On a cheerful autumn day in New York — a day on which the latest in a series of giant storm systems was lashing the Pacific Northwest — I got a book in the mail and read a newspaper article that, taken together, presented a not-so-cheerful picture of Earth's past and future. The article was a summary of an item in the scientific journal Nature, a report by geophysicists who had recovered the first known fragment of a monster asteroid that struck the planet 65 million years ago, supposedly causing such devastation — tidal waves, quakes, sky-blackening dust clouds — that 70 percent of plant and animal species were killed off, including all the dinosaurs.
Old news, right? Not if you believe Robert Ghost Wolf, the man who wrote the aforementioned book, Winds of Change, which argues that we're doomed to suffer equally brutal upheavals. I was interested in reading Ghost Wolf's book because I knew that he is the part-Sioux leader of a covey of mostly white New Agers in Spokane, Washington, called the Wolf Lodge Cultural Foundation. The Wolf Lodgers hold that mankind is enviro-spiritually out of sync with creation, and they put faith in an apocalyptic religious construct called Earth Changes, which has it that our planet possesses a consciousness that allows it to "react" in its own best interest — in other words, that Mother Earth has a mind, feelings, volition, moods.
Unfortunately, it seems that Mom is pissed. Ghost Wolf points to 10,000-year-old Hopi prophecies that talk of great turbulence in our time if we don't shape up. He thinks we're falling short and can expect Earth to dish up increasingly severe punishments — megaquakes and hurricanes, bullwhip tornadoes, burping volcanoes, rising oceans — to cleanse the species and hasten an elect's transition to a higher level of being.
Devotees of Earth Changes anticipate terrestrial temper tantrums that will erode vast portions of the planet's surface. The author of Black Dawn, Bright Day, a New Age shaman named Sun Bear, compares the process to "a great big shaggy dog" shaking off fleas. Some movement Cassandras produce "future maps" that show what things are going to look like. Psychic cartographer Lori Toye's "I AM America" poster is a typical offering: It shows large swaths of the American West gurgling underwater, Nevada having been struck by a giant asteroid that produces mammoth land shears. Melting polar ice caps have flooded the great coastal cities, and a new West Coast cuts an arc through Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming.
Needless to say, such changes will not occur without significant human casualties. When I discussed this with a now-deceased Earth Changes prophetess from North Carolina named Leigh Richmond-Donahue, she was blunt about what lies ahead.
"Earth Changes is a birthing process, but it's going to be a bloody birthing," she said grimly.
How bloody? "I think billions will be killed."
You can see how Earth Changes might get people's attention. As apocalyptic theology, it's a big-wheeled juggernaut, incorporating combustible themes from almost any religious source whose general drift is "We're in big trouble," whether it's the Bible (the punishment-by-God motif in Earth Changes theology is straight out of Genesis and Revelation, only now it's Gaia holding the whip), the 16th-century visions of Nostradamus (Earth Changers pay great heed to his supposed predictions of calamities at the end of this millennium), or the feverish visions of Edgar Cayce, the Kentucky-born clairvoyant and proto-New Ager, who delivered "readings" about future "Earth Changes" back in the 1930s and appears to have invented the lingo.
Of course, the idea that we're impacting the world for the worse and that the world is hitting back has been relentlessly promulgated in recent years by nonfringe sources such as Al Gore, the United Nations, and the New York Times. As part of my coverage of the Earth Changes beat, I keep a file — labeled "Hmmmm" — bulging with newspaper stories that eerily mesh with the thoughts of Ghost Wolf and his ilk. Among the juicier headlines from 1997-1998: "Ozone Layer at Record Thinness Over North Pole, Says U.N." "Catastrophic Melting of Ice Sheet Is Possible, Studies Hint." "July  Was Hottest Month Ever, Data Show." "Study's Grim Finding: We're Running Out of Fresh Water." "Scientists Unite to Sound Alarm About Ocean Perils." And "Climatology Guru Is Part Curmudgeon, Part Imp." In the Times article accompanying that last headline, Wallace Broecker, a geochemist at Columbia University, warned that our fossil-fuel addiction could set off a chain of climatological events that will have "disruptive results" for the human population and its food supply.
"The climate system is an angry beast," Broecker said, unintentionally sounding like an Earth Changes oracle, "and we are poking it with sticks."
We all shudder a little when we take a hard look at what mankind has done to the natural world, but Earth Changes believers take their fretting much, much further, and the imminent arrival of Y2K has only heightened their anxiety about the near future. Instead of pausing for a deep breath and getting serious about recycling, some of them are making elaborate preparations to head underground.
