Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sinkholes and the Visual Allure of the Abyss

Today's topic: Sinkholes! Are they the perfect visual metaphor for the current strain of American malaise? Or does our fear of them go deeper?

But first, let me start by explaining that as the year comes to an end I start eagerly awaiting the annual "best of" lists that inevitably turn up in magazines and on the Internet. This December, which also marks the end of a decade, sort of,  promises even more wide-ranging reminders of how sh***ty the Bush era was. I mean I lived through the 2000 election once, and now I know I'm gonna have to again.

Websites at least can add some science to their annual news roundups. For instance, in summing up the year in pictures, National Geographic did not rely on the news or artistic judgment of editors, but on the number of hits various pictures received online. You can see the results here, but I will sum up for you. The five most viewed stories on the website this year were:

5. "Iceland Volcano Pictures: Lightning Adds Flash to Ash"

Italian photographer and scientist Marco Fulle shot this image
I particularly admired this shot from the Geographic story. Taken by Italian photographer and scientist Marco Fulle, it shows Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupting.

4. "Strange New Species found off Greenland"

A new species of shark, Photo courtesy Greenland Institute of Natural Resources
This new species of shark  has been found in other oceans as well, but never in Greenland waters. I think it looks like a cartoon fish from my old "Bozo Under the Sea" record when I was a kid.

3. "Stunning Photos from a 10-Year Sea Census"

Mr. Blobby photo courtesy Kerryn Parkingson, NORFANZ
Meet Mr. Blobby, a fathead sculpin fish caught in 2003 off New Zealand as part of a 10-year marine life census. This isn't the first encounter I've had with Mr. Blobby.

2.. "Fish With Hands Identified"

The spotted handfish. Photo courtesy CSIRO
Apparently, some fish use their fins to walk along the ocean bottom. Why these fins are referred to has hands and not feet, I do not know.

At any rate, before we proceed, let's access.  Aside from the flashy pictures of volcanos in Greenland, the other top stories so far all essentially have to do with sea creatures. Weird, unsettling sea creatures. Let's face it, we love to look at 'em and think about the scary things down there. Likewise with the volcano, when you come to think of it: Images of fire and ash must, I think, trigger some deep-rooted notion of hell, at least as hell has been depicted in about a thousand years' worth of art and literature. Which brings me to the number-one most clicked-on  Geographic news story:

1. "Sinhold Pierces Guatamala"

The Guatemala Sinkhole, photo courtesy Paulo Raquec
Last June, the world press, me included, reported the news that a giant sinkhole had appeared in Guatemala City, Guatemala--and not just any sinkhole, but a 30-story sinkhole that "devoured buildings." And if the idea of this sinkhole was bad, the images that accompanied the stories were horrifying: A gaping, sheer drop into absolute blackness that seemed without end. To look at the images was to wonder: What is down there? Not that we necessarily want to know. I submit that there is a part of us--the part that responds to artistic renderings of hell, or the part that wants to watch "The Walking Dead"--that prefers the blackness to knowledge. The lure of the abyss is undeniable, don't you think? Interestingly, National Geographic's number-six most clicked-on story was also about sinkholes. The number-seven story was about new rare species, featuring a bat "with trumpet-like nostrils" that looked in every respect like a effing demon.

The tube-noseed fruit bat. Photo courtesy Piotr Naskrecki, Conservation International
The list really makes you think twice about modern-man's relationship with the natural world. We know we still have to fear the dark, don't we? We know that despite all our technology there are unknowns out there. Way down on the Geographic list are two stories about this summer's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but that was a man-made disaster, and it just doesn't carry the same fear factor that a sinkhole does.

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