In his recently released book, The Man Who Caught the Storm, Brantley Hargrove tells the story of an unlikely legend named Tim Samaras, who lived his life grappling with and addicted to one of nature’s most dangerous marvels.
Samaras was a tornado chaser with a simple but absurdly treacherous goal: to get close enough to a twister to glean data from within its core. Hargrove, who spent months on the road chasing tornadoes for the reporting of the book, retraces and recreates Samaras’ most dramatic missions, culminating on May 31, 2014 in El Reno, Oklahoma, where he would face off with the largest tornado ever recorded. That same tornado would take Samaras’ life along with those of his son, Paul, and fellow chaser Carl Young.
“We now live in an era when the Mars Pathfinder rover has touched down on the Red Planet,” Hargrove writes. “The human genome has been mapped. But twisters still have the power to confound even the most advanced civilization the planet has ever known.”
Samaras legacy and life’s work represented a crucial foundation for how to better understand and predict historically unpredictable tornadoes.
But The Man the Who Caught the Storm is hardly a meteorological textbook. Rather Hargrove weaves a uniquely American tale of adventure — “nowhere else on the planet do tornadoes happen like they do in this country,” as he explained to me — diving into the circumstances and makeup that leads a man to chase what he should be running from.
Lacking even a college degree, Samaras was an outsider in the meteorological community, who not only developed one of the most sophisticated information-gathering probes the field had ever seen, but also had the courage (or perhaps unrelenting urge) to personally drop that probe in front of a twister.
Hargrove sat down with Longreads to discuss tornadoes, his own storm chasing, and the addicting thrill of being in the presence of something that can cause unfathomable chaos and destruction. Read more…
William E. Glassley | Excerpt adapted from A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice | Bellevue Literary Press | February 2018| 18 minutes (4,848 words)
* * *
Erosion always wins.
The vanished mountains we envisioned were simple possibilities, tentative interpretations of passages written subtly in the obtuse patterns and features of Greenland’s rocks.
The patterns match those seen in the Alps and the Himalayas — zones that seemed to be huge thrust faults, folds of immense proportion, metamorphism at extreme conditions. Through the inspired power of analogy, my colleagues Kai Sørensen, John Korstgård, their coworkers, and those who had come before them had surmised that the Greenland landscape was an old ancestor, a forerunner of the young mountain systems that today so dramatically exalt Earth’s skin. But the Greenland ancestors are long gone, erased by the incessant hunger of flowing water, blowing wind, and grinding ice to achieve a form of topographic equality between sea and land. Erosion always wins.
The first clear hint of those lost mountains had come years earlier. Just after World War II, the Geological Survey of Greenland (GGU) was founded in Denmark. Through its offices, a small group of geologists, including Arne Noe-Nygaard and Hans Ramberg, began the first systematic study of the west coast of Greenland, sailing along the complex coastline in motorized sailing vessels strengthened to resist collisions with ice. They found a two-hundred-mile-wide belt of rock that seemed to preserve evidence of multiple complex episodes of protracted and intense deformation. Cutting through this region were several distinct zones, each zone a few miles to tens of miles wide, in which the rocks were steeply inclined and consistently aligned in the same direction.
For some years, the significance of the zones of aligned rocks remained obscure, their tectonic significance unknown. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s it had been suggested by Arthur Escher and Juan Watterson, among others, that these zones contained rocks that had been severely sheared into steeply inclined parallel sheets and layers. The individual zones were eventually called shear zones.
* * *
New story lines emerge.
Geology is not generally considered an enterprise rich with drama. Rocks stolidly await inspection, slowly providing, through insightful consideration, a glacially paced story of incremental change. But there are occasions when perspectives are radically altered, new story lines emerge, and the field is caught by surprise.
In 1987, such a change shook the world of Greenland geology. Although it played out subtly, the consequences for all involved were profound. Feiko Kalsbeek, Bob Pidgeon, and Paul Taylor reported finding along the northern limits of the mobile belt, near the inland ice, remnants of the same type of rocks as those found today in the Andes and the Sierra Nevada range in California. Although nearly 2,000 million years older, those rocks were evidence that what is happening in the Andes today had happened in Greenland.
In the case of the Andes, the continent of South America moves west, riding over the floor of the Pacific Ocean and pushing it hundreds of miles below the surface. Plunging into the incandescent heat of Earth’s interior, generating massively destructive earthquakes, the ocean floor partially melts, giving rise to bodies of molten rock that slowly make their way back to the surface. The volcanoes of the Andes and the mountainous spine they decorate are the result of that process. If the analogy was accurate, somewhere hidden within Greenland’s Nagssugtoqidian mobile belt there should be evidence of a vanished Pacific, but no evidence of such a thing had yet been found.
Kalsbeek and his coworkers acknowledged the enigma, and suggested the ocean may have been swallowed in the collision of two small continents. Such a concept had the power to explain the significance of the mobile belt and the major fault zones in it — the structures reflected the massive deformation expected as a result of two continents colliding head-on. But the evidence for where the actual collision zone might have been was very sparse — there was no good way to identify where the rocks from the old southern continent ended and the rocks of the northern continent began. Compounding the uncertainty was the underlying debate of whether plate tectonics even functioned that long ago.
The areas where John and Kai and their colleagues had worked were central to answering those questions.
* * *
An expedition for their own vindication.
The evidence John and Kai had developed suggested that the collision zone, which would have required exactly the same kind of massive movement and deformation they described, might be within the areas they had worked. Those who study the history of Earth are few, and the areas involved are vast. Knowledge is sparse. Given the immensity of the terrains the continents cover, those dedicated to unraveling the story of evolving landscapes devote their lives to finding the nuance and subtlety held within a specific setting. Some spend their lives immersed in the history of the Alpine system, climbing and hiking through those beautiful mountains. Some are owned by the Himalayas, or by the vast openness of the Canadian shield. For John, Kai, and me, it is Greenland.
Inevitably, commitment to place becomes personal — our identity is affected by the time we spend walking the fragment of Earth that has captivated us. The chosen place permeates being — terrain embeds itself under fingernails, tangles in hair, makes skin bleed and scars the heart and mind. Every thought, conscious and not, becomes riddled by knowledge derived through wandering there; remembered vistas from that world unexpectedly insinuate themselves at random times and in unanticipated ways, forcing an acceptance of a link between what we experienced there and what is lived in the moment here. We are composed of where we have been and what we have seen. John and Kai were part of a pioneering generation that helped refine Greenland’s history. They and their colleagues described in detail the characteristics that defined the “mobile” part of that land — the folds and sheared layers, the discontinuities and disrupted features. Over the years, they mapped major tectonic elements, documenting evidence for miles of displacement along several of the shear zones.