I was first exposed to the movement's survivalist imperative when I attended a New Age expo in New York City, where I listened to a lecture by a man named Matthew "Mooncloud" Stenger, a blond, sun-crinkled Native American wannabe who had studied Earth Changes under the late Sun Bear. Stenger warned that Manhattan's tall buildings would be a death trap once the "superearthquakes" start. Afterward I asked him a question that, to my mind, was quite pressing: Did Earth Changes entail building, say, a survival pod? (Survivalist folkways are a particular fascination of mine.)
"For some it definitely means that," he replied. "I tend to believe that you should trust in your spirit and be prepared to live lightly off the land."
Great. But could he point me in the direction of people who were actually building Earth Changes pods?
Stenger demurred, but I kept pestering him until he told me about a pair of wealthy retirees whom he had met on the New Age circuit. It turned out they were preparing to flee suburban Maryland and move to a full-blown Earth Changes hideout in the mountains of West Virginia. In a phone conversation with the husband, I broached the subject of their pod or bunker or pillbox or whatever it was. Had they really built one?
"Yep, yep," he said amiably. He described an earth-tone dome built on a geophysically stable rock ridge in the Appalachians, far from unruly cities and crumbling coastlines. "We're comfortably equipped for everything," he said, "250-mile-an-hour winds, and earthquakes, and fallout, and even energy saving."
Inflamed by pod lust, I drove out and met the couple in Maryland, and they warily consented to let me visit their West Virginia lair.
Alas, when Pod Day dawned they called to cancel, but I drove to West Virginia anyway, rationalizing that they were reneging on a deal. I got lost but finally found their place, which was tucked away at the end of a long gravel driveway. I ventured close enough to verify that the hunkerdome did exist — it was squat, brown, and round, like a dirt dauber's nest — before beating a retreat, feeling guilty about my interpersonal sins.
Earth Changes is a widespread but highly diffuse subculture. There's no way to know for sure how many people dabble in it, but believers number in the tens of thousands, enough to support a small theocracy of full-time prophets who are famous in their limited sphere — people like Floyd Hand, Gordon-Michael Scallion, Page Bryant, and Sean David Morton. Predictably, you tend to find believers where the hills are: Earth Changers prefer high ground and a self-sufficient supply of fresh water. There are significant EC clusters in the Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada. Among the hot spot towns: Crestone, Colorado; Mena, Arkansas; Maggie Valley, North Carolina; Sedona, Arizona; Mount Shasta, California; and Spokane, Washington.
Discerning the outlines of the movement is one thing, but finding pod was tougher. I phoned Lori Toye, the mapmaker-seer, at her home in New Mexico. No go. Pods weren't her thing. She preferred to rely on her spirit guides to get through the rough stuff ahead, while hoping Earth would go easier on all of us if a critical mass of people (like her) behaved properly.
A tantalizing lead brought me to another Maryland couple, Bob and Zoh Hieronimus (believe it or not, their real names). They acknowledged that they were planning to build a pod, but it was only in the blueprint stage. They urged me to check back later. Then, acting on a fresh tip from "Mooncloud" Stenger, I hightailed it down to Maggie Valley, where I met with an Earth Changes prophetess named Greta Woodrew. Unfortunately, she was turned off by my linear fixation on pod and refused to arrange a showing. Instead, she offered some advice: I should cool it, slow down, and simply "listen."
Listen to what?
Her reply: To what Earth was trying to tell me.
Not long afterward I took her advice. I attended a sort of Earth Changes revival meeting at a hotel near Dallas, hoping to better understand the movement's spiritual subtleties. The event had been organized by a husband-and-wife duo named Annie and Byron Kirkwood. Annie Kirkwood's specialty is relaying Earth Changes messages from the Virgin Mary. In her popular book Mary's Message to the World, Kirkwood delivers the bad news that Earth will be "moved by violent forces which will cause many to lose their physical lives," but mostly she writes about the positive side, about how nice things will be in the blissful "Aftertime" that will follow the Changes. Byron, a portly, friendly man, specializes in the busy-bee survivalist stuff: shelters, freeze-dried food, first aid, rising oceans, mass death. In the hotel ballroom, I watched him pitch the bad news to an audience of 500 squirming, nervous-looking people.
Mingling with the crowd between lectures, I took an informal survey and found that most attendees seemed to expect the harsh talk but wanted to believe that they could survive the Earth Changes without digging in. A typical example was Claire Applegate, a friendly young woman from Houston — not a desirable Earth Changes site, given that the Gulf of Mexico is going to get a lot bigger — who said she had no immediate plans to head for the hills.
