“Farewell happy fields, where Joy forever dwells, hail horrors hail.� – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Song of Joy.�

To those who survived Hurricane Katrina and managed to return to the place where their houses once stood, the destruction of the Gulf Coast must feel like the end of all things. All things are calm, though, where I live in the Pacific Northwest. Like many, I’m sure, I’ve been overdosing on 24-hour disaster coverage on TV. When I force myself to turn away and look at my own surroundings, the abrupt discontinuity between devastation and tranquility comes like a shock.

My front window looks out onto a perfectly unblemished Victorian-era neighborhood. I’m trying hard to imagine what my street would look like if Katrina hit here instead of there. It’s getting easier all the time. My imagination increasingly tends toward the vivid and morbid the more I watch TV and peruse Yahoo’s online photo galleries of hell.

I feel flickers of survival guilt now. The weather here is better than it has been for months. The sun is out, which is normal for this time of the year. But temperatures are in the 70s instead of the 90s. I no longer have to take measures to cool down my house. My cats nap in the beams of sunlight slanting in through the windows. The birds are chirping. My neighbors are smiling and happy. The cafes and restaurants and bars down the street are all open. This place looks like a cartoon of perfection all of a sudden. Life is good here in Portland.

Aside from the headlines in corner newspaper boxes, there is no evidence that the worst natural cataclysm in American history has just been inflicted on another part of my country. It seems like we should see at least a ripple effect from that storm in our own skies – a gust of wind, a scrap of cloud, a splash of rain, something. Instead there is nothing. It looks and probably feels like the end of the world in Mississippi and Louisiana. But everything here is all sunshine and smiles. Somehow it feels wrong and obscene.

My wife and I watched two episodes of The Sopranos on DVD last night. We laughed at the witty dialogue and wondered how such an emotionally immature man as Tony Soprano could handle the burden of responsibility that leading the North Jersey mob clearly requires. Then I wondered to myself: how can we care about the problems of a made-up cable TV character at a time like this? People are drowning in a toxic urban lake, struggling for survival against dehydration, disease, poison, rats, fire ants, snakes, roving bandits with guns, and probably alligators. But what can we do? The end of the world is happening somewhere else at the moment.

It could have been Portland’s day to die. If my city were flattened and I knew people in other parts of the country were carrying on as usual it would disturb me. How can you go on with your lives while we’re dying here? I suppose, though, from all outward appearances I must look to my neighbors as though I’m blissfully unaware of what’s going on now on the Gulf Coast. I’m not walking around with tears in my eyes. Maybe everyone is as rattled as I am yet, like me, they’re trying to pretend like they aren’t.

The reason I say it could have been Portland’s day to die is because it really could have been Portland’s day to die. New Orleans is menaced by wind and water. Portland is threatened by earth and fire.

Mt. Tabor rises above residential neighborhoods near the geographic center of the city. That small mountain was forged in an eruption. Houses are built all the way up it, bang on top of the volcano. Spend a little time looking at underground maps of tectonic fault lines and you’ll feel like gigantic gun barrels are pointed up at the city from below, loaded and ready to fire as soon as the sinister order is given. Oregon is scheduled for something like a mind-boggling 9.0 earthquake between tomorrow and the next couple of hundred years. I probably won’t see it. But I might. I really might. My house was built in the late 1800s before we knew what awaited below.There’s no way it can withstand that kind of violence.

Edward Lorenz famously wanted to know if the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas. I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not qualified to argue one way or another. Today, though, I have my doubts. A cataclysmic hurricane smashed into the coast and tore everything to pieces as it hurtled into the land-locked center of the continent. Even that wasn’t enough to trigger the flap of a butterfly’s wings here where I live.

Yesterday I went for a walk. Some of my neighbors were out with their dogs. Young couples held hands. Friends gathered around outdoor coffeeshop tables, shot the breeze, and smoked cigarettes. Cats curled up on porches along rows of Victorian houses.

All this, too, someday will be destroyed. You won’t feel the earth give way beneath our feet, as we will. But think of us, please, when it finally happens. It will be the end of our world as we know it.

Science/Environment The End of All Things