Last night, as the sun went down, Craig and I walked the perimeter of the land in Hawaii, along the edge of the gulch, along the top of the cliff, back through the orchard, with our friend Ralph’s dog, Boo. Boo ran ahead, plunging into the head-high grass chasing mongoose, his head popping up above the field like a breast-stroker’s as he leapt in hot pursuit. All you have to say is “Jump-n-get it, Boo!” And off he goes, mongoose or not. The happiest dog I’ve ever met. When I first got to Hawaii, still shell-shocked, riding rogue waves of fear that arose out of nowhere while running, while reading, while taking a morning walk, I’d watch Boo and instruct myself: “Look at him. He’s got ten years to live if he’s lucky, and he doesn’t care. Study the way he races down the bluff pell-mell after a tennis ball. The way he charges around the orchard with a ten-foot long palm frond. The way he plunges into a field of six-foot tall grass after a mongoose. If a dog can do it, you can. Live like that.”
At the edge of the gulch, Craig and I stopped to watch the trade wind-driven waves two hundred feet below collapse against shore. After striking the cliffs, they back-washed, met incoming six-footers, and doubled in size. Little coves were white and jagged with these pyramids of foam. “Ann Linnea kayaked through stuff like that,” I told Craig, thinking of the book I’d just finished, about the woman who kayaked around Lake Superior. A few minutes later, we stood at another overlook, gazing down from the cliffs into another cove, where dark lines of swells lumbered in parallel to the coast, and trade-generated white-capped waves barreled in from another direction. The two forces met in the cove, gentling each other down, forming what looked like a lattice: sea surface as pie crust. The ocean’s self-expression: constantly re-imagining itself.
Driving back down the hill to the land in the dark later, after sushi in town, a radio announcer interrupted the symphony playing on Hawaii Public Radio. It took a moment for the words to register. A woman talking about an earthquake in Japan. Then I realized she was issuing a tsunami watch. A massive earthquake had triggered a tidal wave off Japan, and if it traveled across the Pacific, it would hit the Hawaiian Islands at 2 am. Ocean re-imagining itself as destroyer. When we parked the car and got out, the night was alive with trade winds. The trees were alive and whispering. The clouds were alive, traveling and silent. They streaked past the silent moon, no longer a sliver like two nights ago, now fattened to a slender cantaloupe slice. The ocean two hundred feet below the cliffs was alive, too, a hoary, throaty roaring creature. Our friend Ralph called from up the hill. The earthquake was an 8.9. The tsunami watch was now a warning. If a wave were to arrive, it would hit the Big Island at 3 am. “Do you think we should head up the hill?” Craig asked. “No way,” Ralph said. “You’re at least 200 feet above sea level. There ain’t gonna be no 200 foot wave.” So we read until we fell into an uneasy sleep, our dreams alive and sent out night-walking by the trade winds, like everything around us. That belt of ocean covering so much of the earth, while we slept, carried that silent wave, along with its absorbed memory of loss and destruction, across the Pacific through the night. Above, the ancestor clouds, newly populated, sailed by.
The cell phone rang at 2 am. It was my sister on Cape Cod. “Are you okay? We were worried. They say a tsunami may hit there in an hour. They mentioned Hawaii and Homer, Alaska in the New York Times.” It was 7 am on the Cape. From their third floor window, each morning for months after my diagnosis, I woke to a view of Cape Cod Bay, part of another ocean, on what seemed another planet. I wondered if she stared at that sliver of calm blue bay as she talked to me. After we said goodbye, I stayed awake in the dark for that hour listening to waves churning in the gulch a half mile away. Was it really getting louder, the booming and surging? Was it really subsiding?
At dawn, we woke again and turned on the radio. Waves from Japan had indeed passed by at 3 am, flooded the lower roads around Kona, flooded a hotel with a foot of seawater, and were now they heading for the Oregon and Washington coasts. The situation in Japan was much more dire. A 23-foot wave. Hundreds dead, hundreds missing. All the airports closed, Japanese tourists stranded in Hawaii awaited news of their loved ones back home.
