By David Templeton
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he takes naturalist/poet Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) to see the noisy volcano movie Dante’s Peak.
So here we are, three quarters of the way through Dante’s Peak, when I notice that my guest–author Diane Ackerman–is rigid with tension, fully absorbed by the fiery mayhem on screen. She is literally on the very edge of her seat. Suddenly aware of my gaze, she laughs.
“All right, it’s a ridiculous film,” she whispers, “but it is exciting.”
Dante’s Peak is about the rude demolition of a pretty little town, buried by its own tourist attraction: a big, scary volcano. The swashbuckling heroes (Linda Hamilton and Pierce Brosnan) get to do many brave things; they outrun a lava flow, dodge falling boulders, pilot a disintegrating boat over a lake of acid. It’s all very thrilling, very life-or-death, very glamorous.
“As someone who has been in real life-or-death situations, though,” Ackerman comments as we sit down to dinner after the show, “I can tell you that being on the verge of death loses its glamour very quickly.”
Ackerman’s globetrotting exploits–including one near-deadly mishap atop a real volcano–have been chronicled in a number of best-selling books, most notably A Natural History of the Senses, and The Moon by Whale Light.
In her newest book, A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis, Ackerman describes adventures of a more intimate kind, detailing her experiences as a crisis-line counselor. Alternating between descriptions of heartbreaking late-night phone calls and Ackerman’s own observations on crisis and survival, this surprisingly moving work is notable for its compelling sense of compassion and the sharpness of its many insights. Ackerman’s lushly descriptive prose–she is also an accomplished poet–only contributes to her public image as a daring adventuress braving the world with all senses wide open.
“I’m not really that brave,” she laughs, “though I understand that there are some people who do need to test the edges of their mortality, to come close to death in order to feel alive. I love life too much to want to risk it. But I try not to let fear stand between me and knowledge.”
Case in point: her volcano.
When asked to describe the experience, she sets down her fork and says, “Fortunately, I did not think–even for a fleeting second–of my volcano while I was watching this movie.” She pauses briefly, then tells the story.
“It was on the very remote Japanese island of Torishima, 600 kilometers south of Tokyo, where the short-tailed albatross nests. The albatross are endangered, and I wanted to see them. The entire island is an active volcano.
“Once you manage to land there, you first have to climb 10 stories of rock to get to the base camp. Then you have to hike across the volcano. The ground was hot under foot, steaming. The soles of my shoes were warm. There were dancing vapors and djinns everyplace. Once I got across that exhaling part of the volcano, I came to a castle of rock. In order to see the birds I had to rope-climb a 400-foot cliff.
“Well, I held onto the rope,” she explains, “but I swung open partway down and came back hard against the rocks, seriously breaking three ribs. It was very difficult to climb after that, difficult to breathe, hard to get off the island.” Smiling, she adds, “But I did see the birds.
“You know, in the beginning, when you set out on these wonderful expeditions,” she continues, “you don’t appreciate how fragile life is, don’t know what you can get away with and what you can’t get away with in the wild. But you learn. You do become more careful.” She smiles, shakes the memory away, and resumes her meal.
“I should say that even during the crisis-line work–maybe especially–there are times when I am afraid,” she says. “When you feel that you are holding on to somebody’s life with the tips of your fingers–just through sound. Of course you’re afraid. It’s terrifying. And it’s exhilarating when you feel that you may have helped. One of the real discoveries that I’ve made over the last few years is that there are armies of the day and armies of the night in cities all across America, of big-hearted people who feel a calling to help perfect strangers who are in trouble. That human beings can rise to that level of altruism is heartening.
“It’s intriguing to me that when you study nature you learn that nature neither gives nor expects mercy. But human beings really do hold ourselves accountable in a way that other animals don’t.
“We really are compassionate beasts, resplendent beasts,” Ackerman says, almost singing the words. “Of all the creatures on Earth that I have seen, humans are by far my favorite.”
Web exclusive to the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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