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Sinkhole tragedy hits home

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The strange incident in Florida, in which a man was pulled from his bedroom into a sinkhole, continues to draw media attention, days after the occurence. It's hard to imagine the horror of what it must be like to get sucked into the earth without warning. And it's frightful to hear that the Florida landscape is a kind of "swiss cheese" topography riddled with sinkholes.


What is it that is so fascinating and abhorrent about this story?


As I watched further coverage of the event this morning, a ghostly image came to mind--a scene from the 1962 film, Premature Burial, of a man getting, well, buried alive--that look on Ray Milland's when he realizes his fate. The appalling idea has stuck in my head all these years. Other childhood nightmare scenarios stem from stories of kids and animals falling down wells, being pushed off cliffs or sinking in quicksand.


Is this Florida sinkhole story touching some kind of primitive, unconscious fear of getting swallowed up by the earth?


Those who work out on the land every day have some experience with the dark side of the landscape. Farmers regularly interact with the underground world--sometimes in unpleasant or unfortunate ways. They have to bury things. Their equipment gets stuck, sometimes such that it would seem the earth is going to eat the machine alive (see STUCK, a slideshow, here). Old bridges collapse under the weight of big, modern equipment. Drought produces ominous looking cracks in the ground that hint of an unstable soil.


Last spring, an Iowa farmer described to me the feeling of plunging his tractor into a deep ravine (photo, above). It was dark and rainy, hard to see. Then a fuse blew. “I went straight in. It just took me took to ground zero. I looked up, and the tires and were still rotating and the engine was still running," he said.


The destruction caused by tornados and floods is probably no less horrifying than getting sucked up by a sinkhole, but these acts of God would seem to live above the surface of our psyches. Falling into a sinkhole must feel like going straight to hell.


Photograph by Doug McGough