt fastened, there was something new, a word I had never heard on an aircraft before: volcano. My ears perked up; this was novel, exciting and potentially very disruptive. As details began to emerge, I realized that our flight was being diverted to Paris. A massive dust cloud had blanketed the entire region and all of UK airspace was now officially closed until further notice.

I could only guess at the details, but it was surely a tectonic drama: the North Atlantic plate had just moved a few inches further into its subduction zone, slipping, driving and pressurizing the deep roots of Iceland. A trillion tons of mass collided with an immovable object of planetary dimensions and something just had to give. And so the volcano did its job, relieving the pressure by ejecting a monstrous dust cloud, oblivious to the consequences for aircraft engines, human travel schedules and the seminar plans of health educators.

This diversion would be a major inconvenience, of course. I would have to navigate more airports, more ground transport, more delay and uncertainty. But it all seemed somehow fitting, given my history of travel to the UK. Just last year, I had made a farcical journey from Seattle to London where I was rudely deported on a paperwork technicality. The similarities were clear: As a ponderous and immoveable force, UK Border “Service” falls into the same category as volcanoes and other natural forces. Both are capricious and inexplicable, following their own laws in their own time. And so, it turned out that I was paradoxically prepared for this new challenge: Having dealt with UK immigration, I was ideally suited to spar with the volcano.

In the end, I successfully navigated both UK Border Control and the volcano. The WildFitness event was a tremendous success, marred only by the fact that some participants were rebuked by the dust cloud and had their flights canceled. We played hard, studied hard and celebrated a new tribe of exuberants.

Of course, it might have gone the other way entirely. The volcano might have completely derailed our plans: It might have doubled its output and blanketed the entire continent. A shift in the jetstream might have kept the dust cloud centered directly over the UK. Administrators in charge of UK airspace might have prevailed over airline executives and kept the airports closed for weeks or months. Fine-grained dust might have brought down dozens of aircraft, sending the entire system into chaos. Things might have turned out very differently. Things might have been extremely unpleasant.

The scale and power of the volcano struck many of us as a reminder of human insignificance. It also demonstrated how incredibly vulnerable the modern world is in the face of natural forces. For all our innovation, infrastructure and power tools, we are at considerable risk. Our cities and systems are built for average conditions, not the wild swings that the biosphere can throw our way. This volcano, disruptive as it was, was really a minor planetary event. The biosphere is capable of much more powerful inconveniences.

Now that air travel has returned to “normal,” most of us have already forgotten the volcano and its potential. But there are important lessons here that we would do well to keep in mind. First, now would be a good time to revisit our studies of self-reliance: basic skills, functional knowledge, simple tools and knowledge of land and community will always be good back-ups that can serve us well in times of chaos. Second, a sense of proportion is essential; a canceled or delayed flight is nothing in comparison to genuine disaster. Finally, we’d do well to remember that we’re really just minor players in a highly dynamic world. For all our intelligence, knowledge and expertise, we’re just as vulnerable to the whims of the biosphere as any other species. The primary rule of ecology remains the same as it ever was: “Nature bats last.”