Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Devils You Know

Speaking of earthquakes - it's an interesting thing, watching the mental processes by which humans process risk.
            Over the last two weeks, I've received some lovely letters from family members, telling me how much fun the earthquakes didn't sound - and wanting to know when are we coming home, back to Australia, where things like this don't happen and the country is safe.  Soon, they hope?
            My Auntie Dee wrote to me from Queensland.  She didn't ask me to come home, but she expressed elegantly and forcefully how completely she is not a fan of natural disasters such as ours  -
            Dee and her husband are farmers in Queensland's red soil belt.  In any given year, they are up to their elbows in floods, droughts and bushfire watches.  It's hardly worth noting the ordinary, everyday, scarcely to be mentioned Aussie annoyances of venomous snakes and spiders in the downstairs lavatory.  During 2011's epic floods, they spent the better part of a week in their farmhouse shut off from the rest of Queensland while water lapped around the margins of their garden path, and later that year, when man-made disasters appeared on the horizon, my uncle was instrumental in defying a particularly bloody-minded government-sponsored attempt to seize the local farming land for strip-mining.

Auntie A  lives in the same part of Victoria that, three years ago, was blasted by horrendous bushfires that killed almost 200 people and left more than 7000 homeless.  Two days after the 7.1 quake, she wrote to me to say that Mr Tabubil and I ought to come home now, please. Soonish. Her own daily concerns are scarcely less considerable, and her own risk calculations deserve full presentation here:
            "I thought my little episode with the Tiger Snake in the lounge room last week was unsettling, but it was nothing compared to your earthquake. I had been ironing in the lounge room for a couple of hours.  I went into the bedroom to put on my shoes, and I think at this stage I may have disturbed the snake. I glanced down at the floor as I walked back into the lounge and there it was.  My brain did a double take as I swung back for a second look, quickly called your Uncle A (who works on the property where they live)who jumped up from his office chair in a hurry and banged his knee (he is now limping) flew home and caught the snake, which was hiding at the back of the couch.  Of course, we turned the bed upside down to see if there were any of his family left.  Still can't work out how it got in as I always am checking the doors to make sure that they  are closed fully.  Anyway, so far we have survived its visit."
            Four days ago, I had another letter from her - her young grandson had been bitten by a tiger snake in her backyard, next to her lemon tree.  He spent 7 hours under observation in the local hospital with his leg wrapped in bandages from his ankle to his hip.  Ultimately, he was let go with no more than a good fright- the snake had struck his ankle-bone and recoiled for a second strike without depositing any venom, in which moment the boy had been able to run and get away -
            "It was a good outcome." Auntie A wrote to me, far more casually than I could have sounded under similar circumstances.  

It's all about perspective, isn't it?  The devils that you know.  Known devils can become almost routine, and if not exactly tolerable, then bearable, and if not actually reasonable, then able to be reasoned against.
            The quakes that we are having here in Santiago are reckoned to be part of the tectonic reverb after the great big 8.8 quake in 2010's 8.8.  The first aftershock of that one rung bells at 8.2, and after a few days of 7-point-somethings every hour or so, the tectonic activity  has been trending more-or-less reasonably downward, ever since.
            Earthquakes become familiar.  As each new one builds, it brings to Santiaguenos what has become a familiar terror, until it peaks and then, then fear settles into calculation - "Well, we got through the big one, and this one feels less than that, so we'll get through this -  so no worries, no worries at all -"
            There's a night spent outside on high ground if you live on the coast, but you're through, and it has settled in the ground and inside your head, until next time -
            Would Chileans take the floods, which drowned so many in Queensland,  or Victoria's fires, which left nothing but scorched bones on scorched earth, or even the daily Australian caution against snake and spider?  Or up in Darwin, beaches that are salted with crocodiles, sea-snakes, box-jellyfish and the immortal blue-ringed octopus?  Or we could be up in Texas this month, praying for a storm cellar as we listen to the roof come off -
            The devils you know are the ones we can live with.  Strange dangers are terrors.  The danger we know are calculable, considerable and endurable.
            So we all endure.

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