The Worst Kind of Natural Disaster

With Japan’s ongoing crisis very much on my mind right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about natural disasters in general.  Most regions are vulnerable to some kind of disaster and, usually depending on how recent the last one was, the people who live in them wind up developing both a deep-seated fear about theirs and an emergency plan to help them survive it when it comes.

When I lived in Iowa I always had an ear cocked for the wailing of tornado sirens at the onset of a violent storm.  In Southern California I dutifully bolted bookcases and water heaters to the wall in case of a possible earthquake.  In Hawaii as a youngster I learned all the warning signs and action steps for surviving a tsunami, and living in Idaho today the hubster and I have supplies and an evacuation plan set up in case a catastrophic fire ever sweeps through our neighborhood (as one nearly did last summer.)

This basic disaster reality is everywhere.  The Gulf coast has hurricanes, the communities along the Mississippi river are prone to floods, Boonville, New York gets buried under record snowfall every year…

a bad year

and North Dakota see wind chills in winter that can equal the flanks of Mt. Everest.

But in Quinault, Washington, where we just spent a week at the southern end of Olympic National Park, I witnessed the residents living with a niche type of natural disaster that’s particularly unique.  These people live with the ever present danger of falling trees.

No.  Wait.  Let me rephrase.  Falling big trees.  Huge.

The tiny community is nestled in the Valley of the Giants, so named for the towering Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars and sitka spruces that fill the valley.  These behemoths are spawned by the twelve to fifteen feet of precipitation the area gets each year.  (That’s right.  I said feet.)  In fact, the Quinault Valley is home to six of the largest living trees of their species on record.  Short of the sequoias and redwoods farther south, trees just don’t get a lot bigger than this.

Me in the middle, standing on the root of a Sitka spruce that’s over 1,000 years old.

In other, dryer places trees are considered large if they reach a hundred feet.  But around Quinault, a hundred feet is just the point where branches start on the older Douglas Firs.

What it felt like in there.

It was like time traveling, walking around under a fern-laced, moss-draped canopy like that.  The light is filtered, soft, green, and primeval.  If you ever doubted that water is indeed life I highly recommend a visit to this place because wandering around the area was like watching the life cycle in hyper-drive—bursting, spurting, reckless growth delicately balanced with every conceivable form of sagging, creeping, bulbous decay.  It was heady stuff, and fascinating.  A wee bit unnerving at times but utterly breathtaking, too.

It changes one, being underneath it for a while.  I’m not quite sure how, it just does.

Anyway, apart from their staggering beauty these giant trees have a lesser known, scarier quality.  Because most of the ground water in the rain forest is contained in the top three feet of the land, that’s as deep as their root systems grow.  Horizontally, they spread out over mind boggling distances, but vertically, they don’t bother because there isn’t anything they need down there.

But wait, you might think.  What about stability?  Don’t they need deeper roots to keep them from falling over? Well, that seems logical enough if you’re thinking like a human.  Our species lives by the belief that surviving to the oldest possible age is a valuable goal.  But the rainforest trees of the Quinault Valley have a completely different agenda which includes eventually toppling over while they’re still alive and relatively resource rich.  Because if they don’t, new, baby trees won’t be able to grow down on the forest floor.

You see, the reason most of the ground water is held at the top is because there’s a three-foot thick layer of moss and fungus lying between the air and the earth.  This layer serves as a sponge and can hold a tremendous amount of water (which, trust me, is necessary in a place that gets twelve plus feet of it a year.) But there isn’t as much in the way of dirt and nutrients available in this layer so seeds falling to the ground have little chance of putting on significant growth without some kind of additional support.

This is where the falling trees come in.  Not only do they provide an elevated surface, but as they settle and begin to decompose all the nutrients and other resources stored in their wood become available, so seeds falling on their trunks and branches have everything they need to get a good start in life.  These fallen trees are called nurse logs because they literally become giant nurseries for the future generations of forest life.

A fairly new mom.

Below is a picture of what the middle stage of a tree’s growth looks like.  This is an initially successful Douglas fir with roots working down the sides (of a nurse stump in this case) to establish themselves permanently in the forest floor.  I’m not sure why all the moss and other growth was stripped off here…kind of disturbing actually…but it reveals the process.   Sorry the photo’s a little fuzzy but this was taken with a camera phone.

And finally, here’s a photo of the bottom of an older tree after the original nurse log has completely disintegrated.  It was fascinating to see how all the big trees had multiple “legs” at the bottom like this.  This is what those skinny, snaking little roots grow to look like years later.

I admit, the generosity built into this kind of life cycle takes my breath away.  I love the idea of elders giving back everything they’ve managed to collect and contain over the years to nourish the younger life just getting started.  It makes more sense to me than the way it’s so often done in the human world, where increasingly our resources are directed toward the aging and children are left to bear the brunt of the resulting scarcity.

So, getting back to the original narrative of a falling-trees-natural-disaster, what is it that eventually knocks these gigantic puppies over?  Well, there are hurricanes that come in off the Pacific ocean periodically and the winds they generate knock down trees.  Small hurricanes take out smaller trees.  Medium hurricanes take out medium ones.  Big hurricanes knock over some of the big ones.  And then every hundred years or so you get a monster hurricane, and that’s when the giants can start coming down.

