(illustration: Jonathon Rosen)

Big Weather: Floods

Dams break and walls of water sweep away cars like matchboxes. Time to call off the shaman.


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Everyman who watches TV sees houses, streets half under water…people in boats…sandbags passed from hand to hand…pigs rescued from roofs…a big rescue sweep in Costa Rica…snakes…deer…an adorable ocelot kitten perched on a branch…dim grainy pictures from China, Bangladesh, Africa…100,000, 200,000…after a certain point casualty figures are meaningless.

To take leave of Everyman, I was brought up in St. Louis, Missouri, where floods are commonplace. They were always extending and reinforcing the levee. I went to Los Alamos Ranch School, where they later made the atom bomb. I remember the rain dance down near Albuquerque. The medicine men in the kiva communing with rattlesnakes, which were released in four directions, and knowledgeable spectators running for their cars to get out past several arroyos before the downpour. The ceremony has a pretty good average. Even the most thick-skinned skeptic doesn't want to be caught with his car bogged down in red clay or his wife he calls Mother drowned in front of him.

Recall someone in the New York Times said, “No one seriously maintains that the antics of shamans could possibly affect the weather.”

Well, maybe not if they saw weather magic in action. I have.

Recall a terrible flash flood near Boulder, Colorado. Dam broke and a wall of water 35 feet high swept down this narrow canyon. Washing cars ahead of it like matchboxes. Casualties were in the hundreds. Still digging them out three months later.

I was in Mexico City when raw sewage… the black waters…las aguas negras…flooded out the downtown streets and enterprising peons made a few pesos carrying businessmen across the flooded streets on their backs. Briefcases and all.

Now a very personal flood story — right here in Lawrence, Kansas. The rain is coming down in sheets like you can't see six feet in front of you. The water is washing waist-deep in my front yard, another five minutes and it will flood out the basement and jam the furnace and the water heater with silt. What a bore.

So there in front of the neighbors I decide to make a reverse rain ceremony, and like all magicians I am figuring the odds. I have seen flash floods before. I know how quick they can come and how quick they can go. (Goddamn mud all over my cellar. I won't stand still for it.)

And now I can feel my POWER coming. Standing there on the porch it comes from the tips of my toes right up and out of my arms stretched over the surging flood and I say: LET THE WATERS RECEDE!

And the waters recede not a minute too soon.

Glub, glub, glub.

William S. Burroughs is the author of Junkie, Naked Lunch, Exterminator, and most recently My Education: A Book of Dreams, published by Viking.

From Outside Magazine, Mar 1995
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Lead illustration: Jonathon Rosen