Somehow I missed this magnificent book until now. I owe its discovery to Covid-19 and Amazon. In consideration of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon took 75% off the price of this post-apocalyptic book and offered it to me based on its analysis of my metadata, no doubt. The story, written in 1949, yet eternally timely, is by far the most insightful exposition of human ontology I have ever read. It is hard to imagine a clearer disquisition of the topic.
‘Human’, of course, is rooted in the same Latin stem as ‘humus’, the rich, life-supporting, organic component of soil, of Earth. Here is a story which, with abundant pathos, fleshes out the meaning of the ancient wisdom, “Earth to Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, as it traces out about fifty years of life in post-apocalyptic suburban San Francisco. Some modern reviewers cast the book, inevitably and tortiously, as a novel about ecology. It is no such thing. Only those who cannot check their politics at the door would view it from that perspective. To open minds, it is much more important than a tale of quasi-religious, neo-Gaia vogue. Setting forth this review takes on, for me, some urgency, you see. So affected am I by having read it that I need some release, some de-cathexis from a sense of being overwhelmed with fresh and profound knowledge of my own smallness and ineffectuality. My sentiments are running the gamut from creation to eschatology.
The writing style is pleasing though unusual to the modern reader, for it harkens back to Classical Greek literature. The third-person narrator gives a great deal of insight into events and especially the protagonist’s thinking; his thoughts about the meaning of most everything is shared with us by the narrator as the central theme of the book. As well, the text is frequently interrupted by several paragraphs in italics – outside the events of the story rather like the Greek Chorus of antiquity – where an all-knowing “super narrator” offers a broader and deeper perspective of various pertinent topics.
The protagonist is an intellectual and it is through his studied philosophical musings that we come to appreciate what has been lost – not only all the modern conveniences like electricity and running water, but the very structure through which new generations are helped to stand with some sense of security upon the shoulders of those preceding them. Here, we are shown what happens when the scattered remnant of a modern generation is living out its remaining days and trying desperately to preserve something of civilization and of themselves as individuals. The plot is designed to show the reader, through one man’s thoughts and actions, the essential human search for meaning, the urgent need to know that his/her life mattered for something. It gently follows Isherwood Williams (“Ish” – ”Isherwood”was his mother’s maiden name) in his mental excursions between alternately feeling like a semi-deity or feeling completely worthless. He does speculate a good deal as to the likely effect of the absence of humans on various plant and animal species.
This odyssey begins in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where grad student, Ish, has been isolated in a cabin on an extended study break. As a geology student, he is used to exploring alone and comfortably in his own company. He is well-read in history and philosophy, consistent with the superior (to ours) Classical Liberal educational standards of that time. More than a week into his planned excursion and complete isolation, he is bitten by a rattlesnake. He returns to his cabin and languishes for another week or so. Even as he begins to recover from the effects of the snake bite, he becomes ill with a strange febrile illness which keeps him abed even longer, isolated in his cabin, now stretching to a period of several weeks. Significant to the entire story is the 4 pound “single-jack” hammer Ish has in the cabin and keeps with him throughout the story. Later on, after he learns what happened to the population, he thinks the snake bite somehow prevented his death from the illness. We never find out for sure. This example is typical of his thinking throughout the story as to cause and effect of things, generally.
When he recovers sufficiently after weeks in the cabin, he gets in his car and heads home. He finds no one at the country store a few miles from his cabin; no one at the electric power plant en route. He sees a body by the side of the road and heads to the nearest town anxiously wanting to report it. There is no one in the town. He spies newspapers inside of a locked store and, reluctantly, uses his hammer to break in. The papers tell of widespread, sudden death from a new, unknown disease. The federal government announces its cessation of function.
Leaving town, he sees idle bulldozers and mounds of fresh mass graves. He heads home to San Francisco, where he finds the lights still on, the water running and nobody about. After thorough searching, he encounters only about four other people in his area. He does not want to join up with any of them for various reasons (one is blind drunk, a couple is malevolent, a young woman is traumatized, disheveled and runs away) . He then figures there must be small groups of other survivors somewhere and drives clear across country to New York, where he finds only one middle-age couple living in a luxury apartment with no prospects for surviving the next winter. Ish leaves and heads back home.
