Right around two years ago in an Omaha zoo, a shark was born via immaculate conception. A baby shark had been born of a virgin! It came as quite a surprise to the zoo keepers, as Mama shark had been resoundingly celibate- she hadn't even been dating. There had been no shark companions of the male sort in the tank in recent memory.
The Zoo keepers called in a bevy of biologist who proclaimed the baby, if not a miracle per se, at least the product of an extremely rare occurrence and worthy of much observation and research. And then, in front of their eyes, the infant shark was stung by a sting ray and killed. Gone. Born of virgin and dead from a sting ray barb in a number of hours.
When I heard about this via an obscure news podcast, I immediately thought of a man named David Bosworth. David was my favorite professor in college- he was casual, he came to class in flannel, he was brilliant and also brilliantly mustached. But above all, David really liked me. He also really liked my writing, which did not help my popularity in Intermediate Short Story Writing 304. Students in creative writing programs are not famous for liking each other. And this particular class, to their credit, had the guts to really show it.
David introduced me to the idea of extended analogies-small stories and occurrences that can be related to life in a much broader sense. 'If you keep your eyes open,' he told us, leaning far back in his chair, 'you will find extended analogies everywhere. Pay attention to them.' On the last day of class, he handed out a photocopied news paper clipping. The story was of a man who filmed skydivers for a living. He would leap out of the plane with a video camera to record their terror and thrill. But this one time he had leaped without his parachute; he had simply forgotten it. And you can imagine what became of him. An extended analogy of literary ambition David had scrawled on the top of the page.
And so when I heard about the short lived second coming of a shark, I immediately recognized an extended analogy of life. The miraculous and the useless swimming side by side in the same tank. Killer!
This morning, an extended analogy that I was in no way emotionally equipped for fell out of the computer screen and into my lap. The earthquake that struck Chile on February 27th rattled the very foundation of the country. Houses collapsed sideways and enormous parades of boulders were unleashed from mountain sides. It did the same inside of me; it reconfigured my heart and my head as if they were flimsy wooden structures. I began to miss Chile in that searing, sucker punch to the gut kind of way. I miss the rivers, the students, the other teachers, our unusual and voracious lifestyle, the amiable, tenuous, incredibly intricate life we had constructed together.
Then today, I reached for my computer and read that the Siete Tazas are gone.
The Sieta Tazas (Spanish for Seven Teacups) were a string of perfect waterfalls on the Rio Claro, a dazzling necklace draped into a deep canyon of black volcanic rock, exceptionally clear and bubbling. For the country of Chile it was a source of pride and income as a profitable national park. For kayakers, it was heaven on earth, and so remote that only a precious few have made it there.
I spent a few weeks on the Rio Claro last fall with New River Academy, sailing off curling lips and passing dizzying days deep in the canyon, staring up at the sky. It was vivid, pristine, and very cold. We slept by the river in a wooden cabin without electricity, we ate well and drank hot chocolate boiled in huge tin kettles.
One day we got stuck inside of the canyon. Jammed together in a tiny eddy and faced with an unrunnable rapid, we realized we would have to climb out from within the deep vertical walls. We bit into roots, swallowed dirt and scraped for footholds against the cliff. The self rescue took hours, and that night we fell headfirst into our beds, fully aware of our lungs expanding in and out. Despite exhaustion I lay awake all night, feeling claustrophobic in the total dark, heart still crashing against my chest wall. The air tasted very thick. It would have been a gorgeous place to die, but it was an even more beautiful place to be living.
When the earthquake struck, it opened up a fissure in the earth that swallowed up the water that fed the Siete Tazas. Literally overnight, the river disappeared. The Siete Tazas is now a dry, black, empty vein split through the earth. The school is scattered throughout Chile, I am separate and far away, and that wild place we loved so much is now vacant, gone, abandoned.
***Ever since that last year in college, I have searched for extended analogies the way I look for neglected quarters on the sidewalk. I find them sometimes in newspapers, or come across them on the radio or inside stories told by friends. They are a way of feeling that your isolated experience is part of something collective and universal. They are like little wiggling arrows on a big road map. And when insurance denies you and rows of zeros blink like eyeballs from your bank statement, you are alone and far away from your friends, you sleep late and lose little pieces of your mind over breakfast, any glimmer of direction is encouraging.
Usually I find them to be pretty amusing. Like the guy falling and the shark snared in his own tank- both bitingly ironic, and irony is funny. But when the earth opens up and swallows one of its most exquisite creations, it's not exactly funny. It is bizarre. And in terms of the analogies that could be drawn, it's potentially explosive, too dismal, with too much of an element of serious melodrama. I don't even want to touch it.
So I've decided I have to think about this the way an impartial scientist would. It is a matter of geology: tectonic, random, and definitely sad. But in terms of metaphors and figurative language, I think this time I will excuse myself from the table.