The Greenhouse Ark
by Jane Downing

Dr. Nelson was concerned. Dr. Nelson was concerned about sea level rise. He looked out his office window in Canberra and worry creased his brow. The eucalypts shed their bark and gum leaves, the wattle flowered in startling yellow, and the sea was three hundred kilometres away. But rising.
Thankfully Dr. Nelson was not alone in his apprehension. The world joined him. The world's representatives had made grand and committed statements at Villach in 1985 and the United Nations Environmental Program was onto it. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide continued to spurt into the atmosphere, chlorofluorocarbons sprayed and squirted, but everyone now knew they caused the Greenhouse Effect, they knew the potential for harm: the global warming, the sea rising to inundate the earth. Well, perhaps not everyone. There was the small proportion who spoke of mad scientists and alarmists.

Dr. Nelson looked anything but the mad scientist as he went about his tireless, dedicated, boring task of monitoring tidal gauges and conducting geodetic surveys. Every fraction of a millimetre was recorded and pondered, every physiographic indication carefully considered in case it was merely due to normal erosion, subsidence or accretion. Back from the coast, three hundred kilometres away, and in his office, the computer was his trusted colleague, generating models and dire warnings. Until he was wrenched from this security to the frontlines.

If humankind let the ocean levels rise a metre in the coming fifty years, as many computers suggested they would, Bouj would no longer exist. Neither would the atoll of which it is a part; not Ainlinglaplap, or any of the atolls that joined as the sovereign nation of the Marshall Islands. Nor Kiribati, or Tuvalu, or the Maldives, all atoll nations. Atolls are by nature low lying. They rest less than that predicted metre above the current sea level, and they are surrounded by it on all sides: millions of square kilometres of tumultuous sea. Rising.

Along with a Queensland scientist, Dr. Nelson travelled north to establish accurate tidal gauges in the lonely, very alone, little island. UNEP teams dispersed in every direction in the scramble to get a representative worldwide picture of the threatened coastlines. Before they were gone.

With their equipment they flew to Fiji on a jumbo jet, a large aircraft by any standard. From there they flew through Tuvalu and Kiribati, last chance to see, and on to Majuro in a 748, a small aircraft with propellers. Majuro to Ailinglaplap was on a Dornier, an alarmingly very small aircraft. It rattled along the grass strip of Airiok and abandoned Dr. Nelson, Dr. Brown and a substantial investment in scientific hardware. The flight schedule only stretched to one contact a week. They would see it again on Friday, seven full days away.

Not yet at their destination, they donated a tank of petrol to the council pick-up and flew along the rutted dirt road from Airiok to Bouj. The driver was working on some yet to be substantiated aerodynamic premise that hitting half the ruts at twice the speed was less of a problem than all the ruts at a crawl. Dr. Brown—call me Pat—shouted across the loaded flat-bed that this was a most godforsaken island and one wondered why they stayed, other than it being so hard to get out of. Dr. Nelson would have liked to have said something equally disparaging about Pat's home State but was too mild-mannered. And too shaken. He contented himself with gazing upwards as many, many coconut crowns zipped past.

No-one quite expected them when they did get there. The inhabitants of Bouj were extremely welcoming and courteous none-the-less. They offered the Dispensary to sleep in—nobody was sick and no babies were scheduled for imminent arrival—but Pat decided to construct the state of the art UNEP issue tent and set up camp right on the end of the end of the island: the last point of land at the end of the world.

Sunset dithered about looking extraordinarily beautiful before settling beyond the horizon. The two scientists shut themselves into the tent with the mosquitos.

Dr. Nelson was loving it. The reef was alive, vibrant and growing. Further up the shore, palm trees hung precariously over eroded banks, clinging on with mere tendrils of roots. Everywhere he looked he saw the classic features of a coral atoll. He'd walked off a continent and into a textbook. The time flashed by amongst the instruments, satisfying moments with gauges and gadgets.

He left it to Pat to meet with the council, organize meals, and generally play public relations officer. It was recommended he attend the church service on Sunday as it was a unanimously religious community, but Pat went alone in the end. Pat always returned to the tip of the island with detailed and often crass stories of church deacons with sideburns to rival Elvis Presley's at his most fanciful, of a mayor wearing canary yellow bell bottom trousers, inspirational to constituents no doubt, and of beautiful women in equally bright but more comely clothing. Dr. Nelson let the words buzz around him like the mosquitos. He was there for sea level rise, not a cultural experience.

The week all but ended when a delegation of interested men in the community assembled under the coconut trees around the tent, to smoke, to ask questions in a languorous manner, to wait for answers they already knew to be incomprehensible. As a parting remark the mayor invited the scientists to a feast. His wife's cousin's husband had returned from Pohnpei with sakau. It would be a good night.

Pat said yes for both of them, then explained the implication and imperative of sakau. Dr. Nelson did go to the feast, though Dr. Brown's description of the pepper shrub root, that which is called kava south in Polynesia—his emphasis on the distance it had come, from another island, indeed another country—his savouring of the ritual of preparing the intoxicant—had little to do with his decision. It could have been on account of loneliness, only he never examined his feelings that deeply.

And it was a good night as promised. The squeals of a plump pig being slaughtered accompanied the walk from the end of the island to the chief of the atolls household. It was the only compound on the island with electricity. His diesel generator powered an essential T.V., video and stereo, the more mundane refrigerator and washing machine, and several lights. The chief was also the only man on the atoll with a remotely 1990's sense of fashion. The mayor was there in his yellow bell bottoms but the chief was resplendent in fluorescent pink Hawaiian shorts wafting around the knees. He greeted the guests effusively.

