As our community continues to recover from our greatest disaster ever, flood stories are piling up like sandbags near the riverbank. Personal stories of homes destroyed, of the kindness of strangers, of grit and determination, of remarkable generosity, and of watery amazement are all entering the annals of our community experience and history.
I’d like to share a somewhat different take on “flood stories.” As all good storytellers, Jungians, and theological typologists know, we enact the stories of our culture every day. Stories that are passed down from generation to generation have provided patterns of existence since humanity first began putting one image or word after another. So as we have sandbagged, moved things to higher ground, helped and comforted each other, and just stared dumbfounded at the fury of rising waters, we have entered the stream of stories that go back hundreds and thousands of years and continue into more recent times. Here, I think, are some of those stories.
Can we begin anywhere else? Most, if not all, cultures and religions have their flood stories. Most of us are probably most familiar with the Christian story of Noah and the Ark, but g(G)od(s) have been flooding humankind since humankind existed. I will not at all push the punishment for sins aspect of this story onto our community, though others have already tried. But beyond that, many of us indeed were Noahs collecting the animals two by two as we gathered what was most important to us—and only what was most important—in order to continue. And the Noah story does end on an optimistic note. Indeed there is a rainbow, and we will continue on even better than before.
The Wizard of Oz
A powerful storm takes us to a strange place. Granted, where we went did not have beautiful yellow brick roads and Emerald Cities. But remember that, in the movie, Dorothy also encountered ornery trees that threw apples at her, a malevolent witch hellbent on killing her, and—*shudder*—flying monkeys. The original L. Frank Baum book had even more horrors for the little girl and her faithful friends to contend with. But the point is that, as a result of this journey, Dorothy realized just how much she loved and belonged in her home. I hope that Eastern Iowans came out of our storm realizing that, indeed, “there’s no place like home.”
Mary Shelley’s novel is in many ways a classical tragedy. Man believes that he is equal or superior to the powers greater than himself, and ruination results. In ancient Greece, Oedipus and his ilk thought they could escape their fates as set out by the gods, with, by definition, tragic results. Victor Frankenstein thought science and technology could trump nature (and God). His monstrous result ended up killing him in the bleak Arctic. In the 20th century, Americans thought they could control the forces of nature through technology. Locks, dams and reservoirs were to “solve” the “problems” of nature. The fatal mistake, or “hamartia,” of the ancient Greeks was hubris. The same goes for Frankenstein.
The Iowa City Press-Citizen recently reprinted excerpts from a 1945 “Questions and Answers on the Coralville Reservoir Project” series as the dam and reservoir were in the planning stages. In answer to the question, “If the dam would be built, would Iowa City have any more serious floods from the Iowa River?,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers simply answered, “No.” This was not so much naiveté as hubris. The recent headlines that have screamed that we were “battling Mother Nature” are entirely wrong. We have been battling our own hubris and the Frankenstein monsters that we have created as a result. As Connie Mutel has so convincingly and elegantly explained in her recent book The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa, we have removed every natural flood mitigation mechanism that the native prairie marshaled to itself—deep perennial root systems, perpetual natural ground cover, and wetlands. As we divert water through tiling and storm sewer systems into our remaining streams, as we replace more and more ground with cement and as we build more and more complicated artificial flood control systems, the pent-up forces of water merely accumulate rather than dissipate, and eventually they devastate.
Although we now classify this late Shakespeare play a “romance,” it shows true classical comedic structure. Of course, I’m not talking about Moe-poking-Curly-in-the-eyes “comedy.” In some ways, tragedy is uncompleted comedy. In comedy, the conflicts are resolved and the social order is restored. After the storm brings the cast of characters to Prospero’s magical island, the social disruptions are resolved, reconciliation abounds, and those in bondage are freed. While we wouldn’t want the social hierarchy of Renaissance Europe to be alive and well in Iowa City, our storm has shown us that we need to relate to each other with brotherhood and sisterhood to form a good society. We have, I think, risen to the occasion, and as we restore and/or move our homes, our businesses, our institutions, and our natural areas—together—we complete the comedic round and end up as a stronger community than when we started.