When the system was designed—redesigned, really—in the nineteen-fifties, the water level in the canals could be maintained at least a foot and a half higher than the level of high tide. Thanks to this difference in elevation, water flowed off the land toward the sea. At the same time, there was enough freshwater pushing out to prevent saltwater from pressing in. Owing in part to sea-level rise, the gap has since been cut by about eight inches, and the region faces the discomfiting prospect that, during storms, it will be inundated not just along the coasts but also inland, by rainwater that has nowhere to go. Researchers at Florida Atlantic University have found that with just six more inches of sea-level rise the district will lose almost half its flood-control capacity. Meanwhile, what’s known as the saltwater front is advancing. One city—Hallandale Beach, just north of Miami—has already had to close most of its drinking wells, because the water is too salty. Many other cities are worried that they will have to do the same.
Jayantha Obeysekera is the Water Management District’s chief modeller, which means it’s his job to foresee South Florida’s future. One morning, I caught up with him at a flood-control structure known as S13, which sits on a canal known as C11, west of Fort Lauderdale.
Even bare, bleached old elephant bones will stop a group if they have not seen them before. It is so predictable that filmmakers have been able to get shots of elephants inspecting skeletons by bringing the bones from one place and putting them in a new spot near an elephant pathway or a water hole. Inevitably the living elephants will feel and move the bones around, sometimes picking them up and carrying them away for quite some distance before dropping them. It is a haunting and touching sight and I have no idea why they do it.
For many years its limits were blurred by a dense undergrowth of squatters’ shacks that spread outward from it. As the first step towards clearing the whole site, these were swept away and replaced on two of the City’s four sides by a dusty park where the landscaping is only now taking hold. The City now reared up abruptly from the bare ground, 10, 12 and in some places as many as 14 storeys high, and there was no mistaking it: six-and-a-half acres of solid building, home to some 33,000 people, not the largest, perhaps, but certainly one of the densest urban slums in the world. It was also, arguably, the closest thing to a truly self-regulating, self-sufficient, self-determining modern city that has ever been built.
“Hak Nam, City of Darkness, the old Walled City of Kowloon has come down. Many people in Hong Kong, both Chinese and foreign, for whom it was never more than a disgusting rumour, believed it went years ago. Not so. Almost to the end it retained its seedy magnificence. It had never looked more impudent, more desperate, more evil to some eyes, more weirdly beautiful to others.
A summary history details the repeated thwarting of British attempts to impose state control on the 0.01 square-mile home to 35,000 people. In pragmatic accommodation to reality, electricity, postal and water service were all provided, despite the lack of formal legal jurisdiction. This was a space that existed in a permanent state of ambiguity and yet had to deal with the reality of two tonnes of garbage a day, all of which adds richness to interesting vignettes by, among many others, a postman and a China Light & Power engineer who discuss the daily reality of working in the Walled City.
Sure that Dinesh Choudhury, the marksman, is a stone-cold mercenary insensate to the dignity of elephants, probably framing some meek hapless creature for crimes it could not really have committed, Hall pompously lectures him about them — only to have his pretensions flattened by this man who loves and understands the (elephants) far better than Hall knew was even possible, and who inducts him into a whole universe of deep feeling and sly intelligence and indeed, moral agency.
Now this is extremely strange. It is a fact, that in 1864, Emily Dickinson wrote this verse; and it is a verse which a hundred or more 19th-century versifiers could have written. In its undistinguished language, as in its conventional sentiment, it is remarkably untypical of the poet. Had she chosen to write many poems like this one we would have no “problem” of non-publication, of editing, of estimating the poet at her true worth. Certainly the sentiment—a contented and unambiguous altruism—is one which even today might in some quarters be accepted as fitting from a female versifier—a kind of Girl Scout prayer. But we are talking about the woman who wrote:
The water on the street was so deep that it was, indeed, hard to tell where it was coming from. Hammer explained that it was emerging from the storm drains. Instead of funnelling rainwater into the bay, as they were designed to do, the drains were directing water from the bay onto the streets. “The infrastructure we have is built for a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said.
Having tracked the deep into the northern forest, one night they encounter a legless man who turns out to be his former owner. Many years ago, the man purchased him on a whim, having a lifelong affection for the creatures but not knowing anything about them. Further, being often away from home on business, the owner heedlessly left him in the care of a vicious scamp, returning one day to find him tied up to a tree, malnourished, and scarred from frequent beatings. The keeper (who was nowhere to be found until he was discovered locked up for fighting in a bar) was immediately fired, and a kinder one employed to nurse the back to health. But a few weeks later, the old keeper showed up again, belligerently drunk, demanding money from the owner and taunting the elephant. At the sight of his tormenter, the elephant broke out of his restraints and smashed the keeper to the ground repeatedly, crushing the owner’s legs on the way out.
Like humans, most traumatized elephants do not become violent, but just absorb their hurts in confusion and sadness and respond to them in other familiar ways. In (1962), the zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson recounts the story of an elephant named Sadie, who was practicing but failing to learn a circus routine. Finally she gave up and bolted out of the training ring, causing her to be chastised (not cruelly, he stresses) “for her supposed stupidity and for trying to run away.” At this, she dropped to the ground and dumbfounded her trainers by bawling like a human being. “She lay there on her side, the tears streaming down her face and sobs racking her huge body.”
This moral question is at the heart of Tarquin Hall’s (2000), a real-life chronicle of the hunt for a rogue bull elephant that reads almost like a detective novel where nothing is as it first appears. The victim is a drunk man plucked from out of his house and impaled in his own yard. The suspect is a large “tusker” who seems to have sought him out in the village for that express purpose, with no provocation, and has done this to thirty-seven previous victims. A marksman is contracted by the Indian government to shoot the bull and put a stop to this behavior. Hall, a journalist based in New Delhi, believes something fishy is up and finagles his way into the search party so he can expose it.