West Coast Reflections on Natural Disasters and Life’s Impermanence

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When a disaster threatens, and you've had ample warning, the question becomes: What do you save?

San Anselmo, CA–One warm evening a couple of summers ago, Julia and I looked up at the ridge across the wooded canyon our house is built on and saw a red glow that shouldn’t have been there. The sun had gone behind the hill to our right, leaving just the deepening blues and greens of dusk.

“That’s a fire,” she said. “Oh, damn.”

Julia went to the telephone to make sure the neighbors knew. I climbed to the roof with a hose, hating to waste water but aiming to wet down some surfaces. Here in northern California we were in the middle of a three-year drought, and voluntary cutbacks on water use would soon roll over into enforced rationing. Every living thing in the canyon was crackling dry. If the fire blew downhill to the bottom, it would surely race up our side and turn the house to ash and smoke. No amount of wetting down would save it in such a fire storm, but spraying had quenched embers dropped on us by the last fire nearby.

“This may be melodramatic, but I’m going to pack some things in the car in case we have to run,” Julia called from the deck. We heard the pumpers growl as the blaze roared higher. This was no brushfire; somebody’s house was burning. I gave the roof and deck a last spray and climbed down to get in on the decision-making. What was Julia packing? A few days’ worth of comfortable clothes. Photo albums. Twenty-four years of diaries. Her tiny handful of jewelry.

I tried to decide what was both portable, besides the obvious clothes, and irreplaceable. Computer disks, not the computer. A few pounds of research notes. The folder stuffed with tax receipts. The Rolodex. My grandfather’s pocket watch. The tape recorder . . . no. Can’t take it all. We looked around at our dear, modest little house with its layers of memory, with its books, records, paintings, furniture I’d made, family photos on the kitchen bulletin board, souvenirs of friends and trips, plants, radios and television sets and musical instruments, Julia’s parents’ refrigerator, all reminders of moments in our life together. The workaday things could be replaced. Most of the rest couldn’t. We said good-bye to them.

The neighbors, meanwhile, were turning the menace into a social event. They’d gathered down the street a ways where everyone could see through a gap in the trees; once packed, we wandered down and watched as the fire fighters kept the flames away from the foliage. In an hour or so, they put them out.

Afterward I thought of Samuel Johnson drawling (in my mind he sounds like an English W. C. Fields), “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Everyone has emergencies, those disruptions that emerge abruptly from the scenery and then go away. But the 38.4 million Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans residing on the Pacific Rim of North America (between Alaska and the tip of Baja California) live with the promise that something in our habitat will shake us up–soon.

We live with impermanence. After growing up on the soft green farmland of Chester County, Pennsylvania, and working in New York, I moved to San Francisco in 1962. For a year and a half I had the odd sensation that my toes couldn’t get a grip, as if a crust on the land had sealed off the depths below. You don’t dig in here, any more than you do on the deck of a boat in rolling seas; you learn to keep your balance not by holding tight but by holding yourself lightly, ready to move.

As many as 4,000 earthquakes at various depths are recorded every year in Alaska and about as many in California. The great 1964 Alaska quake released more energy than the one that in 1906 devastated San Francisco, killed 115 people, and destroyed hundreds of buildings. Southern Alaska and most of the California coast get the Uniform Building Code’s highest seismic risk rating: Zone 4, “major damage.” A damaging earthquake–5.5 and up on the Richter scale–occurs about once a year in California and once every 20 years or so in Oregon and Washington. The 1971 San Fernando quake killed 58 people and injured 2,500 in southern California. The Loma Prieta quake on October 17, 1989, during the Bay Area World Series, killed 64, injured more than 3,000, left more than 10,000 homeless, and caused over $10 billion in damage. Oregon and Washington have fewer quakes, more volcanoes: Mount Saint Helens blew at various times throughout 1980-82, killing 65 people, and started another ash plume in January 1990. It’s part of the 16-volcano Cascade Range running from Mount Lassen in northern California to Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia, all potentially explosive. The Redoubt volcano in Alaska started erupting last December, causing some offshore oil wells to be closed for fear of spills in Cook Inlet.

Much of the coastline has just two seasons: dry and wet. Each summer, forest fires blacken thousands of acres and brushfires attack even million-dollar houses near the cities. In the past 15 years there have been two periods of three years each in which winter rains were so sporadic that water was rationed in much of northern California; right now we’re looking at a third drought. In January of 1982 a 13-inch rainstorm put the main street of our town, San Anselmo, under five feet of water; this January much of western Washington and Oregon flooded. Every year the floods come to some places while others pray for rain. Mudslides bury families in their sleep and send houses tobogganing downhill.

You don’t have to try death by hanging to appreciate the effect, any more than you’d want your house to burn down, or fall over in an earthquake, or be buried by volcanic ash, or be filthied by a flood. But the prospect does tend to keep you alert. On the dangerous edge of an otherwise pretty safe continent, where one or all of those events (save perhaps the hanging) can occur at any moment, you learn not to take life for granted. This part of the planet reminds us that we don’t own it; we’re just visiting.

The impermanence of our footing enlivens us, whether or not we think about it. For better for worse, it shapes much that we do. The knowledge that our present comforts will last just until the land we’re standing on shakes them loose may, at first, liberate forces that can destroy–critics love to find evidence of transience, blandness, and violence in West Coast culture. In the long run, however, it may do far more to stir creativity.

The point has been made many times that the environmental movement in the United States was born in California. John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892, two years after persuading the Department of the Interior to establish Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, the second and third in the nation (Yellowstone was first, in 1872). Not for nothing did New Yorker writer John McPhee call David Brower, Muir’s mid-20th-century successor as chief spokesman for wilderness preservation, the Archdruid. Industries here reflect civilization’s turn away from the heavy, as in granite cathedrals and pig iron, to more mobile artifacts of the intellect–among them semiconductors, aircraft, satellites, movies, high-energy physics, medicine, and agricultural experiment. Maybe they’d have flourished at a site lacking earthquake, fire, volcanic eruption, drought, and flood. The fact is, they didn’t. Sure, they use materials you can weigh and price, but for what? To convey that most portable and irreplaceable commodity: information. In the people who invent and reinvent such enterprises and spin them out across the planet, some of the restless energy of the earth itself seems to emerge.