How do you know if you were the last man on earth? He said.
I don’t guess you would know it. You’d just be it. [pg180]
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the end of the world begins with “A long shear of light and then a series of low percussions.” [p54] The details are vague and could be applicable to a number of post-apocalyptic scenarios, but maybe they are the words of a man who witnessed the after-effects of a super volcanic eruption. In The Road, a Nuclear Winter has descended on an unspecified region of America and everything is left covered in a thick layer of dust, the sunlight cannot penetrate the clouds and everyday is as grey as a cloudy winter’s morning. For the ‘Man’ and ‘Boy’, the greyness is perpetual and even time itself has fled from the world, “The clocks stopped at 1:17.” [pg54] Calendars are no longer kept, the Man doesn’t know how long they’ve been travelling the road and there are no seasons or lasting referents to our concept of modernity. Everything they touch is the same – broken or dead, the world smells of ash or the sour stink of rotting corpses and the food which they eat is tainted and rotting.
In May 2010, UK airspace was closed down because the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted sending a massive plume of ash soaring 5 miles above the country, where it was then trapped by the Jet stream and blown across Europe. For three days, air traffic over Europe came to a standstill and the effects were felt worldwide. A couple of weeks after the dust had settled, Channel 4 aired its documentary, The Volcano That Stopped Britain and the screening came a couple of weeks prior to John Hillcoat’s film version of The Road being released on DVD.
The scenes from The Volcano That Stopped Britain closely resemble Hillcoat’s imagined landscape of a post-apocalyptic America where all plant and animal life are virtually extinct and man ekes out an existence amongst the detritus. The series of ‘low percussions’ the Man reportedly hears in the opening pages of the novel sound very similar to the noises the Channel 4 documentary team capture as they record the pressure waves and volcanic bombs of Eyjafjallajökull – they sound exactly like the low rumble of thunder. Scenes from the documentary also show that the ground surrounding the volcano has been churned into a dark slate coloured, clay like substance, which is volcanic ash mixed together with melt water. Because Eyjafjallajökull erupted underneath an ice cap, a colossal amount of melt water cascaded down towards the sea, something which the documentary describes in Biblical proportions, claiming that at its peak, the melt water flow was equivalent to that of the Amazon.
With such powerful forces of nature at play, it becomes easier to understand how the apocalyptic scenarios presented in The Road may have occurred. Hypothetically, if a super volcano such as Yellowstone in the US were to erupt, power supplies and infrastructure within a short space of time become irreparably disrupted on a national scale. The Yellowstone volcano has a collapsed crater (45 x 30 miles) and it’s predicted that if an eruption were to occur the destruction from lava flow, explosions and ash would spread in a 1,000km/600mile radius. These proportions are God like in their stature and the eruption would be accompanied by tremors – something which threaten and disturb the Man and Boy on a number of occasions in the novel.
The volcanic eruption in Iceland was relatively small in comparison to other eruptions that have occurred in the past. It was the direction of the ash cloud itself which caused so much trouble as it headed over towards Europe. In June 1783 a 16 mile fissure tore along Iceland leaving 130 craters and billions of tonnes of lava erupted into the atmosphere. The ash was the most destructive element along with the gases that were released: sulphur dioxide and hydrogen fluoride. The mortality rate in Europe fell as there were widespread cattle deaths, crop failure, famine and poisoning. There are echoes of this in The Road – the Man and Boy have to protect their airways with cloth rags and there is a sense in the novel that the apocalypse, although sudden in its onset, had time to develop like a poison – one by one towns and cities fell, “By the roadside stood another sign that warned of death, the letters faded with the years.” [pg138]
At times, McCarthy’s novel evokes the mummified figures of Pompeii, victims of one of history’s most infamous volcanic eruptions at Mount Vesuvius, AD 79. The Man and Boy encounter charred bodies along the road, “The mummified dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shrivelled and drawn like latterday bog-folk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth.” [Pg 23.]
In The Road nobody comes to save the Man and Boy from their fate – America has been deserted and there are no The Day After Tomorrow style rescue missions. There are only a handful of references to the world outside America, the most telling being the shipwrecked vessel they find when they finally reach the sea. The Man swims onboard and discovers a brass sextant from London, an instrument used for navigation. When the Man discovers the sextant he realises that it is now useless – as useless as a calendar, because the world he once knew has disappeared like a dream or paradise lost. Does London still exist somewhere, or Tenerife for that matter where the vessel came from? Or are they just names etched on things which will weather and fade away forever.
Page references taken from The Road, Cormac McCarthy, (Picador; 2010; London,Basingstoke,Oxford)
The Channel 4 documentary is still available to watch on 4-OD The Volcano That Stopped Britain First Broadcast: Sunday 02 May 2010 Channel 4. http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-volcano-that-stopped-britain/4od#3074647