For the early Celts, fog was a gateway to other worlds, the living home of special beings both blessed and fearsome. I think many of us know instinctively that the fog has unique spiritual power. It moves like a living being and can be playful and haunting at the same time. It can change the way we experience the world in the blink of an eye. In today’s world it can also take on an especially sinister appearance.
“The fog closed over Donora on the morning of Tuesday, October 26th. The weather was raw, cloudy, and dead calm, and it stayed that way as the fog piled up all that day and the next. By Thursday, it had stiffened adhesively into a motionless clot of smoke. That afternoon, it was just possible to see across the street, and, except for the stacks, the mills had vanished. The air began to have a sickening smell, almost a taste.”
Berton Roueche’s The Fog (quoted above), published Sept 30, 1950 in The New Yorker, details the malignant evolution of a lethal smog that claimed the lives of 19 people in less than 48 hours. Taking place a few days before Halloween, it lacks only ghouls to make a perfect, modern horror story.
His description could have been written from my own childhood. ‘Temperature inversion’ is part of the common vernacular for those who’ve spent a winter in Salt Lake City Ut. Warm air trapped in the valley beneath cold air allows nothing to escape as pollution builds up day after day.
|Noon, Oct 29, 1948 Donora PA|
When I was young, burning coal for heat was common. Every fall the truck would back up in our driveway, we’d muddy our hands and jackets with the oily rocks as we refilled the bin for the year.
I spent hours marveling at the strange sight of rocks catching fire, glowing in our cast iron fireplace with an intensity that must only be seen at the heart of molten stars. I don’t remember them calling it an inversion back then, it was just the way the winter air was in the valley. I think the worst inversion lasted a couple of months.
Even more than the sight and smell I remember the peculiar silence this poisoned air brought with it. Roueche recounts that at the peek of the poisoning in Donora, you couldn’t idle your car because it would conk out for lack of oxygen. Oxygen is an essential ingredient in sound’s medium of travel; no oxygen = no sound. Fog may keep our secrets in its hidden worlds, but it never silences them forever. Walking through this stuff, in a silence that eats the shuffle of your feet and the crunch of snow, feels like walking in a place made for the dead.
I don’t know if our smog ever claimed lives as quickly as the smog did in Donora. I’m sure it hurried many seniors on their journey out of this world and made the entry of little ones into this world more difficult, perhaps impossible for some.
Eventually burning coal in the Salt Lake valley went the way of horse carriages and we all forgot about the poisoned winters for a while. As the years passed and the city grew, that time of year became dangerous again. The air was not as black, but more deceptively lethal, like smoking menthol cigarets instead of filterless ‘studs’. The poison was there, it just didn’t taste as bad.
Another description in Roueche’s piece strikes me to the core. Its a quote from Dr. Ralph W. Koehler, one of several heroic physicians who fought against the wages of Donora’s smog, saving countless lives, until a rain came that cleared the air:
“…a freight train [was] creeping along the riverbank just south of town, and the sight of it shook him. He had never seen anything quite like it before. ‘It was the smoke,’ he says. ‘They were firing up for the grade and the smoke was belching out, but it didn’t rise. I mean it didn’t go up at all. It just spilled out over the lip of the stack like a black liquid, like ink or oil, and rolled down to the ground and lay there. My God, it just lay there!'”
I remember sitting in traffic, watching smoke spill from the tailpipe of the car in front of us like the heavy breath of a pre-historic monster. That air was made for creatures that breathe methane. It was Donora’s smog all over again.
The initial investigation did not fault the Donora paper mills for the deaths, but modern researchers point the finger squarely at chemicals that streamed from their stacks. They called it freak weather, a temperature inversion, but we know it now to be our own industrialized sins.
Temperature inversions are shaped by the heat and chemicals we create. Weather patterns enhanced by industrial processes in Donora made an incubator for death. The asphalt of our modern world is known to be a significant player in weather patterns. Without the mills, without all the cars on all the roads, temperature inversions would probably be celebrated as a delightful short break from winter’s cold.
Fog’s powerful presence has existed on our Earth for billions of years. It has inspired innumerable mystics and likely served the spirits in ways we can’t even begin to understand. It is a part of life and thus alive in its own way. The fog at Donora showed them the folly of their actions, perhaps the kindest help that could be offered. It held up a mirror to them, showed them the poisons they were accumulating, showed them what they were doing to their air, what we’re still doing to our air.
Donora was hailed as the the tragedy that moved air pollution into the public eye and the political arena. The fight continues, as the fog is generous enough to remind the citizens of Salt Lake almost every winter. Roueche’s piece might have been better titled When Our Poison Mimics Nature, thereby to serve as a message to all of us to pay attention to how nature responds to our many crimes against her.
If we’re lucky, the fog will always be here to hold up a mirror. It should make us think, not only of the human lives we threaten with our pollution, but also of the countless creatures it killed before we even noticed its presence. The fog of Donora beckons us, not towards suffering and death, but a better life for all creatures.