Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of super volcanoes and the Old West


"It is odd, to watch with which feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity, and how they are ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get to it.


Americans cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet are in such a rush to snatch any that comes within their reach, as if expecting to stop living before they have relished them. They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.
 …
Death steps in in the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him.


At first there is something astonishing in this spectacle of so many lucky men restless in the midst of abundance. But it is a spectacle as old as the world; all that is new is to see a whole people performing it."

~Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835 

Public domain image via Wikipedia

To create a future I've been on a trip through the 1800s. Not a deep immersion in books and film, but more of a refresher survey to look up interesting events and concepts to help with generating a sense of place and atmosphere for the Post-Yellowstone super volcano novella I'm writing. Or more accurately, to create the feel of a unique time period in which the circumstance of human life and behavior differ from our own in strange and exotic ways.

It's a pioneer story on one level, crossing the wastes of snow and silicate volcanic ash in the Midwest and Great Plains towards a distant goal, so I've been going back to stories of the westward migration. And since I'm looking for tension, drama, and a tragedy to triumph over, I'm revisiting the history of the Donner Party.



Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.


In some ways all of this is about creating an underlying matrix of tensions to generate an atmosphere of unspoken impressions. For example creating the feeling of a lawless environment in which there are human predators and there are people who have banded together around common ideals or necessities to create a community. Then there is the sense of isolation. A feeling of a frontier and beyond that a vast wilderness that is a setting for both hopes and nightmares. Also, a sense of vast physical space, remoteness, and threat of natural hazards from an austere environment that is both beautiful and deadly.

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