by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 29, 2001
AS THE WORLD SCREAMS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Imagine that the earth itself is a living organism. T= he dirt and rock we walk on is only its thick protective skin, but its vuln= erable body lies deep inside. Imagine it's like a sea urchin, with a hard s= hell on the outside and a soft living coral center.
This sea urchin image comes from a science fiction story, "When the Eart= h Screamed," by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is narrated by an employee of th= e central character, Prof. George Edward Challenger, an arrogant but brilli= ant scientist with revolutionary ideas. He advances the sea urchin theory a= nd then digs eight miles into the ground, to the earth's living core, to te= st it out.
I was thinking about the image of the world screaming as I watched the L= eonid meteor shower early on the morning of Nov. 18. It was cold and crisp,= and the first twilight on the eastern horizon mixed with thousands of bril= liant stars in the Western sky. There were blazes of blue-white light as th= e meteors streaked across the sky, sometimes three at a time, and it was al= l close to being unbearably beautiful.
But it was no more beautiful than the Connecticut River is on most morni= ngs, all foggy and mysterious. Or the bare branches of the trees on the mou= ntains that have those orange blankets of leaves below them.
In fact, the beauty of the earth leaves most of us speechless at least s= ome of the time. If it didn't, we wouldn't be living in Vermont, where we e= arn 30 percent less than we would earn for doing the same work anywhere els= e.
I'm not speaking here as an environmentalist or even a conservationist= .
My interests are purely aesthetic. Beauty is hard to come by in thi= s world, and it seems important and sane to protect our limited natural sup= ply. For example, I've personally never seen the Arctic National Wildlife R= eserve, but I've seen the pictures that were taken there. What kind of madm= en would want to destroy such natural splendor for an oil pipeline and some= temporary profit, when we should all be falling on our swords to protect i= t?
Or why, as the Bush Administration is working towards now, allow road-bu= ilding in national forests? Or snowmobiles in national parks? Or mining on public lands? Or nuclear plant expansion when we can't seem to find a safe place anywhere for nuclear waste?
Why not protect what little beauty remains to us? Why make the world scr= eam? So I recently searched out Conan Doyle's story and read it again.
I was surprised at what I found. I remembered the story as a plea for protect= ing the earth. It turned out to be a high-handed and imperialist approval o= f earth-rape.
Prof. Challenger's experiment is not scientific, in that he= does not merely wish to investigate whether his sea urchin theory is corre= ct.
"The earth has not the least idea of the way in which it is utilized by the human race," he says. "I propose to let the earth know that there is at= least one person, George Edward Challenger, who calls for attention -- who= , indeed, insists upon attention."
There you have it, in a nutshell, the great ego of Western man. His divi= ne right is to dominate and penetrate, even to the core of the earth itself= .
So Prof. Challenger digs eight miles into the ground and only stops when= he encounters, "some greyish material, glazed and shiny, which rose and fe= ll in slow palpitation. The throbs were not direct, but gave the impression= of a gentle ripple or rhythm, which ran across the surface."
At the appointed time, Challenger assembles the most important men (and only men) in London -- journalists, bankers, merchants, members of the roya= l family. The surrounding hills are filled with the more common people.
At the moment of the piercing, the narrator says, "Our ears were assaile= d by the most horrible yell that ever yet was heard. Who is there of all th= e hundreds who have attempted it who has ever yet described adequately that= terrible cry? It was a howl in which pain, anger, menace and the outraged= majesty of Nature all blended into one hideous shriek. For a full minute i= t lasted, a thousand sirens in one, paralyzing all the great multitude with= its fierce insistence, and floating away through the still summer air unti= l it went echoing along the whole South Coast and even reached our French n= eighbors across the Channel. No sound in history has ever equaled the cry o= f the injured Earth."
That indescribable scream, and the volcanoes, earthquakes and tidal wave= s all over the world that followed it, did not teach Conan Doyle's characte= rs a lesson. Instead, when the scream faded away, the crowd bursts into app= lause.
"And then suddenly the mighty achievement, the huge sweep of the concept= ion, the genius and wonder of the execution, broke upon their minds," the n= arrator says. "With one impulse they turned upon Challenger.From every part= of the field came the cries of admiration."
The narrator concludes, "It has been the common ambition of mankind to s= et the whole world talking. To set the whole world screaming was the privil= ege of Challenger alone."
It was a privilege, mind you, not a sin or a shame. My personal prayer i= s that if anyone ever drills into the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, the= y will hear that scream, run, and be forever chastened. But Ihold out no ho= pe at all.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics, economics and travel.