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Deadly Beauty

by Brendon Bosworth / 04.05.2010

Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic name no one can pronounce will long be remembered by the estimated 5 million travelers stranded in various parts of Europe after the glacial volcano erupted on 14th April. Today it belched again, sending another vast plume of ash, smoke and tiny fragments of glass into the atmosphere, and shutting down airports across Ireland and potentially the UK. This volcano with the funny name has caused the longest air traffic shut down since World War II. Thus, it will be remembered with certain distaste by the airline magnates: the IATA (International Air Transport Association) estimates that the global airline industry lost $200 million a day during the height of the airport closures. By the 21st of April, when European airports reopened, some 95,000 flights had been cancelled. All thanks to a volcano that had been lying dormant since its last eruption in 1821.

Natural events that severely obstruct the flow of life are powerful reminders of how fragile our existence is. We’re living on shaky ground after all. Relative to the innards of the planet, which is estimated to extend roughly 6400km to the centre of the core, the Earth’s crust, which separates us from the mantle, housing hellish hot magma in patches, is the thickness of a peach skin. It averages 7km thickness under the ocean and about 35km under land. This flimsy shell stands between humanity and fluid molten rock, gas and indescribable power. With the continental plates sliding around, causing earthquakes and tsunamis and birthing new volcanoes as time ticks by, homo sapiens are on perilous terrain. Those living in seismically active areas, such as the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 40, 000 km horse shoe of oceanic trenches and volcanic belts stretching from New Zealand, up the East side of Asia, across the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and south along the coasts of North and South America, even more so. This volatile region is home to 75% of the world’s active volcanoes and is responsible for about 90% of the world’s earthquakes.

Even those with the ostrich mentality can’t ignore Earth’s seismic activities. It’s hard to bury your head in sand that’s unsteady. And it’s impossible to bank the next paycheque and watch the balance grow until it’s enough to take out the next loan for the next inaccessible prize when the prize can be gobbled up, ashed over, washed away or knocked asunder by the ferocity of natural violence. In SA we don’t stress too much, though. Throughout the 20th century we’ve experienced four major quakes which damaged and leveled buildings, the most notorious being the Ceres-Tulbagh quake of 1969, which clocked in at 6.3 on the Richter scale and killed twelve. A harmless tyke with a chest cold when compared to the Haiti quake which killed an estimated 230 000 people. The spate of four quakes which hit Gauteng, the North West province and Limpopo last week were all under 3.0 on the Richter scale and are believed to be related to mining activities. We have no volcanoes, on the mainland at least; Marion Island houses an active volcano and Prince Edward Island is the remnant of an extinct volcano.

Whilst Eyjafjallajökull was popping the cork, we were fretting about whether ET was sodomised or a sodomite, speculating on whether Julius would be disciplined for his unruly behaviour and stockpiling anti-depressants and canned food for a looming race war, a spectre conjured largely by the media and reciprocated by the hysterical. During such miserable times, when you’re slipping into the caldera of depression, half-heartedly clawing at the crumbling walls, trying not to be sucked right to the bottom by the hordes of doomsayers who’re on their way to ground zero, this puts some perspective on things.

People are terrible; they do atrocious things. For centuries societies have expanded and imploded, warred, murdered, raped and done all they can to profit from the weak and peaceful. People lie, openly, to you and I. They exist to save their own skins, fatten their own bellies. Often it seems too much to process; the inevitable “why?” of fledgling philosophers surfaces like a mosquito drawn to a swollen vein. The sadness is that whilst the few golden hearted continue to do their charitable deeds, the morally inept will only generate more of their even less conscionable ilk. And while it’s all happening, while we’re all entrapped in the madness of our meager existence, the planet will continue to shake and shudder, as it has for millions for years. It matters not what we do up above. One little burp from Mother Earth and we’re done for.

The realisation chips away at self-importance, whittles any personal sense of grandeur down to a token ornament. A forgotten plaything gathering dust on the shelf of the millennia. But at the same time it ignites a private zeal, an ambition to make the most of a pathetic existence. Like the cruel beauty of a growing tsunami or the violent poise of a smoking volcano, there are pockets of pure goodness hidden in the grimness of our days. To find them is not easy; to experience them fully involves the type of trust that has been bleached from our understanding. But they are there. I am certain of it.

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