They published respected papers in scientific journals, and were recognized authorities because of their work. They knew that land better than anyone. But in the late 1990s their reputation as field geologists and scientists was challenged by a paper that said, in essence, the work they had done was deeply flawed.
The paper asserted that Kai and John, among others, had made basic and fundamental mistakes reading the rocks. The new publication stated that the NSSZ showed very little evidence of significant movement. It said that in a collective misinterpretation an essentially trivial feature had mistakenly been given major tectonic significance. The words “shear zone” were removed from maps in the paper and replaced with “straight belt.”
Science is a messy business; everything we know is, at best, a simplification of what is real and is therefore inherently flawed. As a consequence, everything we do ultimately requires corrections, implying that nothing published is completely right. It is every scientist’s expectation that whatever he or she publishes will be improved upon by others, who will provide more nuanced and detailed observations that address questions about the world. Indeed, it is an honor to be a building block in an ongoing refinement of the story of how a landscape has evolved. But in the case of the paper I was reading, it was difficult to escape the fact that Kai and John’s work had been summarily dismissed.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
About halfway through reading the paper, I stopped to ask them if they agreed with what it was saying, that they had been wrong about how they had interpreted the geology.
“Of course not!” was the answer. At first, they spoke with disciplined calm. But quickly, with increasing emotion, they signaled numerous inconsistencies and errors in the paper, fundamental mistakes and misinterpretations that exceeded what the paper itself had, inaccurately, called to task. But only those intimately familiar with the real rocks would ever know.
Consequently, as things stood in the international scientific world, the work Kai and John had published was implicitly worthless and could be seen as one more example, among thousands, of failed scientific ideas. When I had finished reading the paper and began discussing with Kai and John the scientific conundrum we were in, I realized the devastation and angst they must have felt.
Being the rigorous scientists they were, they framed the argument for our little expedition as a data-gathering effort to resolve the conflict. At the time they invited me, they had said the purpose of the expedition was to pursue unanswered questions. There was no doubt that was, in fact, the underlying justification for the work. But I also realized this was, in part, an expedition for their own vindication.
* * *
Our own manufactured carnival.
Even though the sun blazed in a deep blue sky, the air temperature was close to freezing. Kai and I sat in the bow, huddled against the wind as the Zodiac sped down Arfersiorfik Fjord. I pulled the hood of my anorak over my head and put on gloves. Water splayed off to the sides in fragments of refracted sunlight, decorating the mirrorlike water surface. The outboard roared. John had the throttle wide open. We were headed for the northern boundary of the Nordre Strømfjord shear zone, which had been approximately mapped many years ago. Very little detailed work had been done there, mainly because it was so remote and difficult to get to. On our maps, the edge of the zone was confidently drawn in black ink, but we knew that no one had actually been there.
We sought that tectonic landmark as a reference point, a location where the fabric and grain of the rock could be seen and felt. We were searching for something that could be quantified and analyzed, something that would establish metrics for later measurements and comparisons. In order to be able to recognize severely, as opposed to minimally, sheared rock, we needed a baseline.
The three of us gazed down the fjord as we flew across the translucent water. Despite the roar of the outboard, we were enthralled by the beauty of the place — the hills rolling gently to the sea, the flower-chocked rivulets cascading down the bedrock, the stillness of the scenery. With some effort, we tried to focus our attention on the rock wall to our south, with its extensive exposure of folded and sheared gneisses.
Unexpectedly, as we watched the steep walls of the southern fjord edge, something shifted far to the west, down the fjord and miles away. I turned my head to get a better look, but at first all I felt was confusion. Initially, I thought the distorted landscape I was seeing was due to my eyes watering in the cold wind, but after rubbing them I realized something extraordinary was dancing along the horizon.
The land on the north side of the fjord was broad and rolling. Soft ridges sloped down to the water in a subtle cascade of rocky knolls and tundra pockets. It was a landscape that invited daydreaming. In the early-morning sun, the scene looked almost pastoral.
But farther down the fjord, a thick horizontal blade of sharp turquoise blue cut across the land, as though a giant painter had saturated a brush and slashed the ground with it. The blue was brilliant and intense, a pure distillation of color. It seemed to stretch hundreds of feet into the air and was painted across the land for miles. Within that absolutely horizontal turquoise stripe floated vertical columns of white, gray, tan, and green, looking for all the world like skyscrapers in a city miles away — a shimmering blue Oz resting on the frigid waters of the fjord. Toward the north and east, the blue trailed out into a needle-thin line that vanished at a piercing point sharper than the edge of a razor blade, ending in the middle of the rolling hills.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
We all saw it. As we cruised, we watched immense rock masses from the rolling land split off and drift into the blue blade, becoming the skyscrapers that floated in the air. The size of the masses was staggering, seemingly miles wide and hundreds of feet high. As they drifted slowly out into the fjord, they changed form, shifting from angular columns to smoothed elongations filled with textures and patterns, never resolving into a constant shape, and then slowly vanished — evaporating as though consisting of nothing more than mist. Eventually, the effect was too stupefying. John throttled down the motor, the bow dropped, the roar of the engine stopped, and we drifted with the tide.
We sat silently for minutes, watching the fata morgana while the Zodiac slowly turned and drifted in the gentle current.
A nearby island only a few hundred yards away subtly entered the scene. The knob was a small rocky knoll, covered with mosses, shrubs, and lichen. On our maps, it was an ink dot so tiny, it wouldn’t be noticed unless one were looking for it. As our line of sight shifted to the point where the small island came between us and the mirage, regret began to well up at the thought of losing that magnificent show.
Without preamble, and with extraordinary understatement, the distant blue line slowly sliced across the small island. The effect played out with such surgical precision that the inconsistencies between expectations and experience took a moment to register. Emphatically, right in front of us, the little island was divided into an upper and lower half, sandwiching a thin brilliant turquoise layer.
I struggled to accept what my eyes were seeing. The implication was obvious and inescapable: What had seemed so immense and distant, miles down the fjord, was little more than a pencil-thin, trivial mirage barely an arm’s reach away, hovering in the air like a butterfly before my nose, somewhere between our little rubber boat and the small rocky knob of an island.
