This past June we had sudden and frequent rains — nearly 20 inches in a single month, which was more rain than any of us could remember is such a short time. In one instance, we had five inches in just a few hours. That rain followed several others that had already dumped considerable amounts of water into the barely adequate sewer system. The town ordered a number of porta-potties to be placed in strategic places around town and asked folks not to flush their toilets unless absolutely necessary and not to shower until the emergency abated. We all held our breath (literally) and waited for the rains to stop. And stop they did. Since the end of June we have had barely over two inches of rain and things are starting to look like our ordinary Summers of late: dry and dusty. The grass is once again brown and crunches underfoot. The trees are dropping their leaves early out of sheer exhaustion. The dark clouds gather from time to time, promising rain, but then move on East, dropping the rain elsewhere — such as Minneapolis during a baseball game.
But in the midst of the crisis last June, when townspeople were taking precautions to make sure the sewers didn’t back up into their houses (though I seriously wonder how many people actually used the porta-potties) there was apparently at least one family that wasn’t going to be inconvenienced. They lived in a newer home on the lake and had a cut-off installed when the house was built that made it impossible (?) for the sewer to back up into their house. The distaff member of that household has been bragging ever since to all and sundry that they weren’t in the least bit worried and went about their business, taking showers regularly and flushing at will. And this is a middle-aged couple, the husband a respected businessman in town. One wonders, what about their neighbors? Why didn’t these folks think about others? Has this sort of thing finally arrived, even to a small Midwestern town?
I spoke with the city engineer and he said that if there had been one more downpour there would have been very serious consequences. The equipment they have in this little town is simply not up-to-date and sophisticated enough to handle a series of heavy downpours. We had dodged a rather smelly bullet, it would appear. And I am left pondering what Ortega y Gasset said about civilization, that it is “the will to live in common.” The determination of at least one family in this little Midwestern town to ignore the emergency precautions because they had the latest technology raises the question of whether they are, in Ortega’s sense of the word, “civilized.” Or do we have here another instance of the growing trend toward a new barbarism that seems to be taking hold of the country, a country in which its people are not citizens at all, but isolated individuals who have no sense of obligation toward their fellows. Indeed, they hardly seem aware of their existence. And when more and more emergency situations arise in the years to come — as promised by the scientific community resulting from the climate change that threatens more frequent violent weather events and reduced food for growing numbers of people — we might indeed soon be back in a state of nature.