“All we ever know is that the tourists survive …”

So, aside from all of the downright incredible photos, and the always-fascinating geology, there’s a thing about the Eyafjallajökull volcano that I’ve been thinking about — the way people are reacting to it. Not the part where everyone jokes about being unable to pronounce the volcano’s name. (And, seriously? Tell me the pronunciation of Eyafjallajökull makes any less sense than that of, say, thoroughfare.)

But the part where large numbers of people simply cannot believe that a volcano, of all things, can be messing with their lives.

Here in the western U.S., we have wildfires in summer. And every year, when you hear the wildfire reports, you also hear about people who have decided to ignore some evacuation order or other in order to try to protect their homes. This makes little sense — no amount of rugged individualism is enough to allow any of us to stop a wildfire singlehandedly — and yet I think people stay because it feels like we should be able to do something, somehow, some way. I’m guessing it’s the same sort of thinking that causes people who have the means to leave the path of a hurricane to stay at home. It feels like surely there must always be something we can do, if we’re brave or smart or stubborn enough.

But there isn’t.

In the early 1970s, on Heimæy Island south of Iceland, a fissure opened in a farmer’s field and began spewing lava. Everyone was evacuated within four hours. There was only one fatality, someone who was after drugs in a local pharmacy. The residents were lucky–the fishing fleet was already in the harbor. But the point is, as far as I know no one questioned whether they should get on board one of those ships, or tried to stay behind to save their homes from the lava. When faced with an erupting volcano, they left.

A few returned later to help pump huge quantities of seawater toward the lava in an effort to save the harbor, which is pretty awesome. But for the most part, in the struggle between man and nature, nature always wins, and there’s only so much we can do about it. We’re not in charge here.

lnhammer and I have been joking that everyone’s gotten into the habit of thinking of volcanoes as a third-world problem. There’s this notion that with sufficient resources, there ought to be a way of facing down and defeating, well, anything.

But there isn’t. When a volcano erupts, there’s nothing we can do, except to heed what warnings our cleverness and luck provide us.

We’re not in control, not always, not really, and I think maybe the disbelief of the past few days comes from large numbers of people being reminded of that, all at the same time.

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