In the end it isn’t Cascadia who comes to me at all but her mother Gaia, she whose incandescence alchemizes stone into liquid, birthing a great fiery ring of volatile children. She watches with pride as they shape the landscape of her body through sudden cataclysms and eons-long processes deep within her crusts. Cascadia, Mariana, Tahoma, Krakatoa, Mazama, how they rend the brittle earth, how they sink cities beneath waves and raze them with mudflows! How they shake the very planet when they unleash their full energy! It has taken humanity thousands of years to determine how her children work such miracles and disasters, but Gaia does not mind. There is still much for them to discover about the tectonic mysteries of subduction, collision, and volcanism, still so many scientific revelations awaiting those who best understand and truly respect the awesome might of her geologic offspring. That respect serves mankind well, at least when they are willing to listen to something besides their own greed. And when they are not… well, her children are there to act in Gaia’s honor and remind mortals by whose grace they reside on her creation.
Preserving the Memory of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Literature
March 11th, 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, one of the most devastating disasters in recorded human history. The magnitude 9.0 quake which struck off the eastern coast of Japan on March 11th, 2011 remains the 4th largest recorded earthquake in modern times; it not only caused widespread damage in Japan, but even shifted the axis of the Earth. The massive tsunami following minutes after the quake took the lives of over 10,000 people, triggered meltdowns at 3 reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, and left over $235 billion US dollars’ worth of destruction in its wake. After crossing the Pacific Ocean, its waves struck distant coasts hard enough to cause notable damage in the United States, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Chile, and the Galapagos Islands.
Yet the true human impact of such earth-shaking disasters is not captured only in the number of casualties or the cost of response and recovery; it is captured in the personal experiences and journeys of those who survived, and the memories they bear of those who did not. So too are the lessons they learned, which are priceless to those of us who live on or near vulnerable coastlines. For example, with the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the North American West Coast, our “Big One” could look very similar to Japan’s and strike with just as little warning. As we say in the emergency preparedness world – it’s a matter of WHEN, not IF.
Therefore, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, I would like to share some of my favorite written works on the subject. There can be no better way to honor those who lost their lives to this tragedy, nor to show our respect to the survivors who have worked so hard rebuilding their communities, than to take their stories and lessons to heart. Don’t let the subject matter dissuade you; we should not shy away from tragedy, because in tragedies like the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami we find poignant evidence of the beauty and strength of the human spirit.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry
Ghosts of the Tsunami is not a light read, yet it is absolutely worth the emotional journey. While Ghosts of the Tsunami touches on other aspects of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, its focus is the tragedy of Okawa Elementary and the 74 students lost while under their teachers’ care. Parry’s masterful narrative follows their grieving families through the immediate aftermath of the disaster and continues over the span of many years as some parents seek closure while others push for answers and accountability. The story of these families is a haunting reminder that disasters of this magnitude have the power to reshape the future of a community for generations – not only through quantifiable impacts like infrastructure and economic damage, but through the responsibility and emotional burden survivors carry with them.
So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms: Haiku from the Year of the Great Earthquake and Tsunami edited by Mayuzumi Madoka
Given the importance of poetry in Japanese culture, it is no surprise that there are several poetry collections about the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. So Happy to See Cherry Blossoms is distinctive for both the poignancy of its 17-syllable poems, all of which were written by Japanese citizens who personally experienced the disaster, and the amount of detail provided within. Along with both the Japanese and English translations of each poem, the reader is provided with the authors name, age, the number of tsunami-related fatalities in their hometown, and either backstory or direct quotes from the author explaining the inspiration for the piece. Interspersed between chapters is also commentary from the editor, distinguished haiku poet Mayuzumi Madoka, who travelled through the disaster zone in the months after to help survivors heal through poetry writing.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith and Rachel Wada
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden is a beautifully illustrated children’s book based on the true story of “Kaze no Denwa” (the phone of the wind or wind phone), a disconnected phone booth built by 72-year-old garden designer Itaru Sasaki to help him process the death of a close relative. After the tsunami devastated his town, other survivors began using the phone booth to communicate with their own lost family and friends; many found this expression of grief gave them the closure they needed to begin healing. Tens of thousands of people have visited the phone booth since 2011, many even traveling from other countries to experience its unique form of therapy. The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden crafts a simple yet heart-wrenching version of this story that speaks equally to young readers and adults alike, reminding us that grief is part of the human experience and healing can be found in the unlikeliest places.
Beyond Me by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
Beyond Me is a fiction novel-in-verse told from the point of view of a 5th grader named Maya. Maya experiences the March 11th earthquake from the relative safety of her inland town where she’s lucky to lose neither her family nor her home. Instead, she struggles with survivor’s guilt and the trauma brought on by constant unpredictable aftershocks, many of which are major earthquakes in their own right. This is where Beyond Me truly shines – through clever use of font formatting and a disjointed writing style, the reader experiences each earthquake in real-time with Maya. Dropped into Maya’s uncertain world where even the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted, readers of any age will identify with her conflicted emotions. Likewise, I’m sure many readers will identify with the impulse to ignore one’s own problems because “others have it worse”, and hopefully will learn with Maya how to help both themselves and others in a healthy way.
