The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Tale of two cities: Then and Now

with 2 comments

Dear readers. I would like to place two contrasting stories before you in this post. Chronologically, they are almost two generations apart. There is a unifying theme in both stories. In both cases, “nature” was the taskmaster that issued a series of challenges to humankind. How did we fare? We’ll find out.

Story I: Floods in Australia.

I came upon one woman’s account of the aftermath of the recent floods in Brisbane in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Firstly, two days after the hatches were battened down in Brisbane, her family went shopping for essentials, only to find that the Supermarket had shut its doors. I quote the circumstances:

[…] sales assistants who seemed close to tears and a handful of angry men remonstrating with security guards. It later emerged that this Coles was one of almost 30 across Brisbane that had been temporarily closed after shelves were stripped, staff abused and fellow shoppers assaulted.

Why did that happen? Denise wryly puts it with journalistic flourish:

[…] if there’s one thing uglier than cars and furniture being tossed around in murky brown water, it’s the furious, spit-flecked faces of the affluent hungry.

Well, I never!

Sample eyewitness accounts:

  1. A push in the milk aisle and a shove near the bread racks, eventually led to fistfights of a ferocity that left the manager no option but to summon the police.
  2. Two women were fighting over a loaf of bread and were warned that if they didn’t desist, the shop would be shut, leaving people with naught!
  3. Her husband was charged for 1.2 kg for a handful of snow peas (last ones left)!

Adding to the unfolding farce was this observation: Unhappy men on mobile phones were clearly being instructed not to dare come home empty-handed. The author herself was not too perturbed though. She had, “Plan-B” in her own words:

I started counting chickens […] sixteen of them. […] we would have at least two weeks’ worth of roast dinners […] before we ran out of food entirely

What about the others that didn’t have their own backyard coop or vegetable patches? This article really made for shocking reading for me.

  1. I think it is a godsend that this kind of reporting has been allowed to reach the wider world. I suspect, Denise Cullen being a freelancer was unencumbered by syndication laws and so could send in any story.
  2. There’s no reason for the rest of us to cackle at the Aussies. This could happen anywhere. Indeed, I shudder by just imagining the kind of chaos a similar scenario would produce in an Indian supermarket.
  3. It simply echoes the vulnerability of “modern marvellous living” with its overdependence on fossil-fuels and a centralised logistic warehousing model!
  4. Lastly it also highlights a very uncomfortable, unpalatable fact: despite years of affluence and prosperity over the last 2-3 decades, the “thin veneer of civilisation” is actually grown thinner, rather than the other way around.

I would like to place my second story before you, and perhaps that juxtaposition should help you place that last remark in context.

Story 2: 1925 serum run to Nome

A massive Diphtheria epidermic was averted in the city of Nome, Alaska (and its surrounding communities), due to the selfless act of 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs who travelled for 1,085 km and relayed the vaccine from Nenana to Nome by dog sled in a record-breaking five and a half days. This heroic act is commemorated by the “Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race” to this day.  

The town of Nome had ~1500 residents when this incident happened. From November to July, the port on the southern shore was inaccessible and Nome was linked to the rest of the world during the winter through the Iditarod Trail. This said incident took place in Dec 1924–Jan 1925. Without the vaccine, the number of people threatened in the area of was about 10,000, and the expected mortality rate was close to 100 percent!

Here’s how nature decided to cooperate: The temperatures across the Interior were at 20-year lows due to a high pressure system from the Arctic, and in Fairbanks the temperature was −46 °C. A second system was burying the Panhandle, as 40 km/h winds swept snow into 3.05m drifts. In addition, there were limited daylight hours due to the polar night. Let’s sample what happened to man & dog during the relay:

  1. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm (−52 °C), first musher Shannon developed hypothermia and part of his face went black from frostbite. Resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs out of his nine and left with the remaining 6. The three dogs died shortly!
  2. Second musher Kallands took over and headed into the forest, and hot water had to be poured over Kallands’ hands to get them off the sled’s handlebar when he arrived!
  3. Musher Evans relied on his lead dogs when he passed through ice fog, but forgot to protect the groins of his two lead dogs with rabbit skins. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite and died!
  4. Gonangan saw a storm brewing and decided not to take the shortcut across the dangerous ice of the Sound. The whiteout conditions cleared as he reached the shore and the gale-force winds drove the wind chill to −57 °C.
  5. Leonhard Seppala and his team, with “Togo”, had travelled 146 km from Nome into the oncoming storm, met up with the runners, decided to brave the storm and once again set out across the exposed open ice of the Norton Sound. The wind chill with the gale force winds was −65 °C. In one day, they had travelled 135 km! After resting awhile, the team once again ran into the full face of the storm blowing at 105kph. More heroics followed!
  6. Olsen was blown off the trail, and suffered severe frostbite (−57 °C) in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs.
  7. In the final leg, “Balto” led the team through visibility so poor that Gunnar Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled! Winds were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the serum cylinder when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He acquired frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to feel for the cylinder.

The book where I first read about the exploits

Together, the teams covered the 1,085 km in 127 hours, incredibly done in extreme subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. Some dogs froze to death during the trip. A second relay was also organised, but acceding to political pressure it was decided that half will be delivered by plane. The plane failed to start when a broken radiator shutter caused the engine to overheat. The plane failed the next day as well, and that mission was scrapped! K

Thanks to the above altruistic heroism “The death toll is officially listed as either 5, 6, or 7, but Welch later estimated there were probably at least 100 additional cases among “the Eskimo camps outside the city.”

So, what made those dogs and owners risk life, limb and sanity to do this? Was it love of adventure? – these men were too hardboiled for that IMO! Was it a belief that a common bond of community is stronger than their individual selves? Was it the spirit of kinship for those suffering children (many of whom were not related to the runners themselves)?

I don’t know, but today when I read that story from Australia, I couldn’t help but remember these heroes at the same time. If the Nome people showed what resilience is, then the Brisbane story exposes Human brittleness! Keep the perspective, and thanks for reading.


  1. 2010–2011 Queensland floods
  2. Looking after No.1 in a time of deluge, Denise Cullen, 15/01/2011
  3. 1925 serum run to Nome 
  4. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
  5. Togo, Balto, Tribute website of the incident run by Earl J. Aversano   

Written by Surio

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Posted in Musings, Philosophy

2 Responses

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  1. Good to find your blog Surio and very interesting too.

    It is good to start hearing voices from folks across the world who are wrestling with the big questions about humans and the future.

    I’m in the UK and I don’t have a blog at the moment (sometimes I have posted on if you want to know more about how I have thought.) I enjoy reading other people’s blogs and seem to spend a lot of time working through the readjustment of my lifestyle to a “one planet” scale.

    Alice Y.

    - at ....

    • Hello Alice,
      Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad you like the blog. Small World – at least on the Net!
      Yes I have read some good things about the “Friends”. One of our gems, Laurie Baker, who I hold in deep regard was a well know Quaker!


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