The last monster hurricane hit in December of 2007 and it just so happened that the hubster and I showed up in Quinault a scant three months later for our first-ever visit to the rain forest.  Driving into the area we had no idea what had just happened.  Strangely, there was almost no mention of the local impact of the gale in regional news coverage at the time, which seemed really strange considering the extent of the devastation both to the forests and the human communities along this stretch of coast.  (I imagine that, because it’s a rural area, there weren’t enough people impacted to be considered newsworthy.)

We couldn’t figure it out at first.  Driving up the coast from Oregon on our way to Quinault we noticed that a significant number of houses and buildings in every coastal town we drove through had extensive roof damage.  Blue tarps covering big holes were everywhere.  Then, as we turned inland, we drove past entire hillsides that looked like some kind of huge buzz saw had gone through.  In these places, literally all the trees were snapped off midway, like matchsticks, every single one, but we just figured the timber industry had come through and done a really shitty job of clear cutting.  (Sorry guys.) It wasn’t until we checked in at the Lake Quinault Lodge and started chatting up the locals that we learned about the real nightmare.

Evidently they’d had no warning in Quinault.  The local Forest Service had mistakenly forecast 50 mph winds for their area so everyone assumed they were looking at an ordinary storm.  They made no additional efforts to prepare for what was actually coming.  When the strongest winds hit, (sustained 100+ winds for about twenty minutes or so) some said it sounded like a fleet of jet airliners were all coming in to land simultaneously.  Others just described the sound as deafening. They all remembered that you could hear the trees crashing down through the forest like explosions, and that there wasn’t a house in the area that escaped unscathed.

Before the winds had gotten really bad, when the locals still believed they were dealing with an ordinary storm, there was a small crew of men who set off in a truck with chainsaws to clear the two mile stretch of road out to the main highway.  Six trees had fallen across the road early in the storm and the locals hopped in the truck thinking it was road-clearing business as usual.  But once they finally cleared the road all the way to the highway, they turned around to discover eight more big trees had fallen behind them that they had to clear to get home again.  They made it back safely, but with more trees falling behind them the whole way.

On that trip we talked a lot with the brand new owners of the little local mercantile (built back in the 1920’s) across the street who told us their story.  They said that once they realized how dangerous the storm had become, they decided to evacuate  over to the Lodge for more protection.  The wife had run upstairs to their apartment over the store to grab a few things when the 200 foot Sitka Spruce on the hillside behind them gave way, crashing down right on top of her.  The only thing that saved her life was the old, stone chimney running up the back of the building.  The tree hit it dead center, miraculously stopping it from completely crushing the store, but a large branch broke through the roof striking her in the head and knocking her out temporarily.  When she came to she discovered she was trapped and had to wait for her panicked husband and a few other men to cut her out.

During that first visit we stayed for two weeks and the hubster and I had ample time to wander around and soak in the aftermath.  A lot of the trails were either partially or completely closed.  Indeed, sometimes the forest had just collapsed on top of them.

There was one section in particular where a microburst had ripped about a mile long path of devastation through the trees.  Here’s what one section looked like in 2007.  A few months earlier this was dense, lush rain forest.

And here’s what another part of the area looked like last week:

A lot of the debris that originally buried the creek was washed away by successive spring run-offs in this spot, but there were other areas where we still couldn’t see the creek for all the fallen trees.  We could hear it though, and then watch where it reemerged later downstream.

And here’s a picture from 2008 of what it looks like when one of the big trees gets snapped off near the base.

Fast forward to 2011 and it was fascinating to return and see all the ways the forest has been healing itself from the carnage.  We took the same trails we’d taken before and there is now a layer of moss, algae, fungi and ferns softening all the ragged, shattered edges that were so fresh on our last visit.  There are new trees sprouting out of the many fallen trunks, and all the giant root systems that were ripped out of the ground and left exposed (some of them fifteen feet tall) are slowly transforming into beautiful, vertical walls of moss, trapped stones, and epiphytes.

I’m happy to say there’s also some healing taking place among the human population, but it’s gradual.  The wife trapped by the falling Sitka Spruce was the only person to sustain any physical injuries during the hurricane, but the deep mental and emotional scarring that took place was distributed more evenly.  Everybody who went through it has PTSD.   Everyone.  You can see it in their eyes whenever they hear a strong gust of wind, the uneasy way they turn to look out a window or peer up into the swaying tree tops.  The man who was supposed to lead a group of us on a guided tour around the lake canceled it an hour beforehand because the forecast was calling for possible high winds and nobody there likes to take chances anymore.  Honestly, by the end of this trip I was starting to feel a little nervous myself as a big storm rolled in off the ocean the day before we left.  I caught myself glancing up into the canopy to gauge the strength of the wind as my pace picked up on the way to the car.

