Nature hoists Europe back in time

Did you know that volcanic ash can bring down airplanes? I didn’t know. Nor did I know that there were volcanoes in Europe capable of spewing so much of the stuff into the atmosphere. But since last week, when airports in Britain — and then Germany, France, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia — began to shut down because of the ash emitted by Eyjafjallajokull, an unpronounceable volcano in Iceland, an army of experts has arisen to explain how floating lava dust damages engines.

Suddenly, almost everyone else seems to have become an expert, too. A friend with no previous interest in airline mechanics explained how two planes had already been affected. Another proffered a detailed description of the scientific process by which ash enters the engine, melts and turns back into stone — not what one wants inside airplane engines, really.

Others have become mystics. A British friend sees this as “judgment for the bad things we have done to the Earth.” Another thinks this is the beginning of many years of volcanic activity, thus heralding the end of civilization as we know it. Poles are unsurprisingly spooked by the coincidence of the ash cloud with the funerals of their president and other leaders who died in a strange and sad plane crash April 10. The Icelandic volcano prevented President Obama, among others, from attending President Lech Kaczynski’s funeral in Krakow on Sunday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also called to make her apologies, from Italy, whence the leader of the largest European economy was slowly making her way home across the Alps by car.

Of course I do understand why some want science to explain this odd event, and why others see the revenge of the volcano gods. I live in Poland and have spent the past several days at funerals and memorial services, listening to people trying to make sense out of a pointless airplane tragedy. This dust cloud isn’t that kind of tragedy. Nevertheless, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull could continue, apparently, into next week, next month or next year. That would turn the volcano into one of those natural events that, like earthquakes and tsunamis, change the economics and politics of an entire region. No wonder we feel the need to focus on the scientific and mystical significance of wind patterns, magma and dust.

Already, the past several days have revealed that we rely on air travel for far more things than we usually imagine. Things such as supermarkets — all that fresh fruit — and florists. Things such as symphony performances, professional soccer matches and international relations. In fact, “European integration,” as we have come to understand it, turns out to be utterly dependent on reliable air travel. Over the past two decades — almost without anyone really noticing — Europeans have begun, in at least this narrow sense, to live like Americans: They move abroad for work, live for a while in one country and then move to another, eventually going home or maybe not. They do business in countries where they don’t know the language, vacation in the Mediterranean and in the Baltic, visit their mothers on the weekends. Skeptics who thought the European single market would never function because there would be no labor mobility in Europe have been proved wrong.

But if, as some are predicting, European air travel were to become unreliable indefinitely all of this would change. The English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean would suddenly seem deeper, the European continent wider and longer — almost as if we had gone back in time a century.

Within living memory, things were very different. By coincidence, I recently visited Ellis Island with my son and was struck by the photographs on display. They showed the courage, fear and determination on the faces of people who had arrived in 1890 or 1900 from faraway places like Warsaw, knowing they might never return.

A few days later, we hopped a plane to Warsaw, thinking nothing of it. What a different world it would be if that kind of travel suddenly became impossible, or even unreliable, once again.

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