time I saw the stonecutters
slice into Ramses’ legs in that light,
I flinched, as if I had almost expected the stone to bleed.
are always consequences. History is the practice of catching
up with and documenting the especially unanticipated consequences.
Consequent to the completion of Egypt’s famous Aswan Dam
in 1970, 120,000 Nubians, who for thousands of years lived along
the banks of the Nile in what is now Upper Egypt and Sudan,
were displaced. The Egyptian government arranged for the relocation
of their homes, shops, monuments, places of worship and cemeteries.
Michaels makes this event the subject of her novel, The
Winter Vault, published by McClelland &
year, for thousands of years, swollen with the waters from Ethiopia,
the Nile offered her intense fertility to the desert.
But now this ancient cycle would abruptly end. And end, too,
the centuries-old celebrations of that inundation, inseparable
from gods and civilization and rebirth, an abundance that gave
meaning to the very rotation of the earth.
would be a massive reservoir reshaping the land – a lake
“as large as England” – so large that the
estimated rate of evaporation would prove a serious misjudgment.
Enough water would disappear into the air to have made fertile
for farming more than two million acres. The precious, nutrient-saturated
silt that had given the soil of the floodplain such richness
would be lost entirely, pinioned, useless behind the dam. Instead,
international corporations would introduce chemical fertilizers,
and the cost of these fertilizers – lacking all the trace
elements of the silt – would soon escalate to billions
of dollars every year. Without the sediment from the floods,
farmland downriver would soon erode. The rice fields of the
Delta would be parched by salt water. Throughout the Mediterranean
basin, fish populations – dependent on silicates and phosphates
from the annual flooding – would decrease, then die out
completely. The exploding insect population would result in
an exploding scorpion population. The new ecology would attract
destructive micro-organisms that would thrive in the new moist
environment, and introduce new pests – the cotton-leaf
worm and the great moth and the cornstalk-borer – that
would devastate the very crops the dam was meant to make possible.
Insects would spread infectious – and excruciating –
diseases in plague proportions, such as bilharzia, an illness
caused by a parasite laying its eggs in almost any organ of
the human body – including liver, lungs, and brain.
silt, like the river water, also had its own unique intimacies,
a chemical wisdom that had been refining itself for millennia
. . . the Nile silt was like flesh, it held not only a history
but a heredity. Like a species, it would never again be known
on this earth.
. The very staples that the Nubians had so expertly cultivated
would now have to be bought at market -- lentils, beans, chickpeas,
lupins and peas . . . The Nubians, who had given up everything
for the hydro-electric power provided by the new dam, were themselves
without electricty . . . had to wait seven years to turn on
The Winter Vault, Anne Michaels, pages 33-34, 113-114.
Drowning in Plastic