I think we’re designed to learn from one another like that.  I think it’s hard-wired into our brains to listen and observe the people we meet when we travel, especially in new, unfamiliar zones that lie outside our ordinary range of experience.  A couple days after the Japanese tsunami struck I heard a professor being interviewed on the news about everyone’s horrified fascination with all the images being broadcast.  He said we do it, at least in part, because there’s an enormous amount of information encoded in those kinds of images.  Biologically we’re all deeply wired to survive and that’s why, unconsciously, we’re always scanning the horizon for possible threats and any information we can glean about how to survive them.

There have been a few times since we returned home, as I’ve watched the tsunami coverage, that my mind has gone back to the two days we spent strolling along the beaches of the Washington coastline.  We’d discovered rare pathways down the cliffs and then walked along the shoreline for hours, enjoying the sand and rocks, playing in the swell of water as it rushed up to our feet and then retreated again.  Even though there are signs along every coastal highway indicating tsunami evacuation routes, we never once seriously considered that such a monster wave might come while we were there ourselves.  That it might catch us unaware, rolling up while we were lost in our long, relaxing reverie of salt spray and sea gull cries, sweeping us right off the narrow, exposed stretch of beach we were exploring between water and cliff.

I’ve considered it since though, as I’ve watched the footage from Japan, and that professor is right.  I’ve gleaned enough information from the images to realize that if a 9.0 earthquake had happened off the coast of Washington instead, a few days earlier while we were there, the resulting tsunami would have swept us away.  The hubster and I would have vanished and no one would ever have known for sure what happened to us.

Looking into the face of that kind of stark reality is sobering.  I’ve had the wild, frightened thought a couple of times that, on our next trip, I won’t return to the beaches at all.  Just in case.  It’s in those moments that I have to make myself remember.  Make myself step back and say, Wait a second, Dia.  How much are you willing to sacrifice  here to be safe? Am I really going to give up the ocean, or hiking through rain forests, just to be safe from tsunamis and falling trees?  And if I’m willing to give those up, where else won’t I go?  Anywhere where there might be an earthquake?  A hurricane?  A typhoon?  Anywhere where I might fall or freeze or burn or be eaten by wild animals?  Anywhere where I could possibly be mugged or raped or otherwise terrorized?  Just how small am I willing to allow my world to get before the ensuing suffocation makes my life not worth living anymore?


And that, my friends, is the real kicker.  I’ve already been to that place.  I’ve already lived in the weird, terrifying world of phobia and creeping paralysis and, between you and me, I think falling into that abyss is the worst kind of natural disaster that can happen to somebody.  The fact that it’s internal doesn’t make it any less real or devastating, and the fact that nobody else can see the destruction doesn’t make the struggle to recover from it easier or less necessary.

The Great Gale of 2007 is long over but even so, during each subsequent storm, those who survived it are experiencing another sliver of it again.  For them, that storm is still real and, inside them, aftershocks are still happening.  Its ghost is alive and well.  The great tsunami that just devastated northern Japan is now over, too, but the ghost wave it left in its wake will be alive and haunting that land for a long time to come.   That’s just the way an internal disaster works.  They’re longer and slower and more ephemeral.  They can also be trickier to rebuild from, than the ones that happen on the outside.

But it can be done.  For me, over time as the fears have receded and I’ve started to recover, I’ve discovered a lot of nurse log-type activity going on inside.  The years of depression and agoraphobia were unquestionably destructive, and a lot of my old life was toppled over and swept away during the worst of that illness.  But even so, these days there’s some fascinating new growth coming up out of the hopeless, twisted, tangle of what my world used to be.  I’m considering things, experiencing little sprouts of hope and ingenuity that, during the worst, I believed would never be possible again.  Maybe these little sprouts will someday grow up to be big trees of their own or maybe they won’t.  I know that another wave of depression could always come along and sweep me out to sea again because that’s the risk of the region I live in now, but deep down inside me I’m not sure that would really matter anyway.  I’m beginning to suspect what’s most important is the fact that I’ve been able to endure, survive, and live at all.  For however long it lasts.

Because isn’t that just the thing about life?  Whatever winds up happening with me, with any of us individually for that matter, Life itself will never stop because it has an endless capacity to reroute.   Sure, accepting the details of that rerouting sometimes involves my having to step back and expand my view a lot, having to accept that life is something far bigger than just my life.  Life is actually our life, something we all get to participate in for a little while together, and something we all still continue contributing to after we’re gone.

It’s like how the pattern of old growth tree roots reveal the place where the nurse log that gave them life once lay.  In a thousand, million different ways, large and small, we all wind up as nurse logs for this world and for each other; each of us profoundly effecting and altering what’s around us during the brief but blazing time we’re here.  I think the magnitude of our impact is far, far greater than we’ll probably ever understand, and that our gifts to this world will never be wiped away because they’re far too necessary to ever waste like that.  On the contrary they’re transformed; reabsorbed and used to nourish all the generations of life that follow, life that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t existed here for a little while ourselves.

My prayers go out for everyone who died–everyone who is still dying–in Japan, and I send my wishes for deepening strength, resilience, and healing for all those who ultimately survive them.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn