Noah’s Problem

It rained last winter. A lot. It rained for 35 straight days. Then there was a sunny day. Then it rained for 15 more.

Storm drains were flooded. Gutters were stuffed up. Streams overflowed their banks. Salmon swam on highways. Cows waded through puddles-turned-swamp like ducks. Ducks, for their own part, didn’t want anything to do with it, and nestled under whatever overhangs they could find. Horses weren’t allowed out of barns. I almost broke out a 20-year-old raincoat that has been gathering dust in the hallway closet, dating from the time before I lived in the Pacific Northwest, but, no, it stayed put, refusing to embarrass me for whatever weight I’ve put on since then.

I heard more Noah jokes than I can ever remember. Folks who would have nothing to do with organized religion of any kind prattled on about arks. There were cartoons in the newspaper. Politicians began speeches by thanking people for floating in to hear them, and people asked how many quarters were required for arks at parking meters.

As a child, I loved the story of Noah’s Ark, as did many of my friends. At some point, as I’m sure many of you with seven-, eight-, or nine-year-olds have become well aware, the story provokes a rain of questions, the kind for which you are not equipped with pat answers. In other words, it’s the best kind of story.

"Mom, were there dinosaurs on the ark?"

"Joey, as far as I know, there weren’t any brontosauruses."

"Oh, Mom. Of course there weren’t any brontosauri. You know that brontosaurus wasn’t a real dinosaur, right? You must mean brachiosaurus."

"Mom, with all those animals on the ark and it raining for 40 days and 40 nights, what did they do when they had to go to the bathroom?"

"Oh, Timmie, if God could make it rain for 40 days and 40 nights, I’m sure God could arrange it so that nobody had to go."

"Mom, if only two of every animal came off the ark, what did they do to prevent inbreeding?"

And so forth. Some questions are not really meant to be answered.

At a certain point in our growing up, I believe we all come to realize one way or another that life itself is an open-ended question. Sometimes things just aren’t that simple and we learn to appreciate that there can be as much beauty and wonder in the new-found complexity of the universe as in its simplicity. This is an important piece of learning. We grow to expect the unexpected. We take a deep breath and wade into the water.

Like ducks. Like the cows last winter.

Noah looked out the window and knew he had a problem.

The ark had taken him a hundred years to build. Three hundred cubits long, 50 cubits wide, bigger than a football field, and three stories high. Ribs of cypress, just as the blueprints specified. Reed roof. No one had ever seen anything even remotely like it. By the time he finished, the forest by the side of the barely running stream was a grassy field, the reeds were all gone, and the Earth was flat.

His neighbors (what was left of them) occasionally came by, shaking their heads. What was this about a flood? There wasn’t even a reasonably sized lake within 200 miles. And who had ever seen anything so humongous? How could anyone possibly believe it was going to float? And who could presume they were ever going to get the opportunity to find out?

Noah slept on the ark that night. It was the first night it was finished. He knew the ark was supposed to contain two of every kind of animal on Earth, one male, one female, but he had no idea how he was supposed to gather them up. He slept that night without dreams, amidst this cavernous empty expanse, the night marked by an eerie and unusual silence.

He awoke early the next morning to the most awful roar he had ever heard in his life. He limped over to the window, his legs and arms still sore from a hundred years of carrying, hammering, sawing, plaiting of reeds for the roof, and spreading pitch on the ark’s bottom and sides, all without access to a single power tool.

Yes, now he knew he had a problem. As he looked out the window, there were animals covering the field, miles of animals, as far as his eye could see or his ear could hear, if he could manage to hear anything at all. There was roaring and quacking and bleating and buzzing and yowling and screeching and squawking and bellowing and belching and trumpeting and squealing and every sound he could ever imagine an animal making, and some he couldn’t even imagine. There they were, a coiling, wallowing, teeming, sweating mass of undifferentiated animality that stretched out to the treeless horizon, beyond anything he could possibly envision fitting on his vessel, which suddenly seemed absurdly small.

Noah clambered up to the top floor of the ark and looked out. Once he could pull himself away from staring at the overwhelming, roiling sea that produced this cacophony and smell, his attention was drawn to his left, down front, within spitting distance of the ark itself. Elephants! He had heard about them from travelers who had come to see him at what they thought to be his absurd labors, but he had never before seen one himself. But now he was taken aback, there weren’t two of them, but four! He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. Sure enough, four of them, 16 legs and eight tusks in all, patient in all their enormity. And now he began to look more carefully. The ears! Two of them had ears that were barely a cubit across. But the other two had ears that were almost big enough to be wings, four cubits wide, flapping in the growing heat of the day. One of the travelers had told him, he now remembered, that there were two kinds of elephants, one from Africa and one from India, and that one could tell them apart by the ears. Noah had let that information slide from his consciousness, especially as he had no idea what or where Africa and India were. He still didn’t know.

He had figured on a pair of elephants. He knew each would be larger than any animal he had ever seen, and had made a special space in the middle of the boat, bottom story, with specially reinforced flooring. But what was he going to do with four of them?

He looked over to the right a little bit, behind the elephants. There were cats. They took up an entire hectare. Lions and panthers and cheetahs. Oscelots and leopards. Three different kinds of tigers, one pair with teeth that gleamed like sabers. Fluffy ones and hairless ones. Cats with big ears, and cats with almost none. Cougars! Maine Coons and Siamese. Havana Browns, Egyptian Maus, and Ragamuffins. Striped cats and orange tabbies. A Cheshire cat lay on his back, hoping to get his tummy scratched. (Noah later found out from his son Ham that it was a Chartreux, and had to wrestle with the French pronunciation for a very long time.) His youngest son Japheth, he reminded himself, was allergic.

And snakes! There were coiled cobras, waiting to strike, clearly uncomfortable in all the surrounding commotion. Pythons, like long, glistening pipes, sunning themselves in the grass. Tree snakes searching in vain for an overhang. Garter snakes hunting for holes in the ground so they could cool off. Water moccasins remaining indecisive as to whether to remain where they were or slither their way down to the water’s edge, along with the komodo dragons, duck-billed platypi, walruses, 66 other pinipeds, and a group of miscellaneous caimans, joined by an unnumbered party of bullfrogs.

Cows—oh, there were cows all right. More cows than Noah had ever conceived of. Brahma bulls and Holsteins and Longhorns. Little mountain cows and Jerseys. Brown cows and brindled. Red heifers, and even a pair of blue ones—yes, there were blue cows back in those days. And yaks, oxen, water buffalo, and, what are those with the big, woolly heads? Bison! And there was a cow giving birth! Now which one was he supposed to take—the mother or the baby? Underfoot were 7,923 pairs of differentiated dung beetles!

Noah sat down on the gangway and stroked his red beard—fast turning gray—as he confronted his problem. In the west, beyond the brightest sunshine he had ever witnessed, he saw a very small cloud appear, like a puff of smoke, peeking out between the heads of the two giraffes.

It was going to be a very long day.