Kim Novak’s hair
It’s nine-thirty on a Thursday night and it’s pissing with rain. I’m sitting here in the Nanaimo Greyhound station staring down onto an expanse of cracked and filthy linoleum, trying to figure out what colour it had been before it succumbed to erosion. I decide on ‘white’, sort of. But that must have been a very long time ago. Behind me, a young Vietnamese woman in a dark blue wind-breaker, pinstriped flares and a white newsboy cap sits among a pile of sodden cartons full of Asian groceries, sucking her teeth so loudly that it reverberates through the waiting room. A not-altogether-unpleasant odour of coriander and peanuts emanates from her beautiful mouth.
A couple of meth heads in black hoodies and multiply articulated plastic moon shoes stand hunched over a cell phone playing a game, twitching and vibrating as they pass the handset back and forth. They giggle in loud bursts as they exhort their blocky 8 bit avatar through the mazescape of the screen’s tiny universe, powering it forward by the sheer maniacal energy of their drumming thumbs. The wall behind them is quite exactly the colour of baby shit and this flu I’ve got is making me nauseous.
The double doors burst open and in with a blast of wind and rain comes a blonde young, short-haired guy in a black nylon wind-breaker and cargo pants. He’s wrestling an enormous khaki duffle bag up onto his shoulders that seems to have developed a sort of writhing lump at each end, as though it was undergoing mitosis or contained a couple of kidnapped children, suffocating and fighting for their lives. The little conical silver horns, pierced into his bland and unlined face, one above each eyebrow and another in the dimple of his chin just above his abbreviated strip of porn-star-pubic-patch beard, make him look like an apprentice devil back from a day’s hunting. As he approaches the counter, the lumps in his bag stop thrashing, as if obeying some silent command, and our young Satan buys his ticket without breaking the trance of the zombified clerk, resplendent in a coffee-vomit beige, short-sleeved, polyester, bus company shirt. Devil boy bursts back out the door, strides across the platform and stuffs his sack of souls into the Greyhound’s cargo hold for the long night ride back to hell.
I don’t know if it’s the flu, the garish fluorescent lighting or the beginning of some psychotic episode but everything in the room is starting to crackle with an aura of electric green corona discharge of the type I usually experience before peaking on acid. But I’m not on acid, although I kind of wish I were. My burning eyes wander over to a broken vending machine, then settle in exhaustion on a wire stand in which a cup of takeout coffee lies spilled over a stack of “New Dawn” papers, turning them into a kind of sodden, brown, stratified, pre-shale sediment, the beginnings perhaps of a new prehistory.
I hear the big diesel turn over. I get up in a fuzzy delirium and shuffle out to the platform and climb aboard the grumbling metal womb, which will take me away from here. I settle into the dark anonymity of my seat and the bus growls and lurches out of the terminal, beginning its long slow drive down the Old Island Highway. I close my eyes and pass out almost immediately into a deep and drooling stupor. I feel opiated. My mind loses its grip on the inside of my fevered eyelids and I start falling backwards into a warm, dark tunnel, the walls of which seem to be made of some sort of palimpsest of layered sediments. Here and there, in what seem like floating fragments of mirror, I catch a glimpse of something monstrous, churning through a limpid ocean that seems somehow to have inundated the glistening, lonely nightscape I am still half-hearing, half-remembering, swishing and droning by, outside the bus window. But that highway seems so far away now. I spiral deeper into the primeval warmth and start to drift. . .
It’s getting hotter and I continue to drop through the void. Perspiration is sheeting on my burning skin and my forehead is glowing like an ember. Seemingly at random, I turn toward one of the passing mirror fragments and it explodes open into a turquoise supernova, sucking me through it like a rupture in an airplane’s fuselage at 30,000 feet. I wince and find myself suddenly suspended in the water column of a warm and scintillating ocean, looking up towards its shifting surface.
I’m just getting my bearings when I glimpse the enormous crocodile-like form of a Mosasaur rising up from far beneath me, surging upwards with great sinusoidal thrusts of its tail. Remarkably, I seem to be invisible to it and it rockets past me, up towards a shoal of rams-horn-shelled ammonites bobbing like pearly Christmas ornaments just below the opaline waves. The monster lunges its needle-toothed maw into their midst and they jet away in nimbuses of purple ink. I pop to the surface, gasping for breath in the fetid air. All around me, the sky is raked with lightning and there is a pervasive smell of sulphur and rotting vegetation. I’m furiously treading water and in the distance I see what I take to be a Plesiosaur bursting through the boiling surf. Its sinuous neck uncoils like a bull whip and it sinks its hideous fanged head into a leathery-winged flying thing that had been gliding like some chthonic pelican just above the surface of the chop. Within seconds, it is dragged shrieking and flapping into the seething sea, leaving only a dark halo of blood foaming on the waves.
