To Fall

by Natalie Johansen

Ecuador, said the sticker on my banana. Very few regions in the United States provide weather conducive to banana growing, due to the fact that any temperature under twenty degrees is a death sentence for banana trees, so I’m not surprised that my banana traveled over 3,000 miles to arrive at a local grocery store in Provo, Utah, where I selected a bunch with perfect ripeness. My only connection to Ecuador is this piece of fruit; it’s a very superficial connection, but demonstrates my dependence on tropical regions for tropical fruit. I imagine how nice it would be to combine accommodating weather for tropical fruit with close proximity to family, university, and quality of life. Would it be that impossible? We send astronauts into orbit, split atoms, and communicate with people across the globe with the stroke of a key, but we can’t seem to find a convenient way to grow bananas in Utah. Greenhouses are always an option, yes, but to build a greenhouse lofty enough to house banana trees would be a tall order. Adam and Eve didn’t have to ship their bananas from Ecuador. The Garden of Eden provided them with a never-ending supply of any kind of fruit imaginable—bananas, mangoes, avocados, etc. So, I ask myself, with all the fruit available to the pair in the Garden of Eden, what was the fruit that provoked Eve’s fall? Many say it was an apple—I don’t buy that. With all the fruit in the world available in one Garden, why would you fall for an apple? Then again, with ready access to exotic fruits, maybe the wholesome simplicity of an apple would have been attractive. I have also considered the option that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a fruit unknown to us; maybe that’s the more probable answer. Either way, Eve fell with the first bite, Adam followed shortly after, and I buy my bananas shipped from Ecuador.

My musings about bananas and Eve and Eden and falling pinballed around my brain, resurfacing one afternoon in my Early American Literature class during a discussion of Charlotte Temple and the tradition of the “fallen woman” novel. Many early novels in both British and American literature followed this tradition, narrating the story of an innocent, sometimes headstrong young woman who falls in love, ignores the advice of parents or other guardians, and throws herself into the powers of a young man who is less interested in marriage than he is in . . . other things. Usually, a marriage doesn’t ever happen, and the young woman is morally lost and abandoned by the man. Pride and Prejudice could have been considered a fallen woman novel if Jane Austen had changed the female protagonist from Elizabeth to Lydia. The title would also be changed, of course, to something like Flirtation and Frills or Diary of a Teenage Hussy. I doubt Diary of a Teenage Hussy would have sold as well or endured as long as Pride and Prejudice, because I don’t know if I or anyone else could sit through three hundred pages of Lydia and Wickham melodrama.

Man fell as well, right behind Eve in line for mortal life, thus becoming as subject to sin as women are. David from the Bible, for example, started out as a humble boy who trusted in God enough to stand in front of a towering giant with a slingshot. Unfortunately, after he went from humble boy to righteous king, he made the mistake of spying on Bathsheba’s bath time, and consequently turned adulterer and murderer. David’s story, however tragic, doesn’t hold a candle to the story of Judas Iscariot. He walked with the Son of God, saw his miracles, and knew that he was the Savior, yet Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver—small price for a soul. I can’t comprehend his betrayal; it baffles me, and somehow I want to lessen his sin, believe that perhaps he didn’t know that Jesus was the Messiah, that he believed with the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus was a fraud, an imposter. But I can’t dismiss his death, the shame that drove him to the end of a rope. The horror of his fate after death is beyond my comprehension.

Of course, sin isn’t the only consequence of Adam and Eve’s fall to mortality. Humanity is susceptible to measles, meningitis, allergies, arthritis, colds, cancer, and scores of other diseases and disorders—anything and everything from sniffles to seizures. How did Eve feel the first time she caught a cold? The first time her body burned with fever? Did Eve feel the change immediately, with the first bite of the forbidden fruit? Did she understand what it meant? I wonder how she felt the first time she cut her finger or sliced her foot with a sharp rock—I can see her, watching the blood with fascination as it streams through the gash, then with amazement as it coagulates, clotting as the cells work to close the wound. As metaphorical became physical, falling meant bleeding.

And sometimes death.

***

On August 9, 2009, Nancy Maltez fell from Angels Landing.

Angels Landing is not for the acrophobic. Located in Zion National Park, Angels Landing is a five-mile hike, up and back, to the summit of one of the park’s highest peaks. The trailhead consists of a winding series of switchbacks leading up, up, up to a bare, imposing rock formation laced with chains anchored firmly into the mountainside. The chains make it possible for hikers to ascend to the peak, which provides an aerial view of the most stunning, almost unreal, sandstone canyons and peaks I have ever seen. Castled, imposing cliffs jut out of the ground, towering over and intimidating the surrounding landscape with their majestic display of warm-toned rock. Beyond that, the sagebrushed desert extends into the distant horizon.

