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Facing the Wave

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Facing the Wave

Facing the Wave, a Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami.

Gretel Ehrlich faces the wave directly in her telling of A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami.

At 2:46 P.M., March 11, 2011, an earthquake of 9.1 magnitude occurred off the northeastern coast of Japan, in an area of Honshu called Tohoku.  An hour later, a tsunami began inundating more than three hundred miles of coastline, the highest surge reaching about 130 feet up the side of the hills.   At the same time, the coastline sank three feet, and portions moved almost eight feet closer to North America. Most people were able to evacuate to higher ground, but many were not or did not.  Nearly 20,000 died.  The tsunami triggered the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Pacific and massive radiation amounts into the air.  Six months later, the same area was inundated by a major typhoon, dumping seventeen inches of rain. As a natural disaster, this earthquake was the fourth-largest since we began recording them regularly using quantitative measures—the Richter Scale.  Japanese records date earthquakes and tsunami to about 600 AD.

The magic of Facing the Wave, however, does not lie in recounting the facts that describe the disaster.  Nor does it lie entirely in Gretel Ehrlich’s interviews with dozens of survivors, interviews that she initiated shortly after the March 11 quake and continued for nearly a year.  The magic she creates comes through a confluence of her abilities to reproduce the granularity, the particularity of events and people’s experiences, abilities that she demonstrated to good effect in her 1985 book, The Solace of Open Spaces, and in a dozen books since.

Blending storytelling with her own and Japanese poetry, science, her keen observations, and empathic understanding, Facing the Wave weaves together a truth-telling story that preserves the chaos and confusion of those random moments. One mother searches for her daughter’s body by using a backhoe, a skill acquired for that purpose.  Another talks achingly of his fear, developed in the Wave’s aftermath, of fishing daily—the basis of his subsistence. With no finger-wagging, Ehrlich recounts the deaths of eighty-five children at a school because the old men who gathered there used their patriarchy to dissuade mothers from taking their children to higher ground. Ehrlich meets and befriends the eighty-four-year-old Ito-san, “the last geisha of Kamaishi,” carried to safety on the shoulders of a sake merchant.

A criticism:  Ehrlich is opaque about her circumstances.   She does not tell us how and why she was able to write this book. How did she come to go to Japan so soon after the disaster? Has she studied Japanese poetry, culture, philosophy?  Is she a Buddhist?  Ehrlich has Japanese friends, and they provide her with interpreters as she travels by car—driven by friends and acquaintances—back and forth across the affected region.  Obvious, too, she has more than a passing interest in Japanese poetry going back at least to Bashð, the 17th-century Japanese poet often credited with making “haiku” into a poetic form.  Yet, nowhere in this book does she close the gap definitively between herself and her Japanese interlocutors; the distance between observer and the observed is maintained. Perhaps she chose not to make her backstory a part of the present story, but I wish she had been more revealing.  This is a minor criticism.  Otherwise, she clearly makes her preferences and points-of-view known.  She empathizes with those she meets and interviews even as she reiterates more than once the deep ambiguity of Buddhist observations such as “there is no ignorance and no extinction of ignorance.”

Resilient as they were, did her Japanese informants retain hope?  “Hope? . . . My one is hope is to build a house on a hill, on high ground.”  — Neal Ferguson

Also available by Gretel Ehrlich: The Solace of Open Spaces; Drinking Dry Clouds; Heart Mountain; Islands, the Universe, Home; A Match to the Heart; Questions of Heaven; A Blizzard Year; John Muir, a Biography; This Cold Heaven; The Future of Ice, and In the Empire of Ice.

Facing the Wave

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