I have a habit of comfort to reduce things to their amoral elements, to science. Some incantations realize, rather than change. This morning, I woke up with mine and, while on the bus, ran it through my head: hydrogen hydrogen oxygen. The perfect triangle. Homogeneous, the same molecules having the same weight, low friction, little potential for turbulence in its pure state, that is to say, in its isolated, world-away state. Water, water everywhere.
On a June night, like on any stormy night, clouds came from the west, brought clean air from the Dakotas, swept exhaust and factory smoke over the finger of Lake Superior that points toward Duluth. Like many Duluth storms, the clouds were subject to the push-back of lake wind, the force that, in winter, delivers the same snow storm multiple times over, letting it pour its fill, then pushing it back, on top of, the same storm—again. But this storm, everyone will say was different, and all they can explain is that rain didn’t pour or fall in sheets, didn’t hammer or pound. It was simply water, and air was simply under water, and the air was water, and there was no motion, just the water everywhere, and then the rest of the night when there was no stopping.
And the news will say in the morning nine inches, and people will measure with their fingertips apart and say it must have been more, but it was nine inches everywhere. And no one will expect the floods, no one ever expects a flood. Duluth is a series of hills, tall and steep hills; my ears still pop driving north into the city. But the hills are lousy with streams and creeks, and nine inches everywhere is too many inches for everywhere, and every hill has a valley.
Overnight, it happens. People will say flooding, as of a stream overtaking its banks and spilling into the surrounding land, water growing high. But the water flows down, rises, and rises, and the donkeys, the horses, the birds in their cages, the owl, the animals at the zoo, the zoo in the western part of the city, all drown. When the rain doesn’t flow, but sits in the valleys, it saturates, slides fingers into limestone and asphalt, and things that were once hard dissolve, and water will challenge definitions of force.
Cars fall into sinkholes that open when solid states of matter collapse. A boy falls into one and is swept six blocks through a culvert. When water retreats, entire spans of highway are gone. Restaurants, the mall, houses, are half under water. The newspaper website posts photos throughout the day as more dissolves, as the water continues to rise, as sewers overflow. People kayak through opaque standing water to the ATM and smile for the news cameras.
I grew up near Duluth, near Lake Superior. The great lake is not a pretty lake, although people gather near it year-round to have picnics, to build bonfires, to listen to the ice along the shore groan in its breaking. Breakers breaking away from solid, fiber tearing. The lake is always fighting, bucking and thrusting toward an expansion, a war in itself. And in the photos, images of the city’s downtown under water, spewing water, the lake is high on its banks, throwing arms over the pier, getting a good look, and you can feel the want coming off it, the overtake-want.
If my city were there, and then gone, a shock could move through me. I could shake and go numb, and then a living thing more alive than I would curl heavy on top of my hips. But it isn’t gone, at least not at first. It is only under, only the worst kind of gone, still there but under. What child doesn’t know the awfulness of under, the difference between worlds on the surface of and worlds under the deep?
What the overtake-want leaves behind, the erosion of a home, this is different, it’s a sickness. The city leaves in small pieces, in sheets of asphalt and dropping-aways and crevices that are fractures, that are places not able to take it anymore. And this nothingness is not a there and then lost, it is a hiding home, a taunting consumption. Evidence in only a stomachache, a sudden gone place in the belly.
My father’s garden is an annual frustration. Rabbits eat the bean and carrot shoots, deer have learned that no fence is immune to a running start, and heavy spring rainstorms wash his vegetables down the driveway. The rain this June night was so heavy that it didn’t unearth his seeds, but pounded them into the earth, compacting layers of soil into a dense hardness that crushed any sprout. Raised beds were only raised an inch or so after the water lowered, the life within them driven too far down to grow further. Washed down, washed away, holes in rock, an overfilled earth.
There are two sides to erosion. There is the gone, the overtake-want. There is the filling, deposits of what is new, a turning into changed land. Same as a filling in a tooth, the tongue can’t leave it alone. The body is always seeking what is not a part of, what does not belong, what is new and invasive. What is under—the body seeks what is under, knows it, can’t stop searching for the decay, the hole in bone, in road, the not there, not seen. The worst kind of disaster porn, the worst kind of obscenity—the true kind, the off-scene, the hidden.
I cannot see my land, my town, and part of it feels like a cleaning, a relief, everything wiped away. What needs this deep breath before horror, this settling before the stomach roils, the gratitude for destruction kissed into the skin before hair prickles and drives it away? It’s the part that attaches exclamation points to each new thing gone, the finger pressing a button mimicking crosshairs on a cell phone, being the first one to post, to tweet, to link, to favorite, to say mine too, to tell of the gone thing.
This is how the world will end, as a surprise. Under water. Not fire, not a whisper, not a horseman. Not conflagration and char, not hubris, not beta particle, not divine justice. Water, water everywhere, which is filth, which is insect, which is shit, which is plant-rot, fur-rot, skinaway-rot. It is easy to forget, in the Midwest, that the world can take itself back.. That the world will go back to water. That going back is a kind of hate-love. Hate-love for home. Hate-love for something desired outside of good sense, outside of what’s right, outside of potential to harm.
On an afternoon in Minneapolis, a man outside the Burger King asked me for money, and when I gave him a few dollars, he said thank you, and he hated me with his eyes, and for the rest of the day, I had the want in me, the thought of touching my eyelashes to his three black teardrops, my nose and mouth pressed into the tendon-fat nuzzle of cheek between his jaws. What I am trying to say is there are things that confuse and sicken the body, anger and pet and slide all into flesh. Take themselves forth. Take themselves back.
A week after the storms, my sister, cousin, and I drove over bridges and roads that were under water days earlier. Where the creeks and rivers had overtaken the road, there was dirt, sediment, pocked hills of tailbone-jarring rock and hole. Wooden bridges on the highways and country roads were worn, collapsing in the ghost of a swell. I looked down. Innocent water there, glutted with mud and rock, contained in its banks.
The state park doesn’t open. When it allows visitors again, it will not look the same. My cousin tried to sneak down into where the park joins the St. Louis River, as many people did, to get photos of the swinging bridge washed partly away, washed partly under. The Park Service turned her back, but she saw the erosion, destruction of pre-Cambrian cliffside, trails that will never be the same trails she walked as a child. This is not a human life gone, but this is not a small thing.
When we talk about erosion—which is to say we never talk about erosion, which is to say we talk about fire and pestilence and whirring wind and ice and storm, but we don’t talk about erosion—we talk about the land gone, but we don’t talk about it becoming filth, wearing away and dropping into itself, breaking and sucking down.
I repeat the incantation, the science. Hydrogen hydrogen oxygen. Only science, not a gone place in the belly. Only molecules, an interaction. What is that word for sinkholes? Suffosion. Suffosion in the roads I’ve driven since I was a teenager; don’t say holes. And don’t look at the photos of things gone, the highway gone, the bridge gone, the rock pillars gone, the city undone. Don’t say words like wrench or strip or claw or collapse. Say erode, the word for the gone place in the belly.
But all I can see is what’s changed, the decades altered overnight. Only a handful of people will understand, and I worry about how there is no way to explain what has gone under, no science to work as a salve, just a gone place and the ghost of a home town in our eyes.
Natalie Vestin lives and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have been published in The Iowa Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2013 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner 2012 Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the 2012 Sonora Review Essay Prize.