The Catastrophic Record

Dr. Dennis Hartung, the renowned geologist, is covered head-to-toe in mud. He hacks away at the riverbank with his shovel. What an extraordinary man! To us, the documentary crew filming him, this is just a typical, muddy riverbank with a bunch of old, dead trees looming above it. Yet, to Dr. Hartung, it is a record. His expertise in geology allows him to read the ancient history of the land like an airport-bookstore paperback.

“Something terrible happened here,” Dr. Hartung shouts.

He will not say what the terrible thing was. Not yet. He wants to be sure of his findings before he goes blurting stuff out. He is a scientist, and this is one of the protocols of science: not blurting stuff out before you are sure. So we will wait here, on the other side of the river, while he hacks away.

Dr. Hartung’s canoe, moored in the calm river, drifts in and out of the frame. Steely, low-hanging clouds portend winter. The mud’s damp chill seeps through the soles of our sneakers. We weren’t prepared for these conditions. We only knew that there would be a river.

It is also extraordinary that a grown man would end up with a job that requires him to spend his days knee-deep in mud. We could certainly forgive Dr. Hartung if he were to pause right now and marvel at the confluence of events that brought him to this very spot, on this very day, to be filmed in mud for a documentary on public television. However, he is not marveling now. He is immersed in his task, figuratively as well as literally.

We must say, we envy his immersion, as it’s so difficult to achieve with any frequency in our own lives. We don’t know about you, but we are constantly observing and second-guessing ourselves as we go about our daily routines: Here I am getting in the car. Here I am sending an email. Here I am watching a grown man hack away at mud. Shouldn’t I be doing something more important with my limited time on earth?

Of course, Dr. Hartung has a different sense of time than the rest of us, what with his being a geologist. He thinks in terms of millions, even billions of years. Does it ever bother him that his own life is not even a hiccup, an eye-blink, a gnat in the history of this planet, not to mention the universe as a whole?

We ask him, shouting across the river, but he does not answer.

Dr. Hartung wears a pair of overall-style waders and heavy gloves. But there is one aspect of his outfit that is puzzling. Under the waders he is wearing a sweater—a rather nice, green, cable-knit sweater that looks handmade. Already the sleeves are spattered with mud and the cuffs caked with it. Why, with plenty of other options available to him, has he chosen to ruin this perfectly good sweater?

Well, as it happens, we have done a little digging of our own. We have learned that the sweater was a gift from Dr. Hartung’s second wife. That is, a gift of sorts.

The marriage lasted less than two years. In fact, well before the wedding, Dr. Hartung knew that it would not endure. But as is obvious from his obsessive digging, Dr. Hartung insists on seeing everything through to its end—even if that end is foretold, and bad.


Chelsea was younger than Dr. Hartung by nearly sixteen years. She was a waitress in a bar he had been frequenting, alone and beginning to despair of ever finding lasting love. She had a spray of freckles across her nose and a girlish energy in her movements. Dr. Hartung admired her way of saying “Um!” at the beginning of her sentences, which was the opposite of uncertain: Attention!, was the sense of it. We probably don’t have to tell you that she had no interest in geology. “Um! Why would anyone want to look at a bunch of rocks?” she said, but appended a charming laugh to this dismissal, making Dr. Hartung feel not insulted, but special. In her world, he alone had the intellect to see the importance of that “bunch of rocks.” In bed she was fearless and thorough. Afterward, Dr. Hartung felt like he had been filleted by a master chef.

But the central problem in their relationship surfaced early: Chelsea was inordinately close to her brother, who was one year older than she was. Try as he did, Dr. Hartung could find nothing in Travis’s personality, needs, or accomplishments that warranted such devotion. Travis worked in a warehouse, drank beer, and hunted with his buddies on weekends. But Chelsea thought he was the be-all, end-all. No conversation was complete without a reference to Travis: Travis thinks I should cut my hair; Travis went to Tahoe last year and hated it; Travis says we should use lava rocks (lava rocks!) for the front yard. If Travis contracted so much as a sniffle, she rushed to his apartment to place cool cloths on his forehead. At more than one family gathering, she actually sat in Travis’s lap. She knitted the sweater we were just talking about for Travis, but it had turned out a little too small for him. At the time, Dr. Hartung derived some satisfaction from realizing that Chelsea did not know her brother’s exact dimensions.

On a few occasions, Dr. Hartung mentioned her closeness with Travis to her, broaching the topic with the utmost delicacy. But invariably, Chelsea interpreted his remarks as an attack on Travis himself, and defended him with a furor that silenced the mild-mannered geologist. It was not that Dr. Hartung suspected anything untoward was going on between the two of them. The issue was that Chelsea had not acquired an adult perspective on relationships. She did not understand that as certain ones develop, certain other ones must recede.

So it did not surprise Dr. Hartung when Chelsea came to him one day last winter and said, of their marriage, “Um! This is stupid.” He agreed, and the divorce was mostly amicable. However, he thought later, he would not have used the word “stupid.” The word he would have chosen was “pitiable.” And so he wears Chelsea’s, or, rather, Travis’s sweater today as both a scourge and a reminder that he must never again let loneliness guide his decisions.


It’s cold, and we have run out of coffee. Dr. Hartung has evidently forgotten about us entirely. The gouge in the riverbank is now large enough to contain a man’s body. We cough. We stamp our feet in the mud.

Dr. Hartung ignores us.


To describe the unraveling of Dr. Hartung’s first marriage, we would probably not use the word “pitiable,” but something more like “devastating.”

