“There Will Come Soft Rains”? (Lessons from Bradbury)

Rainy Saturday

It’s Saturday.  I sit by the window on my favorite day of the week, watching the rain fall steadily from a gray sky for the third day in a row.

I love Saturday.  It’s the only day of the week when I don’t have to shake myself from sleep and get dressed early.  On other days, I drag myself into the shower and stand with my face turned up to the spray until the water wakes me up.

I love the rain, too.  My husband and I shared our first kiss on a rainy day after meeting for coffee in the early afternoon—a safe first date.  He walked me to my car, opened the door, and waited until I sat in the driver’s seat to close the door for me.  Then, as I watched him walk away in the rearview mirror, he stopped in his tracks, returned to the passenger side of my car, and slid into the seat beside me.  I smiled.  He leaned across the console and kissed me.  And in one of those rare moments in our lives when our senses are fully and completely in the moment, I heard the rain tapping steadily on the windshield, just as it is tapping against the window now as I write.

Today, a few hundred miles away, where we recently buried my mother next to my father on the top of a beautiful mountain in West Virginia, it’s raining, too.  I love thinking about the beauty of that mountaintop, with its stunning view of four counties.  I conjure an image in my mind of how it must look today, as the rain falls on leafless trees, and the trees patiently await the coming of the lush green spring.

It rains, too, in the hills and valleys surrounding my family’s cemetery.  Today I conjure an imaginary picture of my friends and relatives, standing in the rain and turning their faces to the sky in welcome.  For on this day, they cannot step into the shower as we all take for granted we can do.

On Thursday their water supply was halted abruptly when a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a containment center and contaminated the Elk River and the water supply in nine West Virginia counties.  In a highly unusual move, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has shut down the business, the swiftness of the action suggesting wrongdoing on the part of the company.

At this point no one has defended the company’s officials in response to the hoard of journalists who have descended on the state capital in Charleston, one of the areas affected by the water contamination.

But in social media, where anyone can post anything, some West Virginians whose livelihoods depend on companies that support the coal industry are quick to defend what, at the moment, seems to most of us completely indefensible and recklessly negligent.

“We need to eliminate all coal generated electricity and then our beloved WV and 40 percent of the nation including Maryland could sit in the dark and cold without our social media devices!” one West Virginian, whose company produces mine machinery, wrote sarcastically.  “This was not a deliberate act…it was an accident! Why do yo [sic] want to spin it into an evil company?”

I’m certain that the company’s president did not intend for this tragedy to occur.  I’m equally certain that he’s profoundly sorry it did.  I agree that it was an accident, just as it is an accident when a drunken driver or a texting driver causes an automobile accident on a wet and rainy night.  Does that mean we excuse the driver of culpability?  Of course not.  And only time and what’s sure to be a lengthy investigation will reveal the degree of the company’s culpability.

Our world’s use of energy is a complex issue, and I don’t pretend to have the answers.  Neither this person who posted nor I can claim to have all the knowledge.  Nor can the environmentalists, who have already pointed out that on the same day this disaster occurred, the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to scale back the requirements for cleaning up hazardous waste.

At the risk of repeating myself, we cannot keep digging our heels into the mud of the two extremes and making it impossible to find solutions to the issues that face us.  We probably won’t destroy the world in our lifetime, so it’s hard for most of us to feel a sense of urgency that takes away the pleasure of sitting by the window on a rainy Saturday morning.

But I think of our three children, our grandson, and our descendants as yet unborn.  If we aren’t going to pull ourselves out of the muck on opposite sides of the contaminated earth, then we had better start investing in exploration that will build us a space ark to carry our progeny to another planet when we pollute this one beyond repair.

Right now, that seems like science fiction. I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story—not the more obvious “There Will Come Soft Rains,” where human beings have destroyed each other—but “All Summer in a Day.”  Earthlings have migrated to Venus, a world of constant rainstorms, where the sun shines for only two hours every seven years.  One little girl, Margot, is the only child in her class to have migrated from Ohio recently enough to remember the sun on Earth.  She is the one most excited to go outside on the day when the sun will appear.  But when the other children doubt the reality of the sun she insists is coming, they bully her and lock her in a closet.  When the sun appears, they play delightedly, their feet squishing in the muddy ground, remembering her only when the sun retreats and they feel the first drops of water on their upturned faces.  Here is how Bradbury describes their first view of what they couldn’t imagine:

They squinted at the sun until the tears ran down their faces; they put their hands up to that yellowness and that amazing blueness and they breathed of the fresh, fresh air and listened and listened to the silence which suspended them in a blessed sea of no sound and no motion.

Even should we find our way to an alternate planet, we’d still face that ever-human dilemma of how to live with one another in a less than perfect world.  Like those children, who so regret their actions as they let Margot out of the closet at the end of the story, we cannot imagine a world so foreign to our own—neither the world this will be if we destroy it nor the world it might be if we somehow find a way to be less like the children in Bradbury’s story.

That is a story we have yet to write.  How can you help write it?