In that moment, what we knew to be true because we had seen it in the company of others, suddenly became unequivocally false, for all of us. But we did not have the luxury of time to resolve the contradiction. A distant destination waited, offering an opportunity to collect desperately needed data, and the afternoon winds would surely come up, making it difficult to get back to camp. Without discussion, John started the outboard and we continued on.
As our vantage point changed and we rounded the little island, the mirage returned, immense, awe-inspiring, silent. It stayed with us for ten minutes more, then slowly melted away into the thin air.
Cold dense air, chilled by the frigid fjord water, had refracted light, bending it into a vision. Light is a malleable thing, warped and distorted by well-known effects, conditioned by a broad range of circumstances. What we are able to sense, which is less than one billionth of a billionth of the electromagnetic spectrum, is affected by the sensitivities of the organs our bodies use to detect it, and the narrow range of physical conditions within which we wander. Despite the richness and beauty of the things we can perceive, we remain profoundly impoverished by the limitations of our genetically constrained bodies and the space through which they move. What we see of the world is our own manufactured carnival — the mysterious unknown within which that carnival resides beckons through mirages, silences, and misunderstood truths, forever beyond our grasp.
* * *
We were historians, trying to read ancient texts written in a language we barely knew.
The question of what had happened within the Nordre Strømfjord shear zone nearly two billion years ago danced through every waking moment. Was there a place, somewhere along the ground we walked, that was the first point of contact where continents had collided? What would be the sign? Or was the vision of entangled landmasses a flawed story, a misinterpretation of history? Regardless, how did the shear zones fit either tale? The trip to the northern edge of the shear zone had added more observations and hard data but lacked sufficient context to inspire imagining.
For relief from the wondering, we would occasionally take a short stroll together around the hillocks and along the beaches near camp. These were casual and slow hikes, a chance to talk and look at things in an unhurried way. Anything we found could easily be revisited, so we took with us only hammers and hand lenses and notebooks, the minimum equipment necessary to descend below the surface if that seemed necessary.
One particular day, not long after setting up camp, we headed west along the shoreline in the late afternoon. There was a mile of land we had not seen, and we thought this would be a good way to familiarize ourselves with details and patterns.
Almost immediately, John discovered a spectacular example of what we came to call “pencil gneiss.” The rock was the same type of igneous rock that had inspired Kalsbeek and his coworkers to propose the idea of a collision zone, or “suture,” between continents, but there, where John stood, the delicate textures that form in slowly cooling magmatic bodies had been smeared into pencil-like forms, stretched and elongated. Individual crystals that normally were equant and half an inch in size had been strung out like taut pieces of string into thin lines several feet long, each precisely parallel to all those around it — a metaphorical pencil in the gneiss. That was graphic proof of extreme shearing. We took pictures, made notes, and placed another imagined factual stake in the ground. The immediate question now became whether or not such features were throughout the shear zone, or simply local and thus not of regional significance. We walked on, amazed, wondering what would be around the next headland.
A few hundred yards farther along the shore, we came upon a bizarre little cliff face. Hazy, dark lines patterned the surface, looking much like a pile of slightly deflated and sagging soccer balls stacked one upon another. We pored over every inch of the outcrop, struggling to piece together a picture of what we could not quite make sense of. We debated options and argued, running through every idea we could dredge from our experiences. What repeatedly came to mind was a jumble of tears, caught in the instant they were shed, as though Earth had wept from some unseen eye.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Grudgingly, we agreed the most likely answer was that we were looking at a deformed slice, perhaps 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, of a type of volcanic rock called pillow basalt, which forms when lava erupts under the oceans. Unlike the rocks surrounding them, which preserved evidence of complex histories with multiple episodes of folding and shearing, the pillow basalts had a very simple history: They had erupted onto the floor of some ancient sea and then been metamorphosed and simply folded once. That slice of rock was a lens encased in the much more intensely deformed shear zone gneisses and schists. The contrast with the surrounding rocks was dramatically obvious.
If that interpretation were true, the implications were staggering. Ocean basins the size of the Mediterranean or Atlantic commonly separate continents. If the continents are approaching each other, the ocean floor between them is consumed along the boundary that will eventually become the collision zone when the continents run into each other. Such collisions grind on for tens of millions of years, slowly exuding sheared, twisted, and recrystallized rock that had once been the sediments and volcanic pillow basalts of the seabed. It is from such “root” zones that Alpine-like mountain systems emerge. If that folded pile of pillow basalts we had just found was, indeed, all that was left of some long-vanished ocean basin, we had found the suture. That thin remnant slice was all that remained of what once had been a sea probably thousands of miles wide. Could it possibly be that we had stumbled upon the long-sought ocean that, fifteen years earlier, Kalsbeek and his colleagues had postulated might have existed there?
The excitement over that discovery was tempered by a healthy skepticism. Each of us had the experience of interpreting a fact or observation as evidence for some grandiose concept, only to see it crushed under the weight of more data and observations. We held little confidence that one outcrop would be the cornerstone piece of evidence supporting the ocean-floor idea, but neither did we dismiss it as meaningless.
Several days later, along the same trend and a mile west, we came upon another small slice of rock that showed exactly the same simple history preserved in the pillow basalts. It was a different rock type, though, called peridotite. Peridotites are the source rocks from which basaltic lavas are generated, and the rock type we were seeing was precisely what geologists associate with lavas erupted on the ocean floor.
Although it was seeming to be more likely that we had stumbled upon the true collision zone, two outcroppings of rocks are insufficient evidence to allow much certainty for such an imaginative leap. The history of a mountain system is a long story, told in many chapters. An outcrop is, at best, a paragraph in a chapter. We were historians, trying to read ancient texts written in a language we barely knew. But something was being revealed that had not been seen before. There had been tremendous deformation and movement within this zone, part of it involving the consumption of an entire ocean basin. It now seemed, between the pencil gneisses and these two new outcrops, that John and Kai would be vindicated.
The satisfaction Kai and John felt was obvious but muted. They remained thoughtful in how they analyzed everything we observed, but the edge was off. We found many more examples of the pencil gneisses along the trace of where the shear zone should be, providing irrefutable proof that intense deformation was distributed all along it. But the two slices of what might be ocean floor within the same belt of rocks made the story much more complex.
