Letters From Idaho

Shadows Everywhere

We interrupt our weekly Non-Expert column to bring you this dispatch, beginning a new series of letters: Our author in Rome returns home, from Italy to Idaho, finding chaos everywhere he looks.

We return to Idaho from our year in Rome and I start having nightmares I’m dropping my sons: They slip off chairs, rooftops; their skulls thud on the tile.

I wake sweating. I ride my bike to work and climb the dusty stairwell and the view out the window is already familiar: a film of dust, the cornice of the Smith Block Building across the street, pocked with holes from which pigeons emerge occasionally and strut and preen. Beyond that a line of trees by the river, and the white tower of the train depot, and then sky the rest of the way—hot and white, hazed with smoke from lightning fires.

The shadow of apocalypse, it seems, is on everything. Three nights ago a fire burned maybe six miles from our house and I could see the flames—orange and small—from the interstate. Now I can’t take my eyes off pictures coming in from New Orleans: First the satellite photos of spiraling clouds; then the families on rooftops; then the prisoners quarantined on a half-flooded section of freeway. People refusing to leave their homes, people drowning trying to get out.

I look up at the office ceiling and wonder: What kind of strength would it take to tear through a plywood and shingle roof?

Nine thousand miles away, families in Sadr City turn out in the dark to watch almost a thousand corpses—including babies—process past their houses.

My friend Al writes, “Start gathering animals. I’ll prepare the ark.” I think: I should start keeping an ax in the corner of the bedroom.

Last week the president was in town for four minutes, grinning on the tarmac at the Boise airport on his way to a helicopter that would take him 90 miles north for “the mountain biking.” Now tens of thousands of people are smelling their own feces in the Louisiana Superdome and the president’s face is back on the television listing resources he’s sending them. 135,000 blankets. 5.4 million packaged meals. “Everything will work out in the end,” he says.

The Wall Street Journal runs a poll called “Prioritizing: If you had to flee your home, what would you take? Join the discussion.“

Is this real? Is this what it’s like being an American? Ten minutes ago, at the bagel shop, I watched a woman pour sugar into her coffee for maybe 25 seconds. I’m walking back to the office when I pass an enormous lady, her face bright red, sitting on the sidewalk, bawling.

I kept walking. Horrible, I know. To see our planet from space, you’d never know about all our human dramas, all these cravings being played out in our deserts and gutted forests and drained wetlands, the Earth a tinderbox of sage and cheatgrass. The bright flares of human desires, the endless, indifferent swirls of the skies.

Everyday we are reminded how little control we have: a broken air conditioner, a sore throat building despite the dozen times you’ve washed your hands. And yet we spin our tires; we make our music. Two plates of stone on the ocean floor collide, and the resulting percussion sends waves of water to drown 200,000 human beings.

All our cities will be ruins someday. To walk out a door or ingest a hamburger or bend to tie a shoe is to risk your life. You stoop; an invisible, unseen bullet might just whiz past your head, or it might fly straight through your throat.

To live is to risk. You have no other choice. You can’t hide inside all day. The problem is, I can’t get over the fact that I’m failing, failing because I should be in New Orleans right now, using my hands to help somebody.


TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at anthonydoerr.com. More by Anthony Doerr