Natural Disasters by Cathryn Hankla

In the office of dead and dying bees, I sweep the stinging creatures from my windowsills between two shuffled pieces of paper, thinking balance in all things. Although beset by the institution’s endeavor to eradicate all actual paper from these premises, and thus all signs of the productive but messy inner life of this hive, paper in all stages of construction and deconstruction remains plentiful in my office. From time to time a student surveyor from the Environmental Sciences department appears and asks permission to gaze into my trashcan. If she spies any discarded paper she’s empowered to jot the infraction into her report using the antiquated pen and notebook carried in her hands. I hope she makes a good grade.

Various versions of paper amount to ongoing proof of my utility, and only in this context my necessity, but seldom do I have the pleasure of putting any of these sheets to practical use so that my papers might be pressed into service, standing in for a broom and a dust tray. In this bellwether moment, I hover, pausing in my task, afraid lest merely sleeping the mostly desiccated stingers will resurrect as I carry my practical sheets speckled with broken winged things. I tilt them gently into the trashcan. Will they yet fly away?


I can almost see it, the splinter inside me for months. It’s surfacing after applications of baking soda paste, which shrinks, prunes and bunches my skin like wrinkled magic tape. There’s a lump, laced with scaly transparencies of ragged cells, above the joint of my second finger.  Harder each day, obdurate, the lump sustains a dark pupil, an odd feature, pock of an ancient sea, perhaps proof there was once water and therefore life on my planet.


In the same institutional office with an occasional buzzing near my head from a straggler that looks nothing, really, like a bee, I watch a video of a dolphin giving birth. The birth starts tail first, a nuisance to the mother who tries to pry the appendage loose by rubbing against the bottom of the aquarium tank as though her baby were a waggling skin-tag. The little tail flexes, almost folds in two but doesn’t break; its mother keeps applying pressure to dislodge her offspring without the solemn help of gravity. Tail, body, and head at last plop free and a swimming contest commences with the new mother speeding up, much lighter now, as a blood cloud spreads behind her. The newborn tries to keep pace, a smaller twin to the mother’s muscular undulations. My thoughts dart to predators and then I remember that these creatures only seem free but are swimming the confines of a large tank, which is why I can witness such miraculous moments. I am as happy again as possible given their captivity but worry as the loose formation of bodily fluids swirls farther from the mother and out pops a little afterbirth goo followed by a bit of flesh flotsam that’s as stubborn about letting loose as the little dolphin performing its tail-first debut.

Complicated, all of this, and yet the dual swimming looks easy, even joyful. The just born shadows the motions of its mother. They breach together to blow some air, to inhale. I gasp. Not a marine mammal myself, much less a fish, I have been holding my breath through all of this unfolding drama. I used to dream consistently of finding myself underwater and realizing after a short struggle that I could breathe there. I wonder how the baby flipper knows at merely half a minute old to wait until it surfaces to take its first breath. Humans really aren’t that smart, all considered.


I grew up in Richlands, near Raven and Red Ash, not that far from Dante (pronounced dant), Cedar Bluff, and Jewell Ridge, among the Appalachian Mountains, along the Clinch River. The Appalachian region stretches across parts of thirteen states, uniting north and south with the Clinch River meandering down to Tennessee. The first thing I fished from those waters was a monster bearing rows of shark-like teeth. We called it a dogfish for the shark, but it was probably a catfish. Easily entertained, I learned early that anywhere makes a good place for a miracle, if you want to call it that. Now I tramp around my loft living room each morning in full view of mountains to the north, east, and west, watching Norfolk Southern trains pull coal from seams and move any number of hidden things piled two shipping containers high in the opposite direction. Pick a room in this house. Take a walk through the body of God.

Every night for a number of years a woman, call her A., slept next to me for at least some part
of those hours. She said Sunday nights felt “achy” before we moved in together. One night in
the historic house of many colors a waterfall rippled down a twenty-foot wall above the grand staircase below the complicated roof. There had been a drought for a while, but after we moved into the house it began to rain. A few days earlier some workmen had removed a long-dead
bird from a roof crevasse. It was nothing but tiny bones and a few lousy feathers stuck together, no identity left. What a blessing, I thought, at the time the rotted bird was removed, but apparently it had been sealing the roof from leaks. It took gallons and gallons of viscous black goo and a team of roofers to do what the wedged dead bird had done by itself, weighing nearly nothing and accidentally applied to the weak spot by the pressure and ingenuity of the rain’s hands.