The data we had collected were increasingly supporting the notion that the region preserved a record of intense deformation, as John and Kai and others had originally argued. The pencil gneisses John had first found in that one outcrop near camp and which were irrefutable evidence of extraordinary shearing at high temperatures, turned out to be a common feature for miles along the shear zone. Thin lenses of pillow basalts and ultramafics, too, were likely proof that hundreds or thousands of miles of ancient ocean floor had been dismembered and sliced, a process requiring staggering amounts of displacement and deformation. And all this was localized within the shear zone.
* * *
I feel as though I am in the presence of unencumbered, spontaneous artistry.
We round several small points of land and cross small embayments, looking for outcrops with enough exposure to let us prowl through their history. We are moving through a world barely touched by science; only the vaguest idea exists of what might be here.
Then, fifty yards away and across a small bay, we spy bare rock running from the water’s edge to an eroding cover of tundra about one hundred feet inland. Quickly, we land and head to the outcropping rock, intrigued and excited.
Exposed in that lithic fringe is a pattern so striking, our eyes wander back and forth over it, as we exclaim repeatedly how incredible it is. Bands of pink, white, gray, tan, and black, some no more than a fraction of an inch wide, some several feet thick, draw the eye along stretched-out, languid, folded forms, flowing as though the bedrock had once been as soft as butter. I feel as though I am in the presence of unencumbered, spontaneous artistry, a place where some creative genius has found its rhythm and manically painted from inspired passions, using fluid rock as its medium. Every step we take is a halting one, each new square foot possessing a different form or pattern of colors. We crawl on hands and knees, trying to grasp the significance and history of that place. From a scientific point of view, it is a treasure. From an aesthetic point of view, it is a masterpiece. Our quantitative world has seamlessly become enmeshed with an ethereal realm, dissolving into a Dalíesque fluidity. What we are doing no longer has boundaries; everything the mind can embrace is present here.
We did not know at the time that those are the oldest rocks in the region, remnants of some of the most ancient continents on Earth. It took many months of work back in our laboratories to discover that they were formed more than 3 billion, 300 million years ago. They preserved evidence of the existence of an ocean basin billions of years old, when life was only single-celled and free-floating and what little land existed was adrift with blown sand and utterly barren. It was an ocean vastly older than the one associated with the building of the mountains we had come to study. Black layers had once been molten rock, injected into the sediments of those old seas, probably long after the water had been squeezed from them and their crystalline form changed. Deeply buried, heated, and compressed, the entire sequence was later folded and refolded, deformed and intruded during some unknown mountain-building events spanning hundreds of millions of years. Eventually, sometime in the last few tens of millions of years, they had made it back to the surface, shoreline to a new ocean, supporting our boots while waiting for another transformation. It was, in fact, the northern limit of the zone we were looking for. It was the very edge of one of the continents involved in the collision.
* * *
Part of the story had been completely missed.
After our third expedition, it was unequivocal that the shear zone was a scar, slashed across the northern edge of the collision terrain as a last act, a tectonic finale in a mountain-building drama. That scar was what the early researchers had claimed it was — a zone of major movement. Kai and John’s work was correct and the region reverted to the term they had used for it years before — “shear zone” replaced the “straight belt” moniker on later editions of geological maps and in publications.
But buried in the crystalline record, frozen in the minerals of a few rocks from small, scattered localities, was evidence that these rocks had descended into earth before the collision of continents began. That part of the story had been completely missed. Uncertainty had changed in form but not magnitude — new questions now had to be addressed.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Only a handful of places around the world had histories of so-called ultrahighpressure metamorphism — metamorphism under conditions where pressures were more than 400,000 pounds per square inch, a state that is achieved in the earth only at depths beyond sixty miles. The evidence in all those other locations came from ancient subduction zones. In every instance, those subduction zones marked locations where continents had collided and were thus consistent with the history that was suggested as a possibility in our study area in Greenland.
But none of those other sites was older than 900 million years.
The singed-hair rock that we examined with microscopes and discovered was filled with garnets and olivines and spinels contained a startling history of burial at a depth of at least forty miles, an HP metamorphic environment. Up to that time, none of us had imagined that any of the rocks in this region had traveled more than fifteen miles down. We wrote reports and published papers and looked at more samples in the basement archives of Aarhus University, seeking confirmation that such rocks were not enigmatic anomalies.
For months, we examined thousands of samples that had been collected over decades by a small cohort of faculty and students working on master’s and doctoral degrees on Greenland geology. Out of all those samples, we found two that preserved evidence of the same very deep burial. The samples came from sites tens of miles farther to the west of where we had been working, but along the same belt of unusual rocks, and along the northern edge of the Nordre Strømfjord shear zone. The samples from both of those sites had identical characteristics. One sample, ironically, had been collected by Kai when he and Fleming Mengel, a student of his, had worked in the region nearly forty years before. Kai didn’t remember collecting it. The other sample came from a site near Giesecke Sø and had been studied in the late 1960s by Steen Platou, who was working on a graduate degree at the time. Those samples became the core of a small collection that proved that fragments of the region had, indeed, been pushed to extraordinary pressures, surviving a round-trip circuit to depths greater than 150 miles.
Prior to these discoveries, no direct evidence existed that such plate tectonic-driven processes occurred any further back in time than 900 million years ago. These samples pushed that age limit back to at least 2,000 million years.
Moreover, they are the oldest known record of an entire terrain on the surface of the world that had descended to such depths.
* * *
William E. Glassley is a geologist at the University of California, Davis, and an emeritus researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark, focusing on the evolution of continents and the processes that energize them. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Since April 2016, more than two thousand Haitians have arrived in Tijuana to cross into the United States. They pose as Africans. They flee from the economic crisis in Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela, countries where they had obtained humanitarian asylum. Agencia EL UNIVERSAL/EVZ (GDA via AP Images)
What would you endure to find safety and security? Now that Europe has slammed its doors shut to migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria, just to name a few countries, many are attempting to enter the United States via a long, arduous journey that includes a treacherous jungle crossing.
At The New Republic, Lauren Markham reports on how, starting from Brazil — a country that offers visas to those from countries where Brazilians are allowed to travel freely — migrants travel north through Peru and Ecuador. In Columbia and Panama they must traverse the perilous Darién Gap, a 2,200-square-mile, road-free tropical forest that connects the two countries. The goal? To reach a Mexican border town from which to slip into the United States, where, if they’re caught, they could be detained for years.
They will have to give me protection,” Henok, an Eritrean man in his thirties, told me as we sipped juice at a café in Tapachula’s central square. “I cannot go back to Eritrea, so I know they will have to protect me in the United States.” It was a matter of human rights, he said.
