Public Park Apocalypse
Once, I worked for an environmental protection nonprofit in a national park in San Francisco, a bracing exercise in futility. I rappelled over serpentine cliffs, ax in hand, to remove several tons of invasive ivy and non-native grasses from the coastal bluffs while fifty meters below on the city's most popular nude beach dudes got naked and frolicked. Afterwards, the nonprofit brought in groups of salespeople and schoolchildren to replant the area with native species. The idea was to reestablish biodiversity, thus creating a stable, self-sustaining ecosystem that provided habitat for endangered species. Yet overhead flew a million little birds shitting down the seeds of a thousand exotic garden plants.For decades the beaches beneath the bluffs, have been important locations for the city's gay and nudist culture. Dog walkers have also been a predominant group using the area. After the environmental remediation, the park hoped to draw in... families? with a showcase native ecosystem. Dogs, as they tend to carry invasive seeds and frighten native wildlife, were banned. With the dense cover of invasive Monterey pines stripped away and a trail built along the bluffs, the once secluded beaches now lay exposed to bird's eye onlookers. A period of uncomfortable confrontations between naked men, grannies with toy poodles, and park rangers ensued.
To a great extent, human land use played no part in the guiding vision of the coastal bluff remediation plan. Attracting families to the park and educating them about native ecosystems seemed an afterthought that went largely unrealized. The planners, my boss amongst them, could only envision a natural, healthy ecosystem as a landscape void of humans.
In her heart, my boss really believed she could reintroduce native species to the whole San Francisco metropolitan area, hell, maybe to the greater Bay Area, if only she worked hard enough. She envisioned a chaparral covered, post apocalyptic San Francisco devoid of human life as the culmination of her efforts. As my work with the nonprofit continued, I was surprised to discover that a number of my colleagues shared this vision. Indeed, they conceived of their jobs as laying the foundations to this distant but real future.
My boss was a true believer, which I admired, but I could profess devotion only to the aesthetic of her apocalyptic vision. My colleagues and I were ideologically at odds, but we had stumbled upon the great social level of our generation, the apocalypse.
Our conversations gravitated towards this safe topic. As we drove to work sites, dug wreckage out of military landfills, and torched invasive weeds with the park's handy flamethrower, we bedecked scenarios in resplendant detail. Nuclear apocalypse, zombie apocalypse, nature strikes back, alien apocalypse, anarchic gang warfare unto extinction, plague, and after, a peaceful landscape of green-draped steel towers slowly rusting into the dunes. Probably, I had to refrain from saying, draped with cape ivy and pampas grass. After all, who is going to keep these fragile natives alive when we're gone, with all the tough invasive seeds hanging out in the soil, waiting to bloom?
When the Bush administration financially crippled the park service in 2008 casting all but the most seasoned, essential professionals out of their jobs, I took this lesson with me: from San Francisco to Seattle, Iowa to North Carolina, the apocalypse is a no-fail conversation starter at parties. Everybody has got a survival plan they’d love to detail for you. Your average brunch joint waitress can hold forth on the variety of gas mask best suited for bio-warfare. The bearded man in skinny jeans wants to tell you about the contents of his go bag, which includes an ash wood baseball bat, the best weapon against zombies, in his opinion. And there have been a variety of related fad hobbies. Learn to raise and butcher your own pig. Feed yourself entirely from a garden you can grow in buckets on your fire escape. Get wilderness survival certified.
Over the years, I've developed an unease about apocalypse scenarios. They are just too unlikely. Who says you are the protagonist? You'll probably die right off. The tsunami will crush you. You'll be amongst the 98% of the population wiped out by the plague. Your innards will be ripped from your living torso and you'll join the zombie horde. As for me, if I survived all that, no one will be manufacturing -4.25 Pure Visions by Bausch and Lomb after the apocalypse. We all know what happens to the glasses character. May as well slit my throat with my survival knife. Yet, like all my American friends, I own a survival knife and still love to envision the apocalypse. A Finn, however, has written my favorite apocalypse comic, which describes the inundation of the world and the peace after the extinction of mankind. Initially a lone survivor scrambles to enact the familiar heroic plot - find other survivors, lead them to safe haven, reestablish social order. As he fails to weave the story, his plans unraveling to a chaos of tangles, he learns to find beauty and finally solace in the arbitrariness and indifference of the natural world. Yes, I am referring to the comic book companion to Viimeinen Atlantis. Yes, I know there are classier treatments of the theme out there. Go ahead and giggle. What can I say, the underground metal blog scene shit itself over this album/comic combo for a few weeks in 2010. We were having a re-thrash themed spring.
In Viimeinen Atlantis, the striving of a lone survivor subverts the thread of a common tale, the story of the ascendant outcast. Like many of my culture, I'm fascinated by the reiterations of this story. We are a generation raised in the pop cult of the omega, the lone wolf, the anti-hero, the rebel who lives outside the system. If we fashion ourselves in this image, the apocalypse is our paradise and our proofing.
But this vision of the omega is largely a pop culture myth. Look to nature for real examples of omegas. They just can’t get along socially, missing the program. Real lone wolves die young, hungry, parasite ridden, alone. And they don’t get laid like Jason Bourne, or whoever is the figurehead for the archetype these days. This does not make for a captivating, read lucrative, cinematic experience.
An old friend of mine observed that the healing experience of reintegration with the collective as an individual on one's individual terms, that is, the generation of a new society with former omegas as alphas forms the crux of the cult of the omega. His distillation catches the heart of the cultural phenomenon, I think, if not my favored interpretation of it.
His observation isn't new. After Ragnarök, the world emerges fresh and clean from the ocean, and in the gently waving grass lays the golden tafl board yet. The old gods have been bested, but the young, the outsiders, the marginalized, the omegas sit down at the board and make the next move.
The twin concepts of the apocalypse and the omega have been around for a long time, but perhaps now they are experiencing a moment of particular cultural salience, at least amongst American 20 and 30 somethings. At what other time has the idea been on so many screens, in so many pages, encoded even in public park planning?