In addition to these 4 books, below is a short list of additional recommendations. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the English-language literature available on the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, but I believe there is something of value available for everyone (and all ages!).
Drowning in the Floating World: Poems – Meg Eden
Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami – Gretel Ehrlich
March Was Made of Yarn: Writers Respond to Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown – Ed. David Karashima, Elmer Luke
The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America by Brian Atwater, Musumi-Rokkaku Satoko, Satake Kenji, Tsuji Yoshinobu, Ueda Kazue, and David Yamaguchi
Tsunami vs the Fukushima 50: Poems – Lee Ann Roripaugh
Up from the Sea – Leza Lowitz
I thought Tsunami would be a feral thing, silt between her teeth and gasoline rainbow hair tangled with fishing nets, distorted siren wail vomiting toxic black sludge. She’s frenetic, ravenous, a cataclysmic Charybdis, right? But Tsunami was scoured clean when I met him, a china-white skeleton in black robes like a Buddhist monk’s. Such silence in the sockets of that rictus face, such stillness, such unwarranted serenity! We look the same beneath, he told me, and I saw that I too had rotted down to fragile paper crane bones. The revelation did not disturb me; it was comforting to be done with the meat and its attendant miseries. We did indeed look identical, Tsunami and I. Just two skeletons clad in black, smiling through eternity.
It won’t be like Sendai
But still, I feel beholden to them
Those 70 young lives lost to laxity
And if I let it happen here
If I let us fail our own children
We will have failed Okawa’s as well
There are no natural disasters
Only deaths we could have prevented
Lessons we refused to learn
Ghosts we carry with us forever and hope
To do right by
You could call me a priestess of sorts, I suppose, albeit a grant-funded and state-employed one. I do spend much time preaching about my lady’s temper, teaching these arrogant mortals to respect the power of Cascadia and all her sisters. They sleep in a ring, you know, dreaming of fire and blood and occasionally waking to deliver death in broad swathes. Cascadia has been sleeping these past three hundred years but when she wakes again her wrath will sunder the earth and drown sin and sinner alike. (Such ancient forces as she hardly care what form their offerings take; it’s about quantity, not quality.) Though she cannot be pacified, still she must be revered. A little fear is necessary to grasp the immensity of Cascadia’s destruction when – not if – she stirs once more. The question is, will humanity heed the words of her clergy in time?
We anthropomorphize what we do not understand and deify what we fear. Perhaps, therefore, I should call this terror and awe Cascadia and give it a name, a form, a realm to rule. Grand Cascadia, She Who Slumbers Uneasily, She Who Builds Mountains and Destroys Cities. Ancient Cascadia, who sleeps beneath the earth’s crust and whose every toss and turn rattles the land above. Cruel Cascadia, whose laughter stirs tsunamis, whose anger detonates stratovolcanoes and sends shockwaves of destruction through two thousand miles of rock and earth. I see her body made of the fine silt of the ocean floor; her eyes glow the hot white of magma; her hair is ash and smoke and seaweed and minerals. She is a uniquely Pacific Northwest goddess, one link in the great ring of fire through which she and her sisters transform the world.
It is tempting, I’ll admit, to hand the fear of what I cannot control over to a deity I can at least implore. I could light red candles in her honor and leave her offerings of seashells, saltwater, Mt. St. Helens ash. Beneath her altar I could store flashlights and emergency rations. I could write songs and poems for her, about the people she has killed already and those she will kill in the future. I could, I could, I could – but what good would it do? Even if Cascadia were a true goddess, she would not be swayed by offerings or pleading. She would be something more terrifying than Kali and more uncontrollable than Sekhmet, something that gloried in death even more than Inanna or the Morrigan. There would be no appeasing her. She would only sleep, wake, slaughter, and sleep to wake and kill again. All the prayer in the world could not reckon with her, and when she next wakes her death toll will be in the hundreds of thousands.
Sleep, Cascadia. Sleep.
the earth awakes
in violent tremors, roaring
cacophonous subterranean thunder
bridges buckling, overpasses shuddering
brick collapses in clouds
of red dust like the skies of Mars
glass shatters and power lines topple
while beachfronts slough off into white-capped water
and it seems to go on forever, minutes becoming an eternity
while the world shakes and quakes and destructs
like nothing Chicken Little ever could
have expected, the sky is falling
the sky is falling
and in the aftermath
nothing is untouched or
unharmed and yet
the tricky thing about invasive thoughts is what if they’re right? because their source isn’t always irrational in and of itself, it’s not irrational to worry about megaquakes when you live on the West Coast where the plates sink and melt beneath your feet, where pressure builds offshore for hundreds of years only to one day, one singular unexpected inexplicable moment just snap and send shock waves rippling through earth, water, air and reduce order to chaos, it could happen any time so you start looking for signs just in case, do earthworms on the pavement mean something’s coming, can they feel the tension in the soil about to erupt, is that why the birds are gathered in such strange patterns, the animals restless, was that a tremor just now or the dryer upstairs? and the irony, always the irony that anxiety doesn’t make you better prepared, compulsive obsession doesn’t give you any mastery over these forces, they just make you more aware of all the things that can go wrong, oh are you ever so aware of all the things that can go wrong