The Perfect Storm: Climate Catastrophes in “Hieroglyphs of Landscape”

Student Ambassador Chris Rizzo (MCAS, 2022) talks about his personal experience with the awful power of nature as a Wisconsin native.

I grew up in suburban Wisconsin, where winter takes up the whole year. Each October we don our heavy winter coats and mittens that transform us into big puffy marshmallows, the default clothing for most of my family and friends until late April, sometimes May. Winter on the water, however, is an entirely different beast. For those of you who have grown up near the Great Lakes, you know the conditions I speak of. Lake Superior, or the “Lake of Storms,” the northernmost and deepest Great Lake, restrained by Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula, can become especially dangerous. Hurricane-force winds create waves almost five stories tall, roughly the height of Stokes Hall. In the winter, water temperatures fall as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. The majority of the lake freezes over yearly. Storms can rise without warning and have carried at least 350 vessels into the deep since human beings first settled its shores. 

One of the greatest storms to menace Lake Superior was the Mataafa Storm of November 28, 1905. Twenty-nine cargo and fishing craft sank, brought under by massive waves and top winds recorded at 68 miles per hour, smashed against the rocks, or ran aground on shorelines. The SS Mataafa was one of these vessels, broken in two by the sheer force of these massive waves as it attempted to make a run to safety in Duluth Harbor. Nine men died of exposure in the night after the ship broke apart. One body had to be cut out of a solid block of ice when rescue crews could finally arrive the next day. 

The drama of the Mataafa Storm, thought by some to be the worst storm ever seen on Lake Superior, evoked a kind of collective shock in the region that reverberated around the United States, much like natural disasters we face today, such as the California wildfires of recent years or any of the massive hurricanes that have slammed the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. People could not conceive of a storm that could sink twenty-nine ships, end thirty-five lives, and inflict damages of over 3.5 million dollars (102 million in today’s currency) all in one night. Natural disasters not only show us the raw, unadulterated power of Mother Nature, but also our own weakness and fragility.

Natural disasters not only show us the raw, unadulterated power of Mother Nature, but also our own weakness and fragility.

Since ancient times shipwrecks have fascinated and horrified us. We need look no further than the tale of the Titanic to know that this is true. Imagined calamities in literature can hold just as much power as the real. From the tales of Homer’s Odyssey to a modern novel like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the shipwreck is a classic disaster. This event represents a derailment of the hero’s journey and a decisive start of something new. These authors recognize that not only does a shipwreck offer a clean slate upon which a new story can be told, but it also speaks an important message of who we are and where we come from, as well as our own naivety. In the case of the SS Mataafa and all the other ships that sunk in Lake Superior on that stormy November night, the outcome was seen as unexpected and unavoidable, but in reality, it was anything but. 

Storms are the perfect challenge our boldness; when the sea asserts itself and batters our fragile boats with massive swells and howling winds, we are no match for Nature’s uncaring destruction.

The very act of sailing is one that issues a challenge to nature. Water is meant to be a barrier to humanity, but sailing allows us to traverse the sea, carrying people and cargo from place to place. Shipbuilding is such a precise art because a balance must be struck; a vessel cannot be so heavy that it sinks like a stone, but it also cannot be so light that it is overturned by a ripple on a pond. Storms are the perfect challenge our boldness; when the sea asserts itself and batters our fragile boats with massive swells and howling winds, we are no match for Nature’s uncaring destruction.

Shipwrecks and the messages they convey also weighed heavily on the minds of Romantic painters. William Trost Richards, whose seascapes are currently on display at the McMullen Museum, dwelled on these themes. Several of his works show remnants of ships washed ashore as a central element in a lonely beach scene or a twilight view of the coast. Russian Romantic Ivan Aivazovsky also shows a preoccupation with sinking ships and ships in trouble. This naval motif really does reflect the mood of the nineteenth century. Unlike centuries past, Romantic thinkers, authors, and artists were comfortable dwelling in a space of uncertainty and meditating on themes of mortality and fragility.

So often in modern life we take our apparent mastery over the seas and skies for granted. Over 90 percent of the world’s trade in cargo and raw materials moves in vessels over the sea, and travel by planes is one of the greatest luxuries of modern life. But we often forget just how fragile these networks of transport and trade are. As the Mataafa Storm on Lake Superior and the works of nineteenth-century Romantics like William Trost Richards prove, nothing can be taken for granted. When we lower the sails and batten down the hatches, we are acting in defiance of greater powers. We hold contempt for any authority that seeks to control us, and rebel against a fundamental part of our own humanity, that our fragile lives can all be extinguished by the waves of a single storm. 

William Trost Richards, “Beach Scene with Wreck,” Brooklyn Museum, accessed November 19, 2019. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/67563.

Leave a Reply