They sat on mats beside the banana grove, the stars above; and beneath the incessant squeal of the pig, at a deeper pitch, the rhythmic pounding of the root of the sakau plant could be heard, basalt pounder against flat stone. As light failed the first quantities of pounded mass, and a little water, was wrung through the bark of hibiscus, and caught in a half coconut cup.

As age-old tradition demanded, the chief of the area was passed the bowl of liquid first. He tossed it back. The visitors were honoured with the second and third. After each recipient it returned to the stone and hibiscus to be replenished, and so on down the order of traditional rank: the mayor (the chief's brother),the police officer (the chief's nephew), the health 'doctor' (the chief's cousin) and so it descended.

As the pig sizzled over a fire, Dr. Nelson and Pat listened to the oratory practised on them. The traveller told of his journey to Pohnpei, a high volcanic island in the Federated States of Micronesia, and how sakau came there before him. The Pohnpeian god Luk gave it to a woman as thanks for a noble deed. She was told it would make people intoxicated, and change their lives.

Dr. Nelson did not feel in any way intoxicated, but the roast pork and breadfruit were a welcome change to the rice and SPAM they'd been getting all week. The whole dusky scene turned mellow around him.

A young man, a deacon of the church, introduced himself by saying he really shouldn't be there: the church taught against alcohol and such: but this was tradition. Having thus justified himself he settled on the woven mat by Dr. Nelson, who justified himself by trying to explain the Greenhouse Effect. The English language comprehension on the island was remarkable, equal thanks to twenty five years of Peace Corps, and the lack of textbooks in the Marshallese language, but no-one seemed to understand Dr. Nelson, nor take him seriously.

"The gasses will block the heat of the earth from escaping into space, so the heat will increase, it will be warmer, hotter, the ice caps will melt...more water...the sea level will rise one metre...over three feet" he remembered to convert for him. "If this happens, then your islands will be GONE." He felt like he was preaching the end of the world, all calamity, fire and brimstone. Which is where the deacon took up the sermon.

"God in his holy words, recorded in the Bible and brought by the white missionaries, has also told us of the end of the world: ' came down from heaven and destroyed them'... 'The smoke from the flames that consume the great city goes up for ever and ever'." The man with Elvis' whiskers continued speaking of fire, pointing to the smouldering embers from whence the pig-pork had come. No doubt Revelations was the originator of the term 'fire and brimstone', Dr. Nelson pondered as the preaching lost him. "But the sea will not rise to cover us" the deacon concluded abruptly.

"Well my gauges say..."

"God made a Covenant with Noah, the reminder of which hangs in the sky with the rain. God's rainbow is here because he promised all of us 'never again will a flood destroy the earth' Genesis 9:11." The deacon considered the argument won, and moved away.

Dr. Nelson did vaguely recognize the quote from the days before he changed religion from Methodism to Science. He was given more sakau. And more. And he still did not feel intoxicated.

At some point in the early morning it came time to go. Dr. Nelson stood. Briefly. His head was perfectly clear but his legs were no longer connected to his body. Pat was laughing softly—hard noises jarred terribly—and a pick-up was found to deliver them home.

Dr. Nelson thought he would be asleep instantly but the din kept him awake. First the chick-chack of the geckos in the distance, then the waves, washing, surging, crashing close by, then the rain on the nylon canvas, drumming, thrumming, trampling above. It was as if the floodgates of the sky were opened. The rain fell, the earth steamed in the warmth, the ocean rose, the lagoon filled, boomed, overflowed, inch by inch, foot by foot, white crest on deep blue, it chopped and washed. Palm trees tottered and plunged into the surging swell, fear trod in growing pools. Chick-chack-creak-crack, a great tearing filled the air. The people of Bouj sheltered in their church as their fragile land was wrenched from the crusted ocean floor. Hallelujah! the cry went up as the islands weighed anchor and bobbed ark-like on the vast expanse of salted water. And so they sailed. They followed the rain when the catchments were dry; they left it behind when a celebration feast demanded glowing sunshine; they visited friends on once far isles for trade and joyous company; they praised the Lord.

Both doctors looked slightly under par on the return jolt to Airiok the next day. The aeroplane was only two hours late, and they boarded with a multitude of people, each with a child on his/her lap and everything but the cook-house wash-tub in the hold, and down the aisle. A normal flight the man in front assured them. The American pilot let off the brake and hurtled the engorged Dornier down the grass, screaming 'we're not going to get up, we're not going to get up.' An anxiety free Dr. Nelson had no doubt they would. Which they did.

Back in Canberra he filled out his trip report as specified and was sent a travel itinerary for the subsequent follow-up visits, to maintain the measuring station, to read and attend the gauges, to monitor the danger of sea level rise. The money was nice, the travel an escape from the humdrum, but Dr. Nelson was no longer concerned. Dr. Nelson couldn't see the point anymore.

The Greenhouse Ark. was first read on 2COFM, ABC Regional Radio, on July, 1996.
and subsequently published in Jane Downing's short story collection Searching for the Volcano, 4W Press, Wagga Wagga.

Bibliographic citation for this document

Downing, Jane (2000). The Christmas Choir.
URL: http:/

Jane Downing P.O.Box 3080, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) Jane Downing 2000
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Marshall Islands Kosrae CNMI Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Guam Wake Pohnpei FSM Federated States of Micronesia Yap Chuuk Marshall Islands politics public health environment culture WWII history literature XXX Cultural Heritage Management Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences CNMI German Colonial Sources Mariana Islands Historic Preservation Spennemann Dirk Spennemann Dirk HR Spennemann Murray Time Louis Becke Jane Downing Downing