One night in the new condo-loft with the amazing view of the city and successions of mountains beyond, I was seated in front of the central three-panel window eating dinner. I picked up my plate and headed to the kitchen sink. Moving back and forth between the kitchen and the
dining area, I snuffed candles and cleared the table. After washing the dishes I went to bed. Soon, there came a reverberation of smashing glass, and in an adrenaline-drenched moment I ran to the source of the sound. Shattered glass thrown like lightning spears covered and surrounded the dining table. Large pie pieces and small slivers had embedded deep in drywall at angles; some had scudded over my placemat and lay scattered around my chair. Not safety glass but regular single pane that could pierce your heart.

The next day A. got stuck in the elevator trying to receive a repairman up to our floor to replace the window. At the same time, about forty-five minutes away, a rampage was unfolding at Virginia Tech. Thirty-three died that day including the killer who once sat in a creative writing class until he proved too creepy and anti-social and was removed to individual tutoring. Of all the weirdness I’ve encountered in more than thirty years spent teaching, I never imagined a student capable of mass murder. What do we do when the unimaginable happens and happens?


I hear on the radio that “Natural Disasters call for leadership.” I walk outside my office and gaze through the large Palladian window at the building’s end to see dark strings of scumbled clouds during Hurricane Sandy, and with a change to close focus, stinkbugs in the foreground, scuttling little dinosaurs on the glass. It’s hard to believe that large amounts of this campus, including the library, were underwater in the 100-year flood of 1985. I wore hip waders in a conga line, passing soggy library books. It is either impossible to prepare for such disasters, or some of us are always preparing for disasters to avert, worrying so the worst won’t happen, digging Fall Out Shelters and oiling the hinges of storm cellars. You can’t spend your marriage preparing for divorce.

Sent home from work with my evening class canceled because of this fierce weather, I trudge the distance to my car in weird yellow light. As I drive the loop road that marks the campus curtilage, a predominately white owl dips close in front of the car. I see no more than its broad back jotted with dark grey spots and a body, large as a Tomcat; its great expanse of wings only flaps a few beats to the top of a tree. Appearing out of the storm, this creature seems more mythical than real. A shiver loosens inside me. I blink, and the owl disappears without my seeing its face.

I declare that it is no longer possible to decide what is a natural disaster and what is human havoc; one turns too quickly into the other. Carbon energy leads to global warming, which leads to weather events. There was an old woman who swallowed a fly. Weather used to be considered a no-brainer act of God; like running into a deer with one’s car, weather falls under the non-collision clause. Most everyone but diehard crackpots and energy lobbyists agree that we are making bad weather worse with our carbon emissions.

People will destroy a marriage, setting themselves and their partner adrift, for no big reason aside from internal combustion. Reparation after disaster is nearly always impossible to manage: too little too late. Like going to counseling after the marriage blows up, as most people do in a burst of forensic feeling. Before all power has been restored to Manhattan the head of Con Ed resigns. Who will be accountable for the disasters brewing in my life, I wonder. “Many aspects of her existence, as if in the wake of a natural disaster, had been disorganized, upended, torn apart . . . to some degree, wrecked beyond repair. . . .” I read Maggie Scarf’s Unfinished Business: Pressure Points in the Lives of Women, and sigh a lot. With two women, I imagine you get more pressure points:  “. . . an attack of depression can be . . . compared to another kind of disaster—to floods, earthquake, typhoon, and so forth . . . in that there’s a lot of mopping up and a lot of restoring that has to be done in its wake.”  Knowledge, knowing: Not very satisfying when it doesn’t avert disaster. “In some cases, things never are the same again afterward. The damages can’t be made good and all of the losses replaced.”


“The one who remembers” is the shaman or storyteller of the tribe, the keeper and healer of psychic lost places. A mental patient is often described as having lost it, mental illness a form of being lost, of wandering. Often home is the source of the problem and finding a way to be at home in the world is the answer. To suss out the situation of being ourselves, sometimes we have to take the long route, circle back and spiral around the mountain asking, Who am I? I took a class by that title and at the end of it had a political screaming match in a restaurant with a fellow classmate over the outcome of the Gore/Bush election. Who the fuck am I? Sometimes we need a shaman to talk us through it. We all need a witness who doesn’t render judgment.

            The truth is nobody can agree on what Appalachia means or is. And most people don’t know where it is. It lends itself to mythopoeia. It rises up and bites your ass.

From where I sit this morning at home in a downtown loft sipping coffee I can see a coal train rattling by. Though the enterprise looks tame enough at this stage, dark irregular chunks heaped and sparkling like the diamonds they could be in a million more years if let be, I know the movement of coal represents an unnatural natural disaster that’s been going on for years back in the hills where I grew up, in the Appalachian chain, the conterminous parts of western Virginia, West Virginia, east Kentucky and Tennessee. Coal extraction goes on elsewhere as well, but I’m speaking here of what’s close at hand: Coal has made a fortune for absentee owners, an energy empire for corporations concealing slag tarns, early death, and mounds of grief: mountains leveled, valleys and rivers filled with shale and shame, limestone, and poison run-off; sludge pours into children’s bedrooms, pounding like flashfloods down hollows in the dead of night.  Water aplenty, but it’s not fit to drink. And for locals, these coal jobs are the best, perhaps the only, jobs available. Good folks are in a bind not of their making.

