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NATURE SHAKES ILLUSION OF CONTROL

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On a recent plane trip from Indianapolis to San Francisco, the captain of our flight told us we would alter our course to give wide berth to two huge thunderstorms. One lay 80 miles ahead on our left, he said, the other 120 miles on the right.

I pressed my face against the plastic window of the plane and peered out at the impossibly broad and deep column of clouds that loomed just ahead. Squandered though the word has been, "awesome" best describes what I saw.Our Boeing 737 was more than 30,000 feet above Earth's surface. Yet thunderstorm No. 1 - county-size tufts of white, gray and black clouds - reached down as far as the eye could see and appeared to rise at least another 10,000 feet above our jet's altitude.

A thunderstorm bigger, by plenty, than Mount Everest.

How could anything suspended in space be that big?

Or that powerful? One system of thunderstorms can pack the energy of 10 atomic bombs. This one alone had cast hundreds of miles of land below into abject darkness.

For weeks, the rain had been falling on the towns and prairies of the Midwest. Already, we had flown over a brown ocean once known as the Missouri River.

The captain brought that to our attention, too. Even the homogenizing effect of the public address system could not mask his awe.

Nature truly out of control. Out of human control, that is. Nature itself does not do control. Nature just is.

Human beings, on the other hand, are into control in a big way - or at least the illusion of control.

Each day, we push and pull at minutiae - our work, our pleasure, the opinions of other people. And we allow ourselves to believe this is genuine control.

By doing so, we escape being paralyzed by the one thing we can't approach controlling: the fact of our mortality.

Imperfect as this system is, it works, even to the point of allowing us to delude ourselves about nature. With a straight face and lots of federal money, we attempt to "harness nature."

We build great dams and irrigation systems, design "earthquake-proof" buildings and fashion dream homes on the edge of the sea or the side of a canyon.

We dig canals and unite oceans, deepen river beds and create surfing waves amid desert sand dunes. We even poke holes in our own precious ozone.

Then nature calls time out for a reality check and goes about just being in a very large, violent manner. The ground wrenches, a volcano blows, a hurricane rips, a tornado crushes, a blizzard buries, a drought parches, a hundred thunderstorms inundate 8 million acres of cropland in seven states and transform sophisticated cities into pre-Industrial Age swamps.

The minutiae of our lives get cut down to size. The automobiles we go in debt to buy (and equip with burglar alarms) get swept downstream by a torrent that is 20 miles off its normal course. Clothes, furniture, home entertainment systems - homes themselves - are shredded by a wind that blows through in 45 seconds.

With water, wind, fire or geological spasm, nature wipes out the priceless trappings of our past and our best-laid plans for the future.

All that is left is now. Not the was or will be but nature's element, the is.

For a short time - a few days, weeks or months - we see the is, and despite fatigue, fear or pain, we live accordingly, in gratitude.

Then the rivers recede, the volcanoes cool, the winds blow out to sea and the ground beneath us calms. We rebuild or move. We begin to push and pull at the minutiae around us.

And once again, awake or asleep, we dream that we are in control. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service