Fifty-five-year-old Maltez stumbled from the top of Angels Landing on the north side while hiking with her husband and three children, falling from the vertical sandstone cliff to her death. News reports are brief: she fell at about 8:30 am, search-and-rescue recovered her body before noon, 1,000 feet below her last fatal footfall.

I’ve hiked Angels Landing a couple of times, making my way up the mountain and holding fast to the chains. After the first two miles of unceasing switchbacks and steady incline, I climbed the cliff face, glancing periodically at the drop-off: 800 feet down on one side, 1,200 feet down the other. Now, I look back and think it would have been so easy to fall. When I heard about Maltez’s death, I remembered every unsteady foothold, every loose rock, every potential disaster. I don’t have much daredevil in me—in fact, I have almost no daredevil in me—but there is something about reaching the peak, standing eye to eye with the high-flying fowls, windswept and enchanted with the view from the top of a mountain peak, and appreciating God’s painted canvas of rock. Something about all that makes the danger worth it. Still, the turn of an ankle or the dislodging of a loose rock underfoot could have marked my death. It all comes down to where your feet land.

Life is a series of trade-offs. You can hope that you made the right decision, found the safest path, picked the right foothold, but you never know when the ground under you will give and you will be falling, falling from Angels Landing with nothing to catch you before you hit bottom.

All this talk of falling from great heights makes me think of the mythological tragedy of Icarus and Daedalus. I see Daedalus in my mind, dragging his son from the sea and cradling him in his arms, hardened wax covering the motionless Icarus’s back, shoulders, and arms. Wings mangled, the wax and feathers molded together in one tangled mess encompassing father and son, weeping. Daedalus had warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, knowing the unforgiving heat would melt the waxen wings he so carefully molded. Ambitious and thoughtless, as young people are, Icarus soared where his father forbade; reality melted his wings and he fell into the sea, smacking the water with crisp, stinging clarity. Just as Icarus was a fallen man, Nancy Maltez is a fallen woman—fallen, that is, in a very literal sense. Their fall had nothing to do with disobeying God, and more to do with gravity.

Mankind has been subject to gravity since the beginning. “The beginning” is a little bit of a copout on my part, I suppose. Was gravity always present on Earth, or was it introduced at some point? Maybe Adam and Eve weren’t subject to gravity in Eden; maybe “the fall” signifies the moment when mankind could literally fall. Whether or not gravity was always with us is not the point, but it is fascinating to think about. The point is that man has always resisted gravity, resented its unyielding presence. We watch birds, envious of their ability to resist gravity without falling. We mimic birds’ wings and create airplanes to aid us in flying, using gravity to our advantage the way fowls do. We even invent people like Superman, who needs neither engine nor wings to soar through the air. Yet in the end, gravity always has the upper hand. Shoot a bird and it will fall like a rock. Any number of things can go wrong with an airplane—from a gas leak to a bomb to a storm cloud—and down it goes. Even Superman, who man invented, has a weakness. Superman plus kryptonite equals a man who is not so super, or at least not airborne. It seems that even in our imaginations, we cannot create something that can truly defy gravity. We crave the air but fear the fall.

It isn’t falling I fear, but the fierce impact of body and ground, like a speeding car smashing into a wall. The resounding thud echoes in my ears, and I hear the bones shattering like glass. A shuddering shock wave ripples through me as I imagine the impression of body on ground. Disappointment is like the impact after the fall. Hundreds of disappointments haunt us, from health problems to rejection letters to failed relationships. Speaking of failed relationships, I have an issue with the cliché phrase “falling in love.” Falling implies an inevitably painful impact, anywhere as painful as a skinned knee from tripping on a rock to a broken body from falling off a cliff. I suppose “falling in love” works as a description of failed relationships, though, because failure is the skinned knee or broken body, depending on how far the fall was. For me, most of the time falling in love is more like falling in infatuation, which might be a more accurate phrase than falling in love. Less catchy, but more realistic. Take my last relationship for example. Now that I’ve removed myself from the situation, I can see that by taking a close look at our incompatibilities I probably would have chosen to dodge the brief romance without regret. But let’s face it—we’re all more logical about relationships when we’re not in the middle of one. In the end, relationships that don’t end well are like the “falling” of “falling in love,” when you find yourself on the ground and, picking up your scraped knee and wounded pride, get back up and walk it off.

