Natural calamities and Social Change
Once, some forty years ago, Lake Michigan lapped the stairs at the base of the bluff in front of my house. This year the water level is again high, allowing Leviathon to demolish my steps, take a monster bite out of my cliff and drag trees to his watery lair with the result that I now have a marvelous a view to the wind-capped horizon that stretches to Chicago. But, as much as the vista has expanded, I now feel constrained, confined, unable to patrol the beach two miles north and three miles south as I love to do. I even need a ladder, these days, just to get down to the rubble from what appears to have been a marine invasion. Interlocking steel seawalls, steam-hammered deep in the sand, now lean at contorted angles, edging out of their sidelong grooves so carefully joined so long ago. The waves snuck over and behind, undercut from below, dragged sand and clay from above to break the iron hand-holds in nature’s game of ‘red-rover, red rover let Johnny come over.’
Down on the beach, I duck through tangled tree limbs reaching for water with leaves instead of roots. Pieces of docks and decks, boathouse doors and steps-to-nowhere fight for attention, to be dodged and climbed, clambered and skirted. Rows of raw gravel, whether washed clear of covering sand or carpet-bombed by thundering waves, make it difficult to walk but easy to stop and stare at buried treasures. The butt of a Sunfish sailboat exposed in a ten-foot sandbank. A huge tractor tire awash in the foam. And farther along, a barricade of automobile tires impaled on cable-twined, cast-iron posts is visible for the first time since it was installed in the 70s. That was the last time we had high water. It was a time of upheaval not just along the shores of Lake Michigan but across the country: anti-war protests, civil rights battles, women’s rights, church reform, presidential reckoning. Do cycles in nature cause seasons of change?
Fifty years on, we are in it again. Pandemic forces are washing away the way things were, and the way we ‘always did.’ Lockdown, isolation, distancing. Body counting, this time of non-combatants, here and abroad. Righteous marchers protesting murders seen obscenely. And so, I rest in a yawning cavity at the base of a sixty-foot bluff wondering if we have reached the high-water mark of this cycle yet? Nature with its climactic changes, seasonal cycles and a novel virus is making us re-think where we are, how we got here.
Maybe it takes general upheaval to confront norms and status quo, to defund, to re-imagine. Maybe there will be another productive hiatus like between the last landmark watermark and the current one. Since the 70s there have been changes in attitudes and laws about: LGBT, inter-racial marriages, women in politics and the workplace, marijuana and diversity throughout. Not enough, of course, but sometimes we can only change practice before we can change attitudes. There is so much to change.
And sometimes there is just plain generational drift—some attitudes simply fold of their own weight and the openness of progeny born outside parental biases. Sometimes. Hopefully, we won’t always need hurricanes and tornadoes and oil spills and global epidemics to jolt us into spasms of legal change and national consciousness, to make us move our houses back from the brink.