“I know it won’t be easy,” Henok said, as if reading my mind about his rosy-eyed picture of what awaited him up north. “But in the U.S., I will get my papers, and I will be free.” The passage across oceans and trudging through continents would be worth it, he said. If he could make it through the Darién Gap, he could make it in the United States.
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!
Inside the abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery in New York, the first thing that hits you is the smell: over a century’s worth of industrial grime, clinging to black, molasses-coated walls. At first whiff, it is kind of sweet, like stale cake. As you go deeper into the cavernous brick building, it gives way to a sour curdling. As my ten-year-old daughter, Maven, describes it: “It’s like how my cat smells when he throws up.”
Maven, my friend Izetta, and I are among more than a hundred thousand people who make a pilgrimage in the summer of 2014 to pay homage to the “Sugar Sphinx,” the seventy-five-foot-long, forty-foot-high creation of Kara Walker, one of the most important and provocative artists working in the United States. The sculpture is forty tons of sugar molded into a ghostly white apparition, part mammy, part sphinx. The line to see her takes more than an hour to travel and stretches out for four long Brooklyn blocks. I spot the writer Gaiutra Bahadur, whose recent book, Coolie Woman, explores the history of indentured sugar workers in Guyana. Bahadur’s research on sugar plantation life and its bitter aftertaste among Guyanese women speaks forcefully to the exhibit we came to see. I wave Bahadur over to join us in line.
The installation’s title, displayed in bold black type painted along the Domino Sugar factory’s brick façade:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who
have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to
the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the
demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
The original Domino factory—first built in 1850s Williamsburg— was being torn down, along with the stories of generations of lives that it touched around the world. The factory was just one stop in the sugar industry’s “triangular trade” that created the blueprint for the globalized economy. Investors came from Europe; labor came from Africa; the cane fields were located in points across the Global South. The Domino refinery was the final step before the sugar reached consumers. Raw sugar would arrive at Domino’s forty-thousand-square-foot facility. Through the magic of refinery, pristine white sugar would come out. The profits that followed made sugar a key fuel of Empire.
The title, A Subtlety, is taken straight from history. Centuries ago, “subtleties” referred to elaborate, edible toys made of sugar. These exotic treats and status symbols were first made in the Middle East and popularized among the seventeenth-century European aristocracy. These “subtleties” could be trees, architectural models, or depictions of peasants holding baskets of fruit. There was nothing subtle about them, given what a rare and expensive luxury sugar was at the time. Unveiled at dinner parties, these were ostentatious displays of the host’s clout. The sugar sculptures could also be used to send more subversive messages. “Sly rebukes to heretics and politicians were conveyed in these sugared emblems,” writes Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power. Read more…
Once upon a time, in 1999, when the internet was small, when it came through your phone and not just on your phone, when the first browser war had not yet been won, when you had to teach yourself a few lines of code if you wanted to exist online, when the idea of broadcasting your real name for anyone to see was unthinkable — in those early days, before Twitter revolutions, before Facebook Live homicides, when the internet was small and most people didn’t understand it, and only the nerds hung out there — even then, it was already happening.
Even then, people hated girls on the internet.
* * *
Eighteen years went by before I thought about Sara again.
I’d just finished a project in which I had tracked down a fanfiction author I’d loved in the early 2000s. Jami had been relatively easy to find: It turns out that if you’d had a sprawling internet presence as a child, you probably have one now, under new names, on new websites. Not only had I found Jami, but I learned that she is now a successful, Hugo-nominated author. I was deliriously happy. She’d made it — this girl who’d written fanfiction had achieved the wildest dream and turned that talent into an actual writing career. I wanted the same for Sara, a tangible success that followed minor internet celebrity.
In 1999 Sara had a website hosted on Expage, and so did I. I didn’t know her: I was attracted to Sara’s website because it was incredibly well-designed for 1999, and because Sara, like me, was a middle school girl who loved the internet. Her “About Me” page listed her age as 12, same as me. I don’t remember how I found her site but I do remember that it’s what initially sparked my interest in web design and the internet in general.
Between 1999 and now, I would occasionally think of Sara. I’d been addicted to her website. In the design anarchy of Web 1.0, Sara had an eye. She had a sense. Her website looked like few others at the time, in that it looked good, like something you couldn’t make yourself. She knew how to hold an audience: she updated frequently, changing her layouts often and offered the code for free. Because of this, her website was hugely popular. Many years later I’d see her name mentioned in a discussion about early internet celebrities. I was there, I thought. I was one of her biggest fans.
The night before I was slated to fly to Atlanta to attend the biggest writing conference of the year, I was sideswiped by one of my vomiting episodes. These hit every few months — hours of intense abdominal pain that came and went like labor, followed by hours of vomiting that often led to a trip to the emergency room; this had been going on for the past 12 years, with no diagnosis. I didn’t want to miss the trip, but I was writhing around on the floor, and heaving into a large mixing bowl, and attempting to keep the anti-nausea suppositories up my ass long enough for them to kick in. I was chanting, “Help me, help me, help me” — words that always burbled from my mouth during these episodes. I wasn’t sure who this chant was aimed at — not my husband, who tended to shy away whenever the vomiting began — but my mom seemed to hear me in Oceanside, 100 miles from my home in Riverside, California. She called and was alarmed when I told her I still hoped to get on the plane the next morning.
“I’m coming with you,” she announced. Before I had the sense to stop her, she purchased a last-minute ticket for my flight. She picked me up in her red Intrepid shortly after sunrise, and I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into. I pretended to sleep most of the flight.
My mom and I ended up having a surprisingly good time in Atlanta — we danced together, attended illuminating panels, had a blast with her cousin who lived in the area, ate copious amounts of boiled peanuts; she even made meaningful eye contact with Walter Mosley, who she was certain would one day become my stepfather. When our flight was delayed, she was miraculously relaxed and chatty, and I didn’t feel the need to pretend to sleep on the plane to avoid her. I was plenty sleepy by the time we arrived at the Las Vegas airport, though — it was 1 a.m., and we had missed our connecting flight. The airline gave us the option of staying in the airport and flying home in a few hours, or taking a hotel room and flying home late the next day.
I was so tired, I needed to rest my head on the ticket counter, but I looked up at her and said “Why don’t we stay? Maybe we could see a show or something.” It was the first time I could remember voluntarily extending a visit with her. Our relationship had always been complicated, but when she started to show signs of a delusional disorder 14 years earlier, our connection became all the more fraught.
