Life out of Balance

Saturday night's perigee moon acquired the name "Super Moon," as well as, by some, the attribution of super powers, enough to have caused Japan's 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster--five Japanese reactors affected, three in danger of meltdown--as well as the potential for equal or worse devastation going forward. Blame it all on the moon. It's still trending worldwide.

Science would calm us down. The moon travels an elliptical path around the Earth, and its closest point (perigee) is about 30,000 miles nearer than it's farthest point (apogee.) The perigee and apogee occur monthly, but what made Saturday extraordinary was the full moon rising and its perigee passage around Earth occurred within an hour of each other.

Did you see it? I stood on my building's rooftop and watched it rise, gigantic and gorgeous, over Manhattan.

Two true things: 1) Perigee moons cause the tides to be higher and lower than normal. There's usually about a six inch differential, which itself isn't extraordinary, but can be made so when combined with storms, high winds, and ensuing big waves. 2) Perigeal tides are most extreme when the Earth is closest to the Sun, the perihelion passage, about fourteen days after the winter solstice.

During one new moon at perigee, I stood on high ground, watching salt ponds overflow, cover the beach, and meet the ocean. Because the moon was invisible, the water was black as it drowned the sand, and the event felt primal--which in fact it was, because it was nature.

We name things to give ourselves a sense of control. If we blame everything on Saturday's "Super Moon," we've made some sense of the insensible, inchoate, and dreadful. We've found a way to, if not tame nature, at least reduce it to a scary but easily digestible concept, perfect for talk radio and Live at Five.

I find it tender, the poetic side of human nature that searches for meaning and wants something, anything to explain what is happening in our world: how in Japan the human environmental tolls are rising, how the Fukushima reactor is on meltdown alert, how the elderly and infirm are still waiting for rescue from the nuclear danger zone, how our always elusive sense of security seems very far gone right now.

There's no stopping the moon or solstice or plate tectonics; nature is intense and wild, but we are smart and try to find ways around it, to make ourselves comfortable in the living room of Planet Earth. At the moment, that might not be going so well.

We have built nuclear reactors along fault lines, in known areas of seismic activity. Frances Beinecke, president of Natural Resources Defense Council, asks in an essay for CNN, "When will the nuclear power industry finally demonstrate that it can provide safe and reliable power to consumers without public subsidies?"

On Twitter, Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor, environmentalist, and NRDC board member, retweeted a map first posted by Rainforest Action Network, of United States' nuclear reactors and their proximity to seismic areas: 104 facilities are right on the edge.

Godfrey Reggio's beautiful nonverbal 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi--a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance"--captures images of real life in America, nature in contrast to industry, and is set to music by Philip Glass.

Sequences mix majesty with destruction--shots of the Great Gallery at Utah's Horseshow Canyon, the needles in Canyonland State Park, the Three Sisters in Monument Valley, clouds, blue ocean, Black Mesa Mine, a Dart 4120 bottom dump coal hauler, oil well pumps, Arizona's Page power plant, a fission bomb in Nevada, the nuclear plant at San Onofre California.

Glass's music is charged and haunting, just like the film. It reminds us that balance is not static. Although are in a precarious tilt right now, we can start to ease ourselves back. We have only to look to Japan to see how terribly much we have to lose.

And when it comes to nuclear stations, it doesn't take an earthquake. On July 3, 1999, Unit 2 at Connecticut's Millstone nuclear power complex, was shut down by a thunderstorm.

Plant workers tried to restart the reactor and discovered a leak in the reactor coolant pump. They worked on the problem until September, when they powered up again. I spent much of that summer writing in my cottage with a view of Millstone's red-and-white banded ventilation stack, feeling uneasy and finding it hard to sleep.

We were told they'd caught the problem before the reactor became overheated enough to melt down. To me, those reassurances felt like a warm bath, the kind a lobster finds itself in. The Millstone tower across the bay was, and is, koyaanisqatsi made visible from the windows of my own home.

I wonder how it looked in the light of the Super Moon.

Luanne Rice is the author of the novel The Silver Boat, coming out from Pamela Dorman Books in April.