***

What does it even mean to fall? We use it as a metaphor for love and loss of virtue; we blame it for illness and sin, but in the end we don’t even understand the pull of gravity that ties us to the Earth we were born on. The fall of Adam and Eve seemed to only be a metaphorical fall, distancing mortality from God by introducing sin into the world. But maybe the world itself fell, landing in the Milky Way galaxy and becoming the third planet from the sun, the hand of gravity hovering over our heads like an ever-present overseer. It seems hard to imagine the Earth literally falling, but it satisfies some sort of curiosity. I question where God is, and how far away from Him we are, and how we ended up between Mars and Venus, and if the fall of Adam and Eve had anything to do with the placement of our planet in the myriad galaxies. Whether or not their fall was a literal fall doesn’t change that we are here, fallen like they were. When I think about all that, I realize how small the Earth really is compared to the endless galaxies in space. I close my eyes and think of everything outside Earth’s atmosphere, how God directs the planets and solar systems and galaxies together like one unfathomably gigantic orchestra, and how Earth plays such an itsy-bitsy role in the symphony. Humans, then, are infinitesimal, minute, trifling. We barely notice the things that go on outside our own little allotment of space, and it takes something falling to Earth, a bright flash and a fiery tail, to capture our attention. Still, these bright flashes spark curiosity, and humans send up satellites and space stations and try to photograph and record and find out something about what lies beyond. But how little we know. We think we are so important, our little struggle with life and gravity. We fall like Nancy Maltez and crash our airplanes and watch birds and shooting stars and somehow don’t realize how much there is going on outside of our planet, and how infinitesimal we really are compared to—everything else.

Yes, thinking about our role in the universe makes me feel small, but there’s a small part of me that still feels important. God cared enough about us to create this world for us. He allows us to experience births and marriages and deaths, events so monumental to us and yet microscopic in the fabric of time and space. We sit and watch falling stars, which are not really stars at all, and every once in a while, something hits home. And we wonder how our lives can be both paramount and miniscule, if and how God really knows us, and where he is, and how far we fell when Eve took the first bite of the mango, or peach, or whatever fruit it was. In ancient Mayan mythology, the character of “important tree” was played by the cacao tree, which is consequently where chocolate comes from. The Mayans used chocolate for medicinal and religious purposes, and then when explorers found out about the secret of chocolate, they spread it like a wild rumor across the world, taking humanity by storm. And the Eve in all of us women took ahold of chocolate and is still holding fast. We eat chocolate to break our falls from love and give it away as gifts to make each other feel special. So I guess we still use it for medicinal purposes.

Just as we eat chocolate, we watch for falling stars—even they fall victim to gravity’s pull. Falling stars are not really stars at all, which is a bit disillusioning to me. I mean, when you see a shooting star, it’s rather romantic to think that you’re actually witnessing the death of a star, whose last dying breath left a fiery flash on your corneas. A falling star is just a meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere, creating a stream of light visible against the dark canvas of night. Meteors are nothing more than space rocks, kicking around and idly orbiting the sun. When meteors cross the threshold into our atmosphere, frictional heat causes the visible trail of fire, and the meteor is usually burned up on the way down. The meteors that survive the trip and actually hit the ground are called meteorites. Superman himself fell to Earth cradled inside a meteorite, miraculously surviving gravity’s fury as the meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere. That was his first encounter with Earth’s gravity, but being nonhuman and entirely fictional, he survived the trip.

A few years back, my friend Allison and I were lying on the trampoline in my parents’ backyard watching a meteor shower. The conversation ebbed and flowed as we watched the meteors fall, leaping gracefully across the sky like a ballerina performing a grand jeté. The meteor shower eventually died down and we began to drift off, still talking, until a bright falling star—the brightest one I’ve ever seen—shot across the sky close to the western horizon. Usually falling stars burn out in less than a second, but this one seemed to linger for several seconds, and after the initial gasp of surprise, it left us speechless and wondering if somewhere a large chunk of rock was hurled like a curveball into the waiting ground. It was like God was playing baseball, and this was the foul ball, the one that got away.

If falling meteors are like baseballs, it’s a good thing God doesn’t choose to play games with bigger balls very often. Scientists say that around 65.5 million years ago, a Herculean asteroid hit the Earth, killing ninety percent of life, including the dinosaurs. The impact apparently hurled debris like missiles into the sky, exploding and creating a burst of heat the equivalent of ten noonday suns. The devastation was supposedly so massive, so consuming, that sulfuric clouds blocked the sun’s rays for a decade.

***

But asteroids and Armageddon-esque destruction are a little too cosmic for me to think about all the time, and there’s a certain point where I have to lay aside my thoughts of Adam and Eve and the reverberating effects of their fall to return to the beautifully mundane occurrences of everyday life. So I’m content to savor my chocolate-covered banana from Ecuador and watch the meteors fall, miles away from me, and I’m content to keep them that far. There’s enough falling here on Earth to go around.