I asked Claire how and why she started believing in Earth Changes. She said it wasn't a decision: Awareness of it simply "happened" to her one day in the late 1980s, when she was sitting at home despairing about the environment. A voice told her, "Claire, something really, really big is going to happen to the Earth." Even though she had never heard about the movement, she said, "I felt the truth of it all at once."
The next afternoon, Annie Kirkwood closed the meeting out with a rambling, intensely personal chatalog that touched on her own fears about the future and her personal problems, which included agoraphobia. Like any religion, Earth Changes is partly about maintaining a hopeful, let's-carry-on spirit in a terrifying world where calamity is all around and death lurks just over the buckling horizon. At the same time, the movement's holy men and women tend to turn Earth Changes into a smelting pot of the grandest geophysical issues and the tiniest personal concerns. Apropos of nothing, Annie wound up her remarks with a heartwarming vision of 12-step-program graduates becoming Enlightened Ones. "People talk about the thousand years of peace," Annie said. "I want to tell you that it's not going to start with the drop of a ball in Times Square bringing in the year 2000. For people who have done their healing work, they've already started their thousand years of peace."
Of course, those thousand years of peace won't arrive without the rest of us getting our hair mussed. Despite the fact that a number of specific Earth Changes disaster prophecies haven't come true, the subculture was excited by all the climatological paroxysms in 1998 and seems reenergized now that 1999 is here. Several movement heavies, including Robert Ghost Wolf, recently held an "Impact 2000 Conference" at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Up in New Hampshire, Earth Changes psychic Gordon-Michael Scallion is predicting terrible things for this year. "If the natural disasters of 1998 were a five on a scale of ten, 1999 will be an eight," he says. In north Georgia, a man named Richard Noone is sticking with his prediction that Earth's crust will shake terribly on May 5, 2000, a disaster that will set in motion a new Ice Age.
Meanwhile, I never gave up my search for pod, which (after a couple more false starts) ended happily. My old friends from Maryland, Bob and Zoh Hieronimus, finally completed their bunker, a sizable enclosure built under their home in ... well, I promised not to reveal its exact location, so let's just say it's in the woods not far from Baltimore. The Hieronimus pod was a cooperative effort involving several like-minded friends. After clearing things with the group, the Hieronimuses invited me and my wife to come out for a visit. We passed a pleasant enough afternoon with them, though thoughts of an unpleasant future were never very far away.
"We're already seeing the changes," said Zoh, a generally serene woman in her forties with a graying cascade of hair framing a sometimes fretful face. "The high winds are winds we haven't experienced. The colder colds. The warmer warms. The long flooding." Outside, it was quite windy: Tall trees were whipping and dancing as the breeze ripped through the limbs.
"See all these trees around here?" Bob added. "I think they'll all be on top of this house and this place will take a hell of a beating. We'll get winds of 200 miles an hour, and superhurricanes, and supertornadoes." Trying to save as many as they can, Bob and Zoh produce alternative radio programs that deal with Earth Changes and other looming aspects of the paranormal. They believe the Changes will be rugged but survivable.
Then, at last, it was time for pod.
The Hieronimuses housed a jumble of possessions in their huge, sprawling basement, but the pod itself was farther down, in a nifty, secret, not-very-podlike subbasement. After descending some stairs, we entered a space of several hundred feet, fitted out with a large, bright kitchen, three toilets, enough bunk beds to sleep 40, and many shelves stacked with canned goods." It gets kind of boring doing this," Bob admitted after pointing out all the amenities and gadgets. "But we've gotta keep doing it!"
I had a last request. It had all seemed a little tame, really, and I wanted a taste, however fleeting and vicarious, of the scurrying underground life that lay ahead for the chosen few when Mother Earth started coming on like Jackie Chan.
In case conditions ever became more dangerous inside than outside, the pod was equipped with an emergency exit: a thick, vault-size steel door that opened onto a tunnel leading to the pod's escape hatch up on the surface. Could I crawl through for a peek? I asked. Bob and Zoh thought about it for a second and said yes.
Zoh wrestled open the heavy door and I squirmed through a hole into the tunnel. It was dark and wet. I could smell raw dirt. There was an overpowering odor of mildew.
I closed my eyes and took a deep whiff. "Ahhhhhh," I sighed. Closure achieved. Whatever the future holds, for that one special moment, everything seemed right with the world.