Roar of the Heavens – preface

From Frances Fitzgerald’s house along the Tye River in the tiny town of Tyro, in Nelson County, Virginia, there is a soul-stirring view of The Priest. The bony, forested crest of this old knob rises to just over four thousand feet, making it one of the highest peaks in these parts. In the twilight, The Priest and its companion peaks The Friar and Three Ridges seem to march into infinity, and into a seemingly infinite color-series of blues and grays and blue-grays — an ever-shifting palette only faintly suggested by their name, the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Spread out below these towering mountains is a lovely, flower-spattered meadow, which in the autumn is scattered with great round hay bales that look like immense loaves of golden bread. The fields are borded by lazy, wandering hedgerows that follow the streambeds, marked by a meandering line of sycamores and oaks and willows and mountain ash. It’s God’s country, some of the prettiest, most pastoral landscapes on the East coast.

The Priest is a thing that smites even the dullest of hearts with its sheer loveliness — yet to view this landscape simply with ones’ heart is to almost completely miss it. Because standing here in this pretty valley, overshadowed by mountains lifted off a scenic calendar, you are ringed by danger and by death, and the tangible record of catastrophe is everywhere. Above you, there are places where the mountainsides have been raked bare and now stand raw and exposed as open wounds. Scattered in the foothills below, there are immense boulders, some of them as big as boxcars. How did they get there? What cataclysm brought them down?

The Priest is beautiful, but looked at in a more ominous way it is also a great, broad blade almost a mile high, that rakes water out of the sky. In scientific terms, its steepness and height create an “orographic effect,” lifting moisture-laden air masses up into higher elevations, where they cool, condense, and fall as rain — sometimes not gentle rain but fierce, relentless, murderous rain. The very height and drama of these mountains is the source of their danger. The towering crags and ridges form a steep watershed or catchment area, a gigantic basin or a bowl, which gathers water from a vast area and sends it cascading down into narrow streambeds. And the meadow around you, it now becomes obvious, is actually a vast floodplain that has been repeatedly inundated by water and by mud. There have been times when this lowland has become the valley of the shadow of death, and no birds sang.

Then there is the non-obvious matter of Nelson County’s location on the globe. Its particular latitude (about 38 degrees north of the equator) maximizes the chance that disintegrating hurricanes coming up from the distant Gulf but still loaded with almost unimaginable cargoes of water will unburden them in these mountains. That’s why the soporific Tye River, chuckling over its bed of round stones through this peaceful valley, is actually a ravenous beast, the mythological dragon of the human imagination, only temporarily asleep.

We may know these things rationally, but we don’t really know them deep in our hearts, down in the fearful realm below thought.

Part of the reason all this danger is hidden is that we are trapped in human, psychological time. We’re inclined to measure everything against the sixty or seventy or eighty years most of us will be given. Anything that occurs less frequently than this tends to be invisible to us — it vibrates on a slower pulse. Yet even the longest human life on record is so brief it’s akin to the shadow of a bird passing across a wall. Compared to geological time, compared to the rocks and hills around us, a human lifespan is indistinguishable from that of a mayfly, which is born and dies in a single day.

But there are moments — extraordinary moments — when human time comes into direct conflict with geological time. When the implacable inhumanness and grandeur of these great processes rises up around us, like a sleeping monster, and eats us alive.

Such an event occurred here in the mountains of central Virginia on the night of August 19th, 1969, when the remnants of Hurricane Camille collided with a complex system of water-laden air currents in the middle and upper atmosphere. Almost completely without warning, and within the space of eight hours, one of the heaviest rainfalls ever recorded on earth — billions of tons of it — cascaded down these mountainsides, turning these lovely crags and streambeds into a terrifyingly effective drowning machine for all life below. Humans, animals, dogs and cats, trees, boulders, houses, cars, barns and everything else were swept away in a fast-moving slurry of molten soil, a kind of deadly earth-lava that buried everything in its path. The bodies of many people, asleep in their beds when the avalanche smashed into their houses in the night, were never found. The next morning, when Frances Fitzgerald climbed down out of the hole in the ceiling where she and her husband had fled to escape the flood, she saw drowned, half-naked bodies hanging from fences and trees around her house.

“We were encircled by death,” she said.

The rainfall was so cataclysmic that the Office of Hydrology of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) later estimated that the rainfall “approaches the probable maximum rainfall which meterologists compute to be theoretically possible.” People had to cover their mouths even to breathe. Birds perched in trees simply drowned. A team of geologists, after calculating how much soil would be stripped off the mountainsides due to normal wind, water and weather, concluded that about two thousand years of erosion had taken place in a single night. Other scientists later attempted to calculate just how unusual an event this was. The hydrology office estimated that an event of this magnitude “occurs, on average, only once in more than 1,000 years.” Another researcher, at the University of Virginia, pointed out that such catastrophic events were so rare that one had to look beyond human history and instead study the geologic record of ancient “paleofloods” imprinted in the rocks and soil. Using radiocarbon dating of these ancient sediments, he calculated that the hardest-hit area (the Davis Creek basin) had probably not seen such an event in the previous three to six thousand years — since before the building of the pyramids at Giza.

But whatever metrics one uses, what occurred in Nelson County, Virginia in the last days of August, 1969 — and, a few days earlier along the Mississippi Gulf coast — was an event out of the nether regions of mathematical probability, out of an entirely different scale of time than the one to which humans are accustomed. After it was over, when the mountainsides collapsed in a deafening, continuous roar, people marvelled at the smell that hung in the air, a pungent, earthy smell, the smell of rock and soil that may not have been exposed to air and light in thousands of years. It was the smell of deep time.

It was as though, on an ordinary day in August, in an ordinary place, time itself had been ripped open and laid bare.

This is the story of a collision between human and geological time.

It’s the story of the fragility and unknowableness of everything we think is predictable and secure.

It’s the story of what people do when the worst that could possibly happen, happens.

For many, it became the story of the end of the world.

Roar of the Heavens by Stefan Bechtel was published in 2006 by Citadel Press. It is available as hard back and soft bound. ISBN 0-8065-2706-4