“Let’s do it,” she said, and soon we were giggling in a free cab on our way to a free hotel room just off the strip. Our luggage was still on the plane, so we slipped into the plush white robes hanging in the closet and crashed for a few hours. We put our rumpled travel clothes back on after our showers, then ordered egg white and asparagus omelets with our free breakfast vouchers and set out to see how much Vegas we could pack into a day.
“You never laugh anymore,” my seven-year-old said from the backseat of the car while I was driving. It was early November.
“What did you say?” I asked, though I had heard him clearly.
* * *
I had been thinking about what it meant that Donald Trump had not yet stopped running for president. About the errands we still had to do that night. About the balance of my credit card, and about our new mortgage and all the furniture I couldn’t afford to fill the new house. About the cost of my kids’ college. About the most recent school shooting and the new statistic I’d read that said Americans in 21 states are more likely to die a gun-related death than as a result of a car accident. About heroin overdoses and prescription pill addictions that were hitting closer and closer to home. Food insecurity. Black lives and deaths in America. Overpopulation. Prison overcrowding. The Syrian refugee crisis. Global warming. Dying oceans. My aging parents, and my own mortality. E-mail that had gone unanswered for months because I was simply tired of typing. The state of my marriage. The quality of my teaching. The exercise I wasn’t getting.
If my brain were a computer, its internal fan would make that loud, warm, whirring sound that means it’s working too hard. It probably isn’t a coincidence that adult coloring books topped Amazon’s bestseller lists last year.
* * *
I wash my body each day with liquid soap I squeeze from a bottle that reads “happiness.” I buy this product again and again to no noticeable effect and keep quiet faith in the power of the subliminal.
If that power exists, then it follows that I am also subconsciously affected by the sponsored ads on Facebook. Should I buy that period underwear? I find myself wondering several times in a single day. No, no.
* * *
The most basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy are physiological ones: air, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion of waste. Eating, fucking, snoozing, shitting. Happiness is not listed among any of the hierarchy’s tiered descriptions, but I imagine it floats somewhere above the uppermost point of the two-dimensional pyramid or surrounds the diagram’s boundaries like a cloud. Perhaps it appears intermittently as each level of the hierarchy clicks into place, and flickers out of focus again when the pyramid fluctuates. Or maybe it is measured differently altogether.
As a culture, we’re obsessed with the search for happiness, desperate for a definition of its formula.
Our independence, says the Declaration of Independence, guarantees a right to pursue happiness and bypasses the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy entirely. Though the document assures life and liberty in imprecise, yet enthusiastic terms, it cites no explicit guarantee of basic needs such as drinkable water or fresh air. Those are assumed here. For now.
I have everything in Maslow’s ground-floor level of needs, some things in the upper levels of needs, and many things that aren’t needs at all. But this assumes happiness relies on having as opposed to being.
* * *
Echoing Tolstoy’s assertion about happy families in Anna Karenina, a therapist wrote that unhappy people have vastly different reasons for being unhappy, but happy people all have one thing in common: They are grateful for what they have rather than being obsessed with what they want.
Through product messaging, I’ve come to believe soap might have the power to make me happy. A pill might make me happy. Stylish clothes might make me happy. Make-up. Skiing. Validation from the strangers of the Internet. Alcohol. Weight loss. Botox. Period underwear.
As a culture, we’re obsessed with the search for happiness, desperate for a definition of its formula. An Amazon search turns up over 92,000 books that focus on the subject. In 2008, a woman named Robyn Okrant embarked on a mission to live for a year according to Oprah Winfrey’s advice on happiness. Okrant changed her sex, her food, her clothing, her makeup, her philanthropic methods, and more. In a Forbes Magazine interview she says of the experience: “It was incredibly draining, and it made me really sad. It made me sad to think of how many hours I’ve lost — even when I wasn’t doing the project — to blindly following advice and listening to what other people tell me I should be doing to create my own happiness.”
* * *
Do you know how easy it is to mask unhappiness? Add exclamation points. That is how I text my mother: I’m great! Can’t wait for the holidays!
* * *
This past fall, Thanksgiving came and went quickly. Before my brother and his girlfriend flew back home, we spent a small fortune on lunch together at a trendy brick oven pizzeria and brewery. While we waited for our food to arrive, I heard a man at the table to my right tell another man about a gay bathhouse he recently visited. “The floor is covered in semen,” he said as he ate his salad. The other man nodded, his expression neutral and joyless. I imagined a place where men empty themselves into and around each other, and I mentally classified it as a combination of a fulfilled basic need and the freedom to pursue happiness.
To my left, beyond my brother, a large flat screen television broadcasted a continuous live video feed of a Ugandan village’s water pump, which the pizzeria had funded. I was the only person in the restaurant who watched it for longer than a few seconds. Between bites of thin crust pizza topped with speck and Brussels sprouts, I saw a young boy in red t-shirt carry a plastic jug to the pump and fill it. I saw a barefoot girl toddle across the screen, then bend over to rake her hands across the ground, her face placid and oblivious to the camera. A man crossed the screen somberly and approached the pump, filling his two jugs. Then a woman filled her jugs.
Beyond the pump was a row of homes. A telephone pole rose above them, presumably delivering electricity to the village from an unseen source beyond the camera’s lens. The area in view was free from debris, free from conflict, and nothing I could see in this tiny slice of rural Uganda echoed the violence of a twenty-year civil war. I was unsure whether to take this a sign of recovery, as I only saw what I saw, and nothing more. But whatever the context, this village remained. It moved me, though I could not articulate exactly why.
For a moment, I coveted the simplicity the live feed seemed to depict. I don’t really want to live in a world where lunch for four costs $100 and restaurant staff refills my glass more often than I need, where emotions are advertised as bath soap and adult coloring books are offered as tools for unburdening our saturated minds, but here I am.
During the 43 minutes or so that I witnessed their lives from the comparable extravagance of my own, none of the Ugandans that passed before the camera laughed, but none cried either. They drew their water from the well, and then they returned to their homes, aligned on either side of a narrow road, to clean and cook and live. I wondered whether they knew they were being watched by relatively well off and overwhelmingly white people in Vermont, day after day, and whether the cost of that water was their exploitation and subjection to an American pizzeria’s marketing plan during the restaurant’s business hours. Altruism doesn’t need a camera. Neither do the thirsty.