This morning in Beijing smog blots out the sun; the pollution level means no safe breath for anyone. From space, the winds blow smog everywhere in a borderless free for all. This morning the local paper says our smog is from Alaska! Call it from Hell. Our carbon energy footprint can potentially make Earth uninhabitable; 2012 was the hottest year on record in the states (until 2014, 2015, and 2016), 3.2 degrees above average for the last century.

The truth is nobody can agree on what Appalachia means or is. And most people don’t know where it is. It lends itself to mythopoeia. It rises up and bites your ass. Only this and nothing else: a contradiction, a wild walking lexicon of extremity and the barely composed. I sip my coffee, look into my computer screen sometimes uncomfortably glimpsing my reflection, and remember something that many have proposed or noted: the dissolution of place in digital unity, a new placelessness. It sounds like we’d all be poorer to me. “To walk through a place is to become involved in that place with sight, hearing, touch, smell, the kinetic sense called proprioception, and even taste.” I fall back on the senses in order to know what I know.


One night in the new sixth floor loft an earthquake sent something large and weighty crashing to the floor in the condo above our heads. Simultaneously, many secrets were pent up there as well, agreements that were destined to become disputes; first the developer bellied up and two years later the contractor, leaving us to puzzle through the debris of soured deals. We’d signed a stack of papers we’d not thoroughly understood.

Beside me during this time peripatetically slept a woman with many fractures from family secrets. A. slept late at night if at all. Sometimes she fell into frenzies in front of the computer screen, finding shreds of information, building cases and amassing details in some periodic table of past wrongs. I raised my voice against injustice and offered commiseration, strategies for reparations. Eventually, I imagined myself bleeding on the floor, but it never really happened that I needed as much of her attention as the past absorbed. So aggrieved, she was,
it felt like she’d taken a lover.

In a few months, rolling though the sixth floor from south to north, a second temblor. A., who survived the 1989 L.A. earthquake with a protective angel hovering over her, was in her south-facing studio, and I in my north-facing library/writing chamber. The quake rolled her out of her studio and down the hall to the front where I opened my door to ask, “What was that?”

She said, “I thought you had fallen down in the shower.”

“No, I’m right here.”

5.9 on the Richter scale, the epicenter was located in central Virginia, near the town of Mineral. The top of the Washington Monument cracked a bit and had to be closed for repairs. Think: alien invasion, Independence Day. The monumental phallus breaks off sealing the president’s fate. And you call it just a movie. East Coast earthquakes are few in number, so few we forget about the mid-Atlantic Ridge most of the time, but crustal collisions gave rise to the Appalachians, once tall as the Himalayas, 300 million years ago.

I never find any other sign of visible damage.


Within boundaries, like a zoo, we visit the natural world, what has become of the “natural world.” Hikers in a conga line of wondrous light metal walking sticks, technical clothing, and properly treaded boots rampage up and down Yosemite’s Half Dome at a rate that erodes granite. While driving my usual truck route to work, I see a dead raccoon that probably got hit on the road and crawled just far enough to die of its injuries in cool grass. I can’t help thinking that it’s only a matter of time before what we like to call nature reclaims this strip of asphalt, these bath re-fitters and light manufacturers; a matter of time until kudzu snakes the lamp posts and loops the power poles together in a mockery of Christmas tinsel, leaving raccoons to safely abide.

In our downtown arts district, one can hear on a summer evening the dulcet periodic blasts from police shotguns. Starling droppings damage vehicle paint and crust sidewalks. It’s true, they do make a mess, but please, where are they supposed to roost instead? Like me, they have migrated into the city. From my balcony tucked in a notch of the building, I watch the starlings’ frantic flapping as they bundle together, stumbling like startled drunks through the air as the shotguns pop, pop, pop.


Five years into living in the sixth floor loft a pair of cicadas cracks open in the condo. At first I find just one abandoned skin slit as with an X-ACTO knife down the back but still clinging fiercely to a short limb like a crunchy thumb on my potted spindly palm. A. collects the specimen and covers it with a makeshift bell jar.

