A Delicate Balance

I did not expect a great blue heron to visit my neighborhood in northeast Atlanta. While on a walk, I rounded a corner, and she took off from the edge of a fallen tree, her huge wings gracefully lifting her rail-thin body. She may have been lost-or perhaps she had come with a message.

In the few months that I have lived in Atlanta, we have been ravaged by extremes. During the August week that I arrived, temperatures soared by mid-day up to 115 degrees. Walking, and even breathing, was ponderous outside in the suffocating heat. In other parts of the country, that heat wave claimed more than 800 lives.

October brought Hurricane Opal slamming into the city. Most of Atlanta woke the following morning surrounded by downed tree limbs and without electricity. Or worse-in some cases, whole trees had fallen into housetops. Business as usual ceased while the city went about the process of cleaning up.

Three months later the "Blizzard of '96" passed through. We got only two inches of snow, but it-and the ice that followed-were enough to shut down schools for a week and end Atlanta traffic gridlock for one brief moment in time.

Some people (especially children) headed for the parks to frolic in the white stuff. But many others lamented "I can't wait until summer," in the same tone of voice with which they had said "I can't wait until winter" when the temperature was over 100. Many complained of the grand inconvenience.

Three weeks after the blizzard, during another cold spell, I spoke with several homeless men in a parking lot. They were shrouded in blankets and huddled around a small radio, listening to the Super Bowl. In the weeks before, they had lost friends who had frozen to death on the streets. For them the storm had been more than inconvenience. Across the country it had claimed at least 100 lives.

In the days after last fall's hurricane, complaints about inconvenience also flew around, as electrical workers labored around the clock to restore power to the city. I may have been tempted to join the chorus, but I had been caught up short the morning after Opal roared through.

My housemates Susan and Elizabeth work with Bosnian refugees who have settled in the Atlanta area. We immediately phoned them to make sure they were all right. They laughed. They already had breakfast cooking over a charcoal fire on their back porch. They reminded us that before coming here, they had survived a brutal six-month winter under siege, without electricity or firewood. How easily we allow ourselves to forget what's happening on the other side of the world-or just down the street. We get so caught up in business as usual.

NO LESS THAN Newsweek magazine blames global warming for the recent spate of hurricanes, floods, and blizzards. A theory usually debated by political and scientific experts just made the cover of the mainstream press.

A map inside highlights global weather extremes in the past year: Argentina's worst drought in history; record rainfall in western Australia; a heat wave in the British Isles; Mexico City's first snowfall in two decades. Prolonged drought in West Africa and widespread flooding in the interior; monsoons in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal; unprecedented snowfall in northern Japan; record-breaking heat in Russia.

World Cup ski events were canceled in Austria due to lack of snow. In the U.S. Midwest, 1,011 tornadoes were reported. Eight tropical storms and 11 hurricanes made for the worst season in 60 years in the Caribbean. A 48-by-22-mile piece of the ice shelf fell off Antarctica (this, apparently, is not usual-or good).

This is all a bit frightening. I think of that great blue heron and wonder if she is an example of wildlife that has come to the city because habitats are being destroyed by overdevelopment. Or maybe she is just a fleeting reminder of the delicate balance in which we all live. Either way, we need to pay heed. Business as usual may be doing us in.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a Sojourners contributing editor, worked as a court advocate with survivors of domestic violence in western North Carolina. She is currently in the master's of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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