There comes a moment in Craig Childs’ latest book, “Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth,” where the author begins to walk away from the scientific base camp where he’s staying on the ice sheet in Greenland. And, he just keeps walking until the camp is a speck and he stands as a lone man in a no man’s land.
When he returns to base camp, he is chided for his foolishness by one of the researchers, as freak storms blow in from nowhere and, if that happened, he’d be done for. It’s these kinds of moments where Childs puts himself into the harshest places and returns to tell about it that make his books so compulsively readable.
Childs, a Southwest-based author who is no stranger to Flagstaff, will return for two events as part of the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival. First, he will do a spoken word reading at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen, on Sat, Oct. 13 as part of the 6 to 10 p.m. session with the film festival. Then, he’ll give a reading at a 4 to 6 p.m. session on Sunday at the Flagstaff Photography Center, 107 N. San Francisco, #3. Get the details at www.flagstaffmountainfilms.org.
Recently, Childs took the time to answer questions about his latest book, which deals with the concept of an apocalypse and the whole idea of the end of the world. He mixes personal adventures with research about how the planet is changing.
Craig Childs: This was the hardest thing for me to tackle, because on one hand you can say the Earth has survived far worse than what we are doing, but we haven’t been through changes like these before, nor have most of the species alive today. I’m balancing seemingly contradictory thoughts. Catastrophic changes are natural. In fact, they are one of the drivers of planetary evolution. On the other hand, we appear to be initiating, or at least propelling, catastrophic global changes ourselves.
It would be easy to sit back and say that anthropogenic impacts from throwing off atmospheric chemistry to species depletion are just natural, that we are merely a neutral agent of change that the planet is quite used to when considering its entire history. But what I try to bring out in this book is that the big-picture view does not outweigh the loss and destruction we are witnessing in our own lifetimes.
I interviewed evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson who told me we simply don’t have the time it takes to watch it all play out. An extinction of the scale we are experiencing now takes up to 10 million years to regenerate back to previous levels of biodiversity. What we do now truly affects the long future of this planet. I guess I write this book to say, “You like the world we live in now? Well, it takes work to keep it this way, because it can easily be changed to something much less pleasant, and something much less livable.”
This book is more about the nature of the planet and where we are in the bigger picture of Earth’s evolution than it is a sign carried through the street proclaiming the end is near, as I think many other books are. I’m certainly hoping this will be a call to action, but also my message is: don’t panic. Act, but don’t freak out. And also understand what is happening.
I’m not taking an alarmist view of climate change. Rather, I’m looking at it at face value, working with a wide range of scientists, especially seeking those I consider realists, those who tackle big questions without screaming. And I suppose what else sets this book apart is that I go to the places themselves and take a visceral, personal approach. This book is no attraction. It is absolutely real.
What shocked me was actually how subtle huge changes can be, minor variations that play major roles in what the Earth us like. Big, 100,000-year shifts in the Earth’s axis have been driving ice age cycles for the last few million years, but it is intricate changes on the planet’s surface that actually cause ice ages to begin or end.
For instance, when the Bering Land Bridge is exposed at low sea levels, the Pacific and Atlantic are cut off from each other. When sea levels are up like they are now, the land bridge is gone and the two oceans meet across the Arctic, which changes salinity and temperature and is thought to be one of driving factors that throw us in and out of ice ages.
My aunt was writing a book about how to survive the end of the world. It was a bit of poetic license to say I stole it from her, but she did initiate some of these ideas, especially seeing her go through her own mini-apocalypse with rats and ants infesting her house in the midst of a divorce when her refrigerator broke. I sent this book to her to make sure she was OK with it.
This was not an easy transition at all for me. I am not much of a traveler. I stay where my heart is, which is in the Southwest. I found myself heading out for long journeys in unfamiliar places, wishing in a way I was going to the Colorado Plateau instead. I feel like my real work is here at home.
Almost every time I came back from a trip, I headed out to sandstone country, standing out in the desert south of Green River where I could orient myself with the Book Cliffs, San Rafael Swell, the Henries, the Abajos, and the La Sals. So often I found myself in wonderful, enchanting landscapes, but I was disoriented, not having the years I needed to truly understand the place.
At the same time, my explorations in the Southwest prepared me to understand other more extreme landscapes. I wanted to answer more global questions, so I had to have more global experiences.
Scariest? On the surface, running a particularly long rapid on an untried river in Tibet was up there. About a hundred miles down the river we were socked into a gorge in a class V that went on for about five miles. But that’s adrenalin-scary. Real scary was backpacking through GMO corn fields in Iowa at the height of summer during a meteorological anomaly that had temps up to 127 degrees on the dew point. A mix of humidity, ridiculous heat, being lashed by corn leaves, doused in pesticides and risking genetic transfer in a seemingly infinite mass of corn is about as scary as it gets.
The monoculture adventure really made it clear the price we are paying for cheap food: almost complete extirpation of every species that ever lived in a place that is now agriculture to every horizon.
I am into a new project on human migration and the peopling of the Americas. If you know my book “House of Rain,” this is a similar project, only spanning from 23,000 years ago in the Arctic to the islands of the Caribbean just before Columbus arrived. I’ve been setting anchor points around the continents, traveling to some amazing places preparing to sink into this book. One of these days, though, I’m coming back home.
Additional photos for this story:
Childs (with a top-notch ice beard) in Greenland. Photo courtesy of Craig Childs
Childs in Mexico's Gran Desierto de Altar. Photo courtesy of Craig Childs
Greenland. Photo courtesy of Childs
Childs in South America's Atacama Desert. Photo courtesy of Craig Childs