Carl Sagan said that there are no dumb questions, but I read an article that went one step farther. It said that happy people all ask dumb questions. Here’s one: who is the camera for, then?
* * *
Over Thanksgiving break, I graded my creative writing class’ personal essays and memoirs. Their nonfiction writing revealed wide-ranging pursuits of happiness and setbacks along the way. I never said, “Write about how you struggle,” but they did. Three women battled eating disorders. One of those three was also a cutter whose words about blood sloshing from her wrists read like intimate correspondence with a lover.
(Recently, I read a suicide prevention handbill that said the term committed suicide was offensive. Died by suicide is the preferred term. I made a mental note to remember that. But what is the appropriate term for a person who enjoys hurting themselves? Who obsesses over the color of blood and loves the pain associated with extracting it from her own veins? Who, for reasons I will never comprehend, cuts herself in pursuit of happiness?)
There were two other women whose mothers had died too young. Another student’s chronic illness forced her to withdraw from school. One young woman wrote mainly about other people’s heroin use, others’ sexual abuse, as though she was recasting a truth she couldn’t quite admit as her own. All semester, I cheered silently for her.
A young man with autism recently came out of the closet and didn’t want to be called brave for that. Another young man with ADHD was allowed, by the grace of a formal accommodation, to leave the room and use his phone whenever he felt like it. He employed this choice only when he became frustrated with the less talented writers in the class. At times, I wanted to walk out with him.
A young woman wrote a chronicle of her meaningless tattoos, detailing how being able to get inked up for no reason makes her happy. She ended her essay with the line, “This skull, if you have to believe it stands for something, means I’m dead inside.”
Though some basic needs are assumed in the United States, safety is not necessarily one of them.
One young man couldn’t be bothered to do the classwork I assigned. He assumed I’d let it slide without consequence. “I’m just really into dance right now,” he said when I asked why he wasn’t doing the work — not any of it. “Are you sure my grade is right?” he asked after grades were posted.
I need an extension, they said. I need you to repeat the assignment requirements, they said. I need an electronic reminder for homework or it won’t get done, they said. I’m overwhelmed, they said. They cried when printers jammed and when they were late to class. They cried when they were given an earned poor grade. They would write me to tell me their weekend was “just too much” and they wouldn’t be able to haul themselves into the classroom.
They would stare at me like guppies, open-mouthed, waiting to be fed, and I would often have the wrong kind of nourishment. I’d read articles about trigger warnings and about millennial attitudes and about millennial parents and millennial fear of failure and low tolerance for stress, and I still couldn’t completely formulate a way to educate them effectively.
They were happiest when I brought food to class.
* * *
Though some basic needs are assumed in the United States, safety is not necessarily one of them. During the prior semester alone, there had been seven shootings on American college campuses. Just after the Thanksgiving break, the following headlines populated my Facebook feed:
“Your Opinion on Gun Control Doesn’t Matter” (Daily Kos)
“‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” (The Onion)
“On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying” (The New York Times)
Toward the end of the semester, I had been stumbling about my house, talking nonsensically to myself instead of writing or grading. “Refrigerator. Frigerator. Fridge,” I said while walking through the kitchen. Then, as I entered my office, fragments from Horace’s Ars poetica: in medias res. Ab ovo. Which mean, respectively, “into the middle of things” and “from the beginning.” The poet never implied that endings exist. Only that poetry is somehow perpetually on its way from one understanding to another, altered understanding. It is in pursuit.
* * *
Recently, I tried for the hundredth time to explain the concept of infinity to my five-year-old. “No. It has to end,” he sobbed angrily, and then stomped away.
How do we begin receding from too much? As individuals, as a generation, as a nation?
The first sign taught in baby sign language is “more.” There is no sign for “less.”
Once, the average person only had words for a handful of colors. In 1903, Crayola crayons were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and black. By 1949, there were 48 colors available; 64 by 1958; 72 by 1972; 120 by 1998. We learned more names for colors than we ever dreamed: magenta, fuchsia, copper, periwinkle, cornflower, ochre, onyx, royal blue, sienna, peach, beige. A box of eight crayons becomes 16 becomes 24 becomes 48 becomes 64 becomes 72 becomes 120. A child who has had a box of 48 crayons is never again satisfied with only 8. Or maybe they don’t know how to ask for less in a society of more.
Not having more was a relief, a reprieve I hadn’t experienced for years.
In 2003, Crayola officially added the colors inch worm, jazzberry jam, mango tango, and wild blue yonder and they retired the colors blizzard blue, magic mint, mulberry, and teal blue.
By that same year, it is estimated up to 20,000 children had been abducted and forced to enroll as soldiers in the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army.
* * *
I admit I have an adult coloring book. I limit myself to five colors for each picture to keep the process simple, but it takes forever to choose five from my kids’ 64 pack. I’m stressed before I even begin the supposedly meditative activity.
In the phenomenon referred to as Russian blues, we discriminate between colors faster when linguistic organization presorts them.
There must be more colors to discover than we have named. There must be a Crayola 286-pack in our future, containing the shades between fuchsia and magenta, cornflower and periwinkle. Or the purple that bees see in the space between yellow and ultraviolet light.
Can we want things that we do not know about?
* * *
After the semester ended, I attended a grant-funded writing residency in Massachusetts. The Cape in winter is nearly deserted. Many of the good restaurants close for the season, and a majority of the homes sit empty. I welcomed the stillness, the solitude. For a week, there was less of everything: less motion around me, fewer people with whom to interact, less to accomplish, less to buy. There was less noise, less mess without two children. Fewer distractions without Facebook and Amazon and political headlines. I had most of what I needed — food, water, shelter — and not much more. Not having more was a relief, a reprieve I hadn’t experienced for years.
I took daily, silent walks to the vacant shore, meditatively listing to myself the places and things around me named for shells. Shellpoint Apartments, Shellhouse, Shell Inn, Shell Street. Repeat. I knelt in the cold sand and looked out across the bay. I examined the lifeless things that had washed ashore, raking my hands across the ground like that Ugandan child and gathering what the sea had discarded. A peace swept over me whenever I was near to the ground. I caught myself smiling for no reason.
At the Cape, I passed hours sitting quietly, needing nothing, wanting nothing. Pursing nothing but a few more words on a page. On the final night, four friends stopped by, including a couple with their new baby. The baby laughed and I laughed and soon we were all laughing together. All the fine dining restaurants were closed, so we ate at a Ninety Nine chain restaurant and did not make polite apologies to one another for it. We squeezed into a booth for four that was too small to accommodate our group of six. A hockey game played on the television in the bar, but we didn’t watch it. We had wine, but not water. We talked of punk music, but not war. Of banned books, but not guns. A comment about the unusually warm winter, but no mention of global warming.