Cicada nymphs can take seventeen years to crawl out of the ground where they once dropped as eggs. But in the south the cycle shortens, and pretty soon I start reading and hearing about the thirteen-year cicadas being back, specifically brood XIX. When I lived in the country, I had a habit of setting my houseplants outside every late spring and through the summer. I can remember a particularly noisy year when the cast-off exuvia of cicadas seemed to be everywhere, crunching underfoot at the gas pumps. Their mating in the tall trees at the fringes of my property raised a ruckus of shrill shrieking that not even the folk cure of bagpipes could have silenced.

Accidentally, I carried stowaway cicada eggs in potted plants with me through two moves. Months later I find a second exuvia. When nymphs crawl out of the soil they find a place to attach. It can be a leaf or a twig, or, in this case, expensive slipcovers stitched of Belgian linen. I never saw the wet, red-eyed teneral phase when they extracted themselves from a tunnel of soil and then cracked from their own skins. I never saw them pump up with fluid, expanding nascent wings until they could fly. And if I heard these two cicadas that awoke on the sixth floor from potted dirt, I thought their screeching was the sound of trains braking on the tracks. I can’t yet know if they managed to find each other, mate, and drop eggs back into my captive soil. Time will tell. What’s buried will swim up.


On 60 Minutes I watch an interview with a North Korean escapee from District 14. He tells how he was so conditioned to gulag rules that he turned in his own brother and mother when they planned to escape. Dreaming of full plates of food and little else, he lost grounding in his brainwashing and at last found a way out; he crawled over his comrade who was electrocuted by the fence and walked alone through barren, cold wilderness finally arriving in the west where he was given political asylum. He suffers from PTSD and depression, says the plentiful food on his plate is never enough to fill him; the sinking in his gut remains. He says he still doesn’t know about love. What is it?

I can’t know while watching this interview and feeling the sadness collect in my chest that in a few weeks every channel will have news from Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary, bad news that will bring us right up against Christmas: a shooting by a lost twenty-year old son who first takes the life of his mother and then twenty-six others, mostly first and second graders. What
is it?

Ms. (Rikki Lee) Jones with the congenitally crooked tail came to us from the alley behind the house of complicated roofs, located in the historic district where we lived for three years before we started building the loft; she just appeared. She lapped water from a large blue ceramic bowl in the garden that was fitted with a fountain. Every day she drank a bit deeper and stayed longer. A beautiful shade of taupe pointed with dark chocolate, she is, and no one claimed her when we asked around. We took in the foundling and named her after a singer. That’s the way
it had to be.

Every night for years a woman slept next to me, and then she stopped. She stopped at the height of the sunspot cycle, the super cycle peak. She said, “I don’t owe you the rest of my life.” At night I could hear her breathing in the next room. I closed my door until it clicked, but the cat opened it. The cat opened the doors we shut between us.


After two months of fooling around with it, I finally go to the doctor about the knot in my finger only to discover that my primary care physician, a Doctor of Osteopathy, no longer keeps a scalpel in his office. He refers me to a surgeon. I’m thinking it’s only a tiny splinter, but I keep the appointment after having the required x-ray. A few mornings later I’m in a well-lit office with my middle finger strapped down for an effective numbing shot. My splinter turns out to be a blood clot. The surgeon, quick in telling me she’s a mother, irrigates it thoroughly and applies a single strip of sticky tape to close the slit. “Most of the time these clots absorb on their own.” Mine obviously did not.

When I am thoroughly healed, a Martian meteor exhumed long ago in the Saharan desert passes tests confirming the presence of water: new measurements, new instruments, and a new conclusion = life.


I arrive at work to find a woman and two men in white jumpsuits wielding spray cans; they ask me to stand back. They move about in my office in a unison dance motioning toward the largest window that’s draped with fading prayer flags. The men silently don ventilation masks; the woman does not, but turns toward me to convey that the white powder from the cans will kill the yellow jackets within twenty-four hours. “You might see a few stragglers.” Their nest is tucked into the space between the window sash and the plaster walls; the ingenious insects are crawling through the crumbly old mortar between two bricks.

“I thought yellow jackets lived in the ground.”

“Holes,” she corrects.

“Most of them were already gone,” I say, “I put them in the trashcan.” This is not strictly true, but I hate to see their annoying buzz wiped out entirely. If they had wanted to sting me they probably would have already done so.

And just as quickly the human swarm departs, taking with it everything except the residue of white powder sprinkled over the windowsill that seeps into my row of loosely filed class notes on the shelf below, killing every old idea. I try to shake the substance from the paper folders. I run to the restroom to scrub white powder from my hands.

Cathryn Hankla is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and fiction. Her first book of nonfiction, Lost Places, is forthcoming from Mercer University Press in 2018. Cathryn teaches in the Jackson Center of Creative Writing at Hollins University and edits poetry for The Hollins Critic.

return to creative nonfiction              home