Water at the Door: Catastrophe in Deep Time

Posted by on Mar 27, 2018
Water at the Door: Catastrophe in Deep Time

My grandfather evacuated his childhood home from an attic window during the devastating 1937 Ohio River Flood. A boat that was passing through his neighborhood spotted his family as they frantically waved from the small upstairs window. Imagine turning around in the hard seat of the pontoon to see your house completely underwater, everything you owned or stored or treasured left to ruin. When adjusted for inflation, the flood caused 8.7 billion dollars in damage and left a community already floundering in the aftermath of the Crash all the more at risk. Up and down the banks of the Ohio you will find similar stories: from Louisville, Evansville, Cincinnati, and Paducah, where the river flowed over its water mark for nineteen days.

“The Great Flood,” as it has since been christened, changed the landscape of my hometown: Huntington, West Virginia. Growing up in a declining Appalachia in the 1990s, I was told countless narratives that were offered as a way to explain the shrinking population, the dearth of business opportunities, the rise in drug use forecasting the so-called “opioid crisis.” In a middle-school history class, I recall an entire unit on the ’37 Flood that attempted to place the decline of industry and the evacuating population under the banner of that terrible natural disaster—as if to say that Huntington never recovered from a ten-year period that began with the Great Depression and ended with the Great Flood. It is lore, or legend, an attempt to make sense of hard histories. Blaming crisis on catastrophe is a tradition as old as time, but one that takes on deeper meaning in the Anthropocene.

The “Anthropocene”—the modern geological period where human activity is the predominant force upon the climate and environment—is co-constitutive with the idea of “Deep Time.” To grasp the interconnected scientific and geological history of the earth requires also comprehending those ideological and philosophical ideas that influenced how we understand the earth’s resources, capacities, and limits. The average reader of this blog, of course, already knows these definitions. What I wonder is: What does it mean to be a close reader of “deep time?” How might we piece together archives in ways that are not simply chronological or geographical, but rather, topological? 

Despite having been raised in the Ohio River Valley, despite having witnessed and lived through a few floods, despite having been regaled by my grandfather’s stories of the ’37 Flood, it was not until I moved to Houston that I understood the experience of finding water at the door. The anxiety and helplessness, the sense of overwhelming precarity. When Harvey arrived on a humid evening last August, my wife and I made a last-minute trek to the grocery store, only to be met by bare aisles and empty flat packing crates where packages of water bottles are usually stacked. I was reflective and introspective that night (some might say unusually so). I was thinking about my grandfather and about West Virginia, but I was also thinking about the people and places we care about here in Houston. My mind was in a kind of deep time, a kind of topological network of catastrophe brought about by the pressures of climate change.

I was thinking of these old pictures I had seen of the flood, depicting lone boats passing up and down the main streets of town, men standing in waist-deep water inside one of the buildings belonging to Marshall University, the local college. In some ways, they feel dated and out of touch. In other strange ways, they seem so present. The incredulous looks on their faces, the wry smile of the young man floating, or perhaps only sitting, on a piece of luggage. The man balancing on the brick-lined edge of a cash and carry market, his back to the flooded street, his nose up next to the wall. In its absurdity—in the ever so fine line between tragedy and farce—this image above all calls to mind our present situation, our unwillingness or inability to look at the catastrophe as we balance over the edge of some fall.

Now, of course, I wasn’t really thinking of these pictures until days later. That first night of Harvey, who knew what to expect? Once the media cycle picked up images of Houston—unrecognizable and unbelievable images—I began to recall the ’37 Flood. The “before and after” comparisons of Buffalo Bayou, of the interstate arteries or neighborhoods south of “the loop,” reminded me of photographs I had seen of Huntington. I began to think about how we so often rest in this mindset of comparisons, contrasts. The “before and after” is both a powerful coding of climate change and an incomplete metric of facing catastrophe. Our “before” should go back much farther, and if we are to ever address systemic environmental problems, our “after” must go likewise leap forward beyond the immediate cause or consequences.

If we are to think in “deep time,” representations of the ’37 Flood and Harvey must be held together, in tension, to understand the deeper picture of how humans respond to natural disaster. For those of us in the Humanities, we must become closer readers of these depictions. The photograph is only one such case study, but it presents us with the opportunity to juxtapose the symbols and signs of disaster. And they are often so unintentionally poetic. Consider one image of Harvey that featured a neon road sign warning of “signal work ahead.” Of course the sign refers to stop light reprogramming, but within this transformed landscape of climatological catastrophe, it could mean so much more. At the very least, it should be a warning to all of us taking part in these conversations that we must commit to “signal work ahead.” Another image offers us a symbolic schism: the divided highway. The flood exists on both sides of the wall, but only on one side must a family trudge through the murky water with their bags and belongings. On the depopulated side, an abandoned car serves as a metonymic reminder of those who have the luxury of evacuation, disposable income, alternative escape routes. Through the lens of “deep time,” these photographs take on countless and even contradictory meanings, fleshing out the lived experience of catastrophe in the era of human-generated climate change.

Whether one realizes it or not, the water is now always at the door. What may in fact define the future of  environmental risk will be our ability to become close readers. Close readers for the “signal work ahead”; close readers for the cause of those placed in the pathways of disproportionate environmental hazard; close readers for how our texts and images activate public consciousness, frame discourse, and linger as reminders of the work still to be done. I believe there is more that unites these disparate images than separates them. To think that Appalachians of the Thirties could share in an ongoing narrative involving the present-day residents of New Orleans and Houston characterizes, I think, the revolutionary possibilities of close reading in deep time. We must recover topological networks, uncover connections that while appreciating differences in time, geography, class, and race, also indicate intimate entanglements that undo simple binaries or distinctions. The water is at the door, and not just in Houston.


Clint Wilson III is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, a Diana Hobby editorial fellow for Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900, and a PhD student in the English department at Rice University. His research explores the intersections of race, politics, and toxicity in the modernist imaginary, as well as the larger study of contamination in the environmental humanities.