I returned home the next morning, restored by fractions and of somewhat sounder body and mind. I threw away the happiness body wash. I deleted Facebook from my phone, deleted task managing apps, deleted emails, deleted unnecessary streams of information from wherever they made contact with me. I made a point to laugh in front of and with my children, and hoped it was not too late to unlearn all that I didn’t need to know.
* * *
This essay first appeared in the “Joy” issue of Creative Nonfiction, the print quarterly founded by nonfiction writer Lee Gutkind in 1993. Our thanks to Angela Palm and the staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.
Every year it was the same thing. My mother and brother and I would trim the Christmas tree, place our presents underneath, and then gather around the kitchen table to light the menorah. My mother was Jewish, but non-practicing and certainly not Orthodox. She didn’t care much for the faith, either as a religion or a culture, but she’d been raised by two Jewish parents and she wanted to instill in my brother and me some modicum of respect for the tradition. But she also didn’t want to deprive us of Christmas. My mother may not have believed in ancient scripture, but she did believe in family.
On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the three of us spun the dreidel and read stories recounting the triumph of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lights. We ate latkes and applesauce and gave each other chocolate gelt, while our Christmas tree blinked in the living room behind us.
Another tradition of ours — at least of mine and my brother’s — was making a mockery of the menorah-lighting blessing. Neither of us spoke Hebrew, but the lighting ceremony involves a nightly recitation of blessings and praise to the Lord. My mother would light the shamash candle, then begin to recite the Hebrew aloud, urging my brother and me to follow along. Rather than mimic these unfamiliar and strange words, we made up our own words, routinely replacing “kidshanu” with “kitty condo,” in tribute to the elaborate piece of furniture frequently occupied by our two cats. My mother glared at us every time and told us to knock it off, though she knew we would do the same thing the next night, and the night after that, and each and every one of the eight nights.
Our menorah was a cheap and simple one. It hadn’t been passed down through generations; it wasn’t forged by a Hasidic blacksmith, nor smuggled through continents and across oceans into the New World. It was plated a gold color, but it didn’t have the heft of solid gold. In all likelihood, my mother bought it at a discount at Kmart during the one and only week they sold Hanukkah items. After the holiday she would put the menorah back in storage, along with the dreidel and books, and we’d then direct our attention exclusively to Christmas. My brother and I knew ours was an atypical holiday tradition, but that knowledge only bound us closer as a family and provided a temporary adhesive to our otherwise fractured family.
My brother, Nathaniel, is eight years older and has a different father. His father is white; mine is black. That makes me two halves — a half-brother and half-black. Since my mother is Jewish, I’m a full-Jew, in accordance with the centuries-old law. (According to another old law, from 19th and early-20th century racial classifications, one drop of African blood makes me full-black, but I’ve never been able to discern which side — the black side or the Jew side — prevails.)
Something has snapped. In early autumn, women and men finally began to come forward to speak, in numbers too big to dismiss, about sexual harassment and abuse. It started in Hollywood. It spread, under the #metoo hashtag — first coined 10 years ago by Tarana Burke — across industries, across oceans, to the very heart of politics. Powerful men are losing their jobs. We’re having consent conversations at the highest levels, with varying degrees of retrospective panic.
Something broke, is breaking still. Not like a glass breaks or like a heart breaks, but like the shell of an egg breaks — inexorably, and from the inside. Something wet and angry is fighting its way out of the dark, and it has claws.
A great many abusers and their allies have begged us to step back and examine the context in which they may or may not have sexually intimidated or physically threatened or forcibly penetrated one or several female irrelevances who have suddenly decided to tell the world their experiences as if they mattered.
Look at the whole picture, these powerful men say. Consider the context. I agree. Context is vital. It is crucial to consider the context in which this all-out uprising against toxic male entitlement is taking place. The context being, of course, a historical moment where it has become obvious that toxic male entitlement is the greatest collective threat to the survival of the species.
The article goes into fascinating geological detail about what science knows about this cataclysmic volcanism. Although the title, “When Will the Earth Try to Kill Us Again?” makes the process sound maliciously anthropomorphic, the idea of a hateful Earth, sick of humanity’s meddling, does add some welcome levity to a grave vision of our future.
Some scientists claim LIPs occur cyclically every 15 million years, and they think we’re overdue for one. Others admit we don’t understand them well enough to predict. Lee compares human activity on the earth’s surface to an LIP: We are filling the atmosphere with CO2, causing global warming and oceanic dead zones at a faster pace than LIPs. Although nobody can accurately predict when an LIP will destroy our species, we do know this: That vintage wine you’ve been saving in the basement for a rainy day? This is the rainy day. Pop the cork.
Even if LIPs are the “smoking gun” behind most mass extinctions, that still doesn’t tell us how they killed animals. It wasn’t the lava. Despite the moniker—flood basalts—these are not raging torrents. You could probably out-walk the lava from a Large Igneous Province. As vast as they were, they flowed in much the same way as lava in Iceland or Hawaii flows today, with glistening orange and grey lobes swelling, stretching, and spilling to make new lobes. An advancing front will typically move at about a kilometer or two in a day (the average person can walk that distance in 30 minutes).
Unfortunately, gas is deadlier than lava.
The 1783-4 Laki eruption in Iceland gave us a tiny taste of what to expect from a LIP. It bathed Europe in an acid haze for five months, strong enough to burn throats and eyes, scorch vegetation and tarnish metal, to kill insects and even fish. That may be a killer, but, as far as science can tell, the haze from a LIP on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to cause a mass extinction. The climate effects of volcanic gases are deadlier still. Stratospheric sulfur from Laki cooled the planet by 1.3 degrees Celsius for three years, triggering one of the most severe winters on record in Europe, North America, Russia, and Japan. Famines ensued in many parts of the world, and that may have planted the seeds for the French Revolution five years later.
A decade-long LIP eruption could cool the planet by about 4.5 degrees Celsius, although the climate would recover in 50 years. This would no doubt cause geopolitical and financial chaos, but it’s unlikely by itself to eradicate a significant percentage of species from the sea, given the time it takes to mix the oceans (about a thousand years) and their huge thermal inertia.