He and Gloria met in graduate school, and fell together almost as if the ground beneath them had collapsed. Theirs was a merging of minds in the best sense. She was a physicist, and her work on fluid dynamics inspired and informed his early work on alluvial fans. In their years together, they co-authored over a dozen papers, without any of the rancor that attends most other husband-and-wife projects. Small and intense, Gloria spoke rarely—at least compared to her voluble successor—but Dr. Hartung savored every word. She’d say “I love you, Dennis,” at the most unexpected times—whispering it while they sat through some boring paper at a conference, or as he pretended not to be worried when the plane they were on hit turbulence.

Nearly ten years into their marriage, Dr. Hartung awoke in the middle of the night from a horrifying dream. He lay for a few minutes recovering—he never did remember what the dream was—and then turned to gaze upon his sleeping wife. The display on her clock radio tinted her face blue. A tendril of dark hair crossed her throat. Dr. Hartung immediately thought she’d been killed by an intruder while he slept.

He shook her by the shoulders: “Gloria!”

“What is it?” she gasped. “Are you OK?”

Dr. Hartung collapsed onto her chest. “I thought you were dead,” he said.

Gloria stroked his prematurely thinning hair. “It’s all right,” she said. “I’m right here. I’m fine.”

But from that night on, Dr. Hartung was a different man. He now knew that he could not live without Gloria, and yet she was destined to die someday, possibly when he was thousands of miles away on some research expedition. His one hope was that he would die before her, but he repressed that wish as intolerably selfish. No, his mission now must be to protect her from every conceivable danger, at all costs.

He could not concentrate on his work, as even the slightest consideration of (say) plate techtonics immediately conjured visions of Gloria motionless under the rubble of her collapsed office building. He took a leave of absence and began to accompany Gloria everywhere—to conferences, to classes, to her lab, to dinners with her colleagues. He waited for her just outside the door of women’s restrooms, more than once prompting a call to building security. Unable to sleep, he took to pacing the hallway just outside their bedroom. Just as Gloria fell into a troubled doze, he rushed in and woke her.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I had to check.”

“Dennis, you need to get help,” said Gloria. “This can’t go on.”

But on it went, month after month. Dr. Hartung refused to consult a therapist. Not because he feared any stigma—most of his fellow geologists saw therapists and/or took medication—but because he felt his behavior was entirely justified. It was right to be terrified of losing Gloria. It was wrong not to think of it at every moment, not to do everything in his power to prevent it. His was not only the duty, but the sacred calling, of the true lover.

After nearly a year of this, Gloria, exhausted and miserable, still begging him to get help, left him.

Amazingly, Dr. Hartung did not die. He felt awful, of course—bereft and guilty and furious at his own lack of self-control. He dragged around the house for months, barely able to lift a spoon to his mouth. But eventually, he began to feel better, although his recovery saddened him: it seemed a shame that he could live without Gloria. Yet it also seemed he could not live with her, or anyone. Love was a magnificent mountain, and the deepest, darkest chasm, both together. Perhaps the solution was to involve himself with people he didn’t care about so much. Except he later found, with Chelsea, that he did end up caring, no matter what, because the human heart is ever and always a magnet for sorrow.


Dr. Hartung is beckoning to us. He has found something. Thank God. Our cameraman can barely move his fingers. But we can’t just walk through the water in our jeans and sneakers. We point to the river and shrug. Dr. Hartung wades out to his canoe and walks it over to us. We pile in, and he tows us across, like children.

Dr. Hartung turns the object in his hands as the camera zooms in. “It’s a tool,” he explains. “For cleaning fish. That means an Indian village was here, I’d say about four hundred years ago.”

To us, the “tool” looks like a flat stone with maybe a sharp edge on one side. But we are ecstatic. An Indian village! An ending to our story, almost!

What happened to the village?

“I can’t say just yet,” says Dr. Hartung. He resumes digging.

Christ. We know science takes time and all, but we weren’t expecting geologic time.

Well, we could grab Dr. Hartung’s canoe and paddle it on down the river. It’s a pretty river, with lots of pretty flora and fauna. We could film them, and interview the campers we suspect are just a quarter mile downstream (there’s a little wisp of smoke, like a campfire). What drew these campers to the river? Is this their first time here, or do their family and the river go way back? We could make a documentary about the river! Tales of the River, we will call it! Dr. Hartung’s could just be one of many!

“Come here,” Dr. Hartung says, beckoning again. His breath puffs out in little clouds.

We huddle around him, shivering.

“It’s exactly as I suspected,” he says, pointing to the riverbank. “You see this layer of lighter mud? And you see this fissure underneath?”

We see the fissure.

“There was a tsunami. It wiped out the whole village and it’s what killed those trees up there.” Dr. Hartung rakes the air with his gloved hand. “The village was on the other side of the trees, on the ocean. The wave must have been huge to make it this far inland.

“Imagine,” Dr. Hartung says. “First the sea pulls way back from the shore. This exposes hundreds of fish, flopping on the ocean floor. The Indians hurry out to collect them in baskets. They must think their gods are smiling on them. What a bounty!

“They hear it before they see it, roaring like a forest fire. It comes at them at sixty miles an hour. A wall of water, a hundred fifty feet high, blots out the sky. The last thing they see is something they cannot begin to comprehend—the sea, which has nourished them for centuries, is now this wall.

“The village was completely devastated. The people were completely swept away.”

Dr. Hartung’s eyes crinkle when he smiles. He is happy. His hypothesis has been confirmed, and we are happy for him. And, finally, finally we can go home.

Except now we wish we’d left the dead to themselves, softly blanketed in earth and time.


Ann Gelder's first novel, *Bigfoot and the Baby*, a satire of faith and consumerism, was published by Bona Fide Books in 2014. Her work has appeared in *Alaska Quarterly Review*, *Flavorwire*, *Crazyhorse*, *Tin House*, *The Los Angeles Review of Books*, *The Millions*, *The Rumpus*, and elsewhere. She blogs at Swerve and Vanish and tweets @AnnBGelder.


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