The mechanics of the trip – like finding gas and food – and his acquisition of a pet dog are dealt with in sufficient detail to be credible. Another major theme worth mention is Ish’s recurring worry about the future. Initially, electricity and running water continue automatically because the systems were so well-designed. Interestingly, he does not worry about these, which do eventually fail. Food, in the form of mostly canned goods is so plentiful in stores and warehouses that it lasts for years. Guns, ammunition, liquor, similarly. Over the years, Ish struggles with prodding the growing tribe (as they call themselves) to begin to become creative – transition from scavenging a dwindling supply- and instead begin to produce their own food and plan for various eventualities. This struggle goes on for more than 20 years with very limited results, pending external “forces and pressures”, like early failure of electric generation and eventual failure of the tap water supply.
The remainder of the story is the heart of the book, so no spoilers. Suffice it to say, after his return from New York, Ish reads Ecclesiastes in his father’s Bible and remarks the quote, “Men go and come, but the Earth Abides”. This convinces him that while he tries to do what he can to re-establish civilization (not much), he ought to find a wife and create a family. His doing so and the coming together of a small tribe of a few dozen individuals including their offspring, form the body of this remarkable and highly credible tale.
Among the eternal questions which arise and weave in and out of the story in a meticulously unfolding manner are matters of myth, origins (of the world and society), spirituality vs. religion vs. superstition, totemic meanings and power (the hammer), the limits of human intentions and power – particularly what Ish describes as the relationship of man and his environment. Especially this latter theme is dealt with repeatedly. Ish wonders if man’s intention or what he calls “forces and pressures” of his surrounding are what lead to change and/or progress. Ish contemplates, repeatedly, what the loss of civilization means and how and why rules must be established. He compares civilization in various dimensions with how his small tribe is living now and finds merits in each.
Ish regularly struggles with worries of whom will follow him as the de facto leader and bearer of (at least some of) the previous knowledge which, he is acutely aware, will depart with him when he dies. He reveres the remaining libraries, and ponders who may reacquire that amassed knowledge in some distant future. He places hope in his youngest and brightest son, Joey, as a possible successor. His wife, Emma, remains his main source of courage, of which he is repeatedly in dire need. He has an abiding sense she will be the “Mother of Nations”. Being ten years older, to him, she is unabashedly both wife and mother figure. He, as the elder leader discovers the need to pass on the hammer – become totem – to a younger member of the tribe.
This author has set forth in this book all the things I have longed to have said if I had the discipline and the imagination to gather my lifetime’s worth of thoughts, of awe, of worries and questions into writing. He has captured the essential nature of humanity and placed it in a wholly-transparent petri dish with requisite nutrient medium, which allows us readers (both those of the mid 20th century and those of us post-moderns whose minds remain open) to observe macroscopically and even microscopically just how humanity works – in all its glory and all its pathos. He has deconstructed most every aspect of what it means to be human and placed it in timeless context. It is magnificent and at once devastating.
Unlike for the mid 20th century audience for which this book was written, though, for post-modern readers like me there is surely less comfort nowadays in the belief that “Earth Abides”. Blessed or cursed as the case may be, with advanced understanding of cosmology, on the sidereal time scale, that formerly-comforting declarative statement that Earth Abides is no longer valid, at least when considered beyond the human time scale.
Earth’s very existence, we now know, is contingent, not eternal. It abides, but not eternally. My disquiet upon finishing this book is, I think, a reflection of the emptiness and existential angst which pervades post-modern thought like mine. I sincerely wish I could believe in God and His purpose. I long for the comfort that would provide. The ancients were acutely aware of the contingency of their own existence and of their vulnerability to the loss of anyone they loved. Civilization has padded the sharp edges of such knowledge with a patina of power and illusions of some control over the material world which control, in reality, is fleeting and quite limited. This book is set in the aftermath of a pandemic. We are not yet in the aftermath of the one presently at work among us…
Doing just precisely what Ish did, i.e., finding some degree of understanding of how it all began, how it fits together and what may be my small part in it – that has been the sometimes explicit, sometimes gnawing, but always present – quest of my entire life for as far back as I can remember. Toward the end, Ish asks his great-grandson, Jack, if he is happy. His grandson, who treats Ish with great respect answers, “Things are as they are and I am part of them.”
As a distillation of all human knowledge so as to create a platform upon which all human agency rests, maybe, just maybe, that is the best we can do. Being open to what this book offers requires courage. While this story is timeless, today’s circumstances make it timely as well. Take heart. Risk it.