Acts of God

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by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.

Terrible things happen. Chinese students slaughtered in Tianenman Square. Hurricane Katrina floods New Orleans. Oil spill washes ashore on the Gulf Coast. I know it's morbid to watch, to listen, to read reports of these things, but I do so anyway; we all do. Disasters fascinate.

In our vacuum-packed, industrialized, fragmented microchip society true surprise and awe is rare. Most days are calm. Perhaps there's an undercurrent of worry over money, the car, the kids, but these are the stresses of everyday life, not disasters. A disaster usually comes on sudden and unexpected. It is a calamitous, and often violent, diversion from an established course. It interrupts, destroys, redirects.

Disasters are not all the same, however. There are those that are natural, or "acts of God," and there are those events caused by the mistakes or misjudgments of man. It makes a difference which you get, both in how we view the event and in how we deal with the consequences. That's what psychologists claim.

Acts of God are easiest to excuse. God doesn't make mistakes, right? An earthquake is part of a natural mountain-building, continent-shaping process. Forest fires prepare the land for new growth. Hurricanes help cool the Earth's surface temperature.

With man-made disasters, though, it's much harder to find the benefit. Who profited from Exxon's spill in Prince William Sound or the BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico? How does a plane crash contribute to life? What did Chernobyl do for this planet?

I am drawn to the scene of natural disasters. I do not chase ambulances and feel little curiosity about the causes of car crashes and plane wrecks, but I'll travel far to see the effects of a volcano or to witness great storms. I want to see those places where the acts of God are recorded in the Earth like books of the Bible. I want to stand where the primal forces made themselves manifest. I want to remember supernatural power.

Mount St. Helens. Crater Lake. Yellowstone. Borah Peak. The Palouse. Hell's Canyon. The Great Salt Lake. The dinosaur fossil beds of Utah and Montana and Colorado. These were the settings for awesome events, both wonderful and terrifying. They are like shrines to the forces that shaped this planet, that gave life to its continents and breath to its creatures. Here God performed.

Standing in the shadow of Mount Shasta, where the largest known volcanic debris avalanche swept through a dozen river valleys and out to sea, I am again amazed that the "seven wonders of the world" included not one natural feature. The Alexandrine sight-seers were all agog over the temple of Artemis and the walls of Babylon. Why not Mount Vesuvius or the vast Sahara?

I find more fascination in the icy peaks of Glacier National Park than the pyramids of Egypt. How can a statute of Zeus compare with the Columbia River Gorge? The Colossus at Rhodes was no match for Old Faithful.

Perhaps in a world dominated by acts of God, when tempests arrived without warning and mysterious plagues beset innocent peoples, it must have been some comfort to see what wonders the hands of man could wrest from the jaws of nature.

How peculiar, then, that after a little more than two millennia the acts of man should be so prominent on this Earth, capable of diverting floods and preventing fires and splitting atoms. In a world of satellites and freeways and nuclear power plants it is now the acts of God that are some comfort, a proof that there are still powers beyond those of man.