The bus shudders and I am shaken back awake into the endless rainy night. My heart is pounding and I am drenched in sweat. I can taste its salt in the corners of my lips as if it was the residual spray from the Mesozoic ocean in which I was just immersed. I open my eyes. We’re in Duncan, a city of strip malls incongruously juxtaposed with beautifully First Nations totem poles. Another palimpsest. We’ve pulled into a shopping mall and it looks completely abandoned. Nobody seems home on Vancouver Island tonight, just miles of dark trees and wet blacktop, interspersed with pools of fluorescent mall aura, the cold light of wasted kilowatts reflected in empty, rain-slick parking lots. Nobody waits for us at the bus stop and nobody gets off our bus. The air brakes hiss, the driver hits the accelerator and we pull back out onto the highway, re-entering the twin beam tunnel of our headlights and our lonely passage through the darkness and rain.
Settling back into my seat, I wonder what could have happened back in those long-ago seas that wiped out all those fearsome dragons in their watery lairs. They must have seemed invincible at the time. Yet they couldn’t escape the wrath of their destiny— even the mightiest reduced to a mute mountain of flesh sinking in abyssal mud, swarmed over by writhing hosts of zombie worms and hagfish. The creek beds of eastern Vancouver Island are littered with their fossilized remains. Almost intact, mineralized skeletons of mosasaurs and elasmosaurs (the most hyperbolic plesiosaur—12 metres in length, half of it neck) have been found near this old highway, along the Puntledge River. I imagine their fearsome teeth, arched ribs and endless vertebral columns sticking out of the ferny banks like the remains of a petrified armada, sunk in a surprise attack at the very apogee of its global supremacy. These mute bones date back to the late Cretaceous, just before the malcontent asteroid Chicxulub, struck the earth in a titanic suicide bombing, precipitating the fifth great dying—the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction. Chicxulub may not have been acting alone, but whatever the geometry of the disaster, at the end of the Cretaceous, life on earth was dealt a sudden and cataclysmic blow.
Vancouver Island’s fabled landscape has always made me feel a bit uneasy. It’s as if the geomorphological rug could be pulled out from under me at any moment. I’ve always put this down to me being a transplanted easterner, a stranger in a strange land, but it turns out that there really *is* some basis for my trepidation. Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and a chunk of Alaska are collectively part of an errant raft of the earth’s crust called Wrangellia. This rogue land mass started out somewhere in the proto South Pacific 270 million years ago and headed off on a tectonic joy ride, slamming into the side of what we call North America, 140 million years later, in perhaps the worst parallel parking job ever in the history of the continent.
Wrangellia’s rather tentative relationship with the rest of the continent can be seen in its palaeontology, which has more in common with parts of Asia than it does with the rest of North America. In fact Wrangellia was spawned together with a whole herd of other micro-continents called terranes, which careened hither and thither across the Pacific in a slow-motion tectonic demolition derby, still very much in progress. The incessant lurching and grinding of our bus’s syphilitic gearbox makes me wonder what would happen if Wrangellia started to buck and strain more determinedly at its continental mooring, or worse still, slipped downward into the sea.
For months now, I’ve been obsessing over this idea of rising sea levels. Even without the help of plate tectonics, global sea levels are inching upwards with the relentlessness of a department store escalator. U.S. National Parks officials are reporting that global warming has become the latest spectator sport in Alaska. Tourists are flocking there to see what’s left of the rapidly melting glaciers, “before they’re all gone.” The Greenland ice cap is currently in full bore melt mode and it contains enough water within it to raise the oceans seven metres by the time it’s all gone.
Back in 1962, J.G. Ballard wrote a lurid science fiction novel, Drowned World, in which he portrays a post-apocalyptic civilization rotting under a vast and stagnant ocean. As I look out the window at the pounding, Noachian rain, the question seems to be not “if” we will have a “Drowned World” but “when?” The plesiosaurs and mosasaurs of the Cretaceous may be gone forever but I imagine the shadows of saltwater crocodiles, fattened on our bloated corpses, undulating over strange rectangular reefs that once were the big box stores of Nanaimo. It seems inevitable to me that all this suburban sprawl, these dark forests and fields, will soon become just another page of sediment in Wrangellia’s unfinished paleontological book.
Time seems to be oddly plastic tonight and I feel like I am floating through it like some sort of spectre.
I think of Kim Novak’s character, Madeleine, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, when she lapses into a state of chronosthesia or time confusion, while looking at the cross section of an ancient redwood tree. Pointing at a space between two growth rings she tells James Stewart’s character Scottie:
“Somewhere in here, I was born and there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.”
Like Madeleine, I often suffer from a kind of temporal confusion, my mind racking focus back and forth across time with seeming impunity and without warning, accompanied by a frequent, complete inability to focus on the present. The fossilized scallops in the flagstones of my suburban Toronto boyhood seem as real to me now as the words I am typing on this page and yet I am constantly plagued by distractlingly tactile visions of the future. For some years now, I’ve had the feeling I am standing at the precipice of a great phase shift, a rip in time, like the one that deposited the thin layer of iridium at the transition between the extinction apocalypse of the late Cretaceous and the rest of history.