The cycle of creation and destruction is a bit like a chicken and an egg; it’s hard to determine which comes first. In the creation story in Genesis, God creates the world out of a void, an earth without form. It’s not as if there was nothing when God set to work but rather a disorganized mess. By separating out the elements, the waters from the land, the heaven from the earth, God created something where biodiversity might flourish. With the land separated from the water, the grasses and herbs and fruit trees could multiply. With the waters unclogged by land, whales and other swimming creatures were able to multiply. And with the firmament separated from the soil, fowl and other flying things were able to stretch out in the open firmament of heaven. By separating out the elements, a pastoral and God-loving civilization was able to emerge.
But even that Old Testament creation moved inexorably towards destruction. When God became seriously disappointed with the degree of piety in his well-ordered universe, he made the elements mash-up again. The waters rose, the dry land disappeared, and the world as the shepherds and goatherds knew it was destroyed. According to this biblical logic, creation begat destruction which begat creation.
But what if the void in the beginning began it all? Some scholars read Genesis as a description of the limits of the human imagination. When we can’t make sense of things, we call it chaos, bedlam, destruction, the void. By creating order, God made the world legible. With the water separated from the land, we feel a lot more in control. But that feeling that we can find our way in the world begins with the terror that the whole thing is madness. That may be the primal experience of life for the newborn. From that intense fear we are willing to follow the dictates of our parents, to absorb their rules, to imitate their inclinations. Maybe the terror of chaos propels us towards order.
Besides the chicken and egg problem, there is also the confusion in determining what constitutes creation and what constitutes destruction. Since climate change has entered our vocabulary, many of the creations of the past sixty years are looking more destructive. For instance, the strip mall that your grandparents called convenient is now seen as environmental degradation. That shift in awareness happened because environmentalists read order where developers saw messiness. We now know that bogs and marshes, the swampy borders between water and land, are not messes but complex filtration systems that separate out pollutants and absorb floodwaters. When we thought wetlands were earth without form, we imposed order by covering them up with parking spaces and aisles of laundry detergents. Now we impose order by keeping developers away. What God creates let no man turn asunder!
Creation and destruction are both intimately entwined and evolving. Once we understand the order, as was the case with wetlands, then we stop trying to organize it. If we just see it as messy, then we bring in the bulldozers to firm up the soil. What this suggests is that the cycle of creation and destruction has a lot to do with our experience of the world’s intelligibility and unintelligibility. When the elements are in their rightful place, the world feels manageable. But in the presence of chaos, we feel really, really small.
The superstorms of recent years, the tornadoes and hurricanes that mash up parking lots and strip malls, grinding asphalt against the deep waters of the sea, create unintelligible landscapes. In this part of Vermont, during Tropical Storm Irene, hillsides that dated back to biblical times were washed out to sea. The day before the storm, these close-packed hills with winding streams and occasional strip malls were completely intelligible. Once the roads washed out and the ancient oaks and propane tanks became like creatures that moved in the waters, we lost our bearings. Three years later, we’re still trying to make sense of it all.
The destruction of Irene begat new ideas about hillsides and roads that seemed permanently tethered to their streams. It made me think about asphalt differently and buying river-front property. It certainly gave me first-hand experience of the terrible wonder that fills a person when the landscape exceeds the intelligible forms in the head.
I’d like to tell you that I was able to increase my awareness so that great destructions are always within my ken, but that would be a bald-faced lie. What I think I can say is that destruction propels us toward creation. The trick is to create something that recognizes the limits of human understanding, or at least can handle the next storm’s force.
By: Meg Mott
Marlboro College Professor – Environmental Studies, Gender Studies, Politics