Ralph showed up on the land this morning and brought a book he’s been reading called The Wave. It’s an investigation into monster waves, scientists who study them, ships and crew that go down in them, people that survive them, people who seek them out and ride them on slender boards shaped like slices of moon, and appearing just as fragile. They plunge down 70-foot wave faces strapped to their lunar slabs. If you study their faces, captured in surf magazine photos, you see their expressions are a lot like Boo’s when he’s chasing mongoose. Nothing else exists in his eyes but YES, not even death.
Ralph wanted me to read the chapter about the destruction of Lituya Bay in southeastern Alaska, by a locally generated tsunami in the 1950’s. An earthquake and ensuing avalanche and the bay’s precipitous geology created an 1,800 foot wave that shaved away forests, stripped bark right off the trees. Well, that’s what the geologists said, after studying the aftermath. According to Susan Casey, the author of The Wave, the Tlingit Indians say it’s Kah Lituya, Man of Lituya. This sea monster lurks “in the bay’s waters, his lair located deep beneath its pinched mouth. Whenever Kah Lituya was disturbed by interlopers or in any way pissed off, he showed his displeasure by rearing up from below, grasping both sides of the bay and shaking them – hard,” she writes. Two boats anchored in the bay, and a man living on a tear-shaped island in the bay’s center, called Cenotaph, actually survived the wave. Another boat disappeared without a trace.
In the North Pacific, every so unpredictable often, storms generate freak waves over a hundred feet high. Every year, despite technology, dozens of ships go down, state-of-the-art container ships, freighters and tankers, slammed by waves like that; 500 foot-long ships disappear, wiped off the earth with a giant eraser. And we don’t even hear about it.
Sometimes, I wonder how we survive on this planet. Some of us do for a time, anyways. These forces: storms, tsunamis, cancer, war, earthquakes, volcanoes – they want to tear us apart. Man of Lituya’s pissed-off brothers, everywhere. From a distance, the blue marble’s so beautiful, it makes big, tough astronauts cry. Maybe we survivors hold it in our hearts, the blue-green cloud-swirled earth. It’s lodged today under my sternum, a cold sphere of hurt. The clouds keep coming. The one I’m watching has a hole in its center.
Three months ago, I arrived in Hawaii feeling fragile, like one of those creatures that’s lived out its planktonic, drifting life stage – a barnacle, let’s say – and seeks a place to land and transform, turn sessile and strong enough to withstand currents and waves. I hiked often down into that gulch I mentioned. One day, I went down there with Boo when a high swell was running. It was stormy, the sky gray and angry. We climbed up on a rocky promontory, about fifty feet above the waves. The waves, maybe twelve to fifteen feet tall, lumbered in and crashed below me, sending spray into my face. I inched forward on my hands and knees to peer over, to watch the tops of the waves turn green as they plunged over themselves. Just before they plunged, the crests danced, not in a choreographed way, but in a chaotic desperate, crazed way, like it was their last moment on earth, which it was. The foam was tinged reddish, as though bloodied, from soil washed off the land. I backed away from the biggest waves, reached my hand behind me to grab the lava wall. I gasped. The waves cracked. They thundered and pounded, boomed and reverberated. The ground under my feet thrummed. I felt the waves in my throat, in my chest. I laughed, I smiled crazily, I pulled Boo back from the edge by his collar, I cried, my breath coming in big, ragged rasps. It felt like I’d been led to that place to put everything I’d been through in perspective, to witness a power bigger than cancer, than death, or courage. In my journal I wrote: It never stops. It doesn’t destroy itself, even with its violence. It dances with its violence. It plunges in on itself, rebounds, roils. It made me incredibly afraid, and incredibly, crazily happy.
Anna Kamienska writes: “For fish death takes the shape of the beautiful white gull with wide-spread wings whose flight we trace with rapture.”
Was she standing beside me, watching those waves? Waves which one day take the shape of a lover, one day a lattice, one day a god, one day a tsunami? Earth, which can break me, which I can hold as a marble in my heart. Which are you? Which am I?