The Sands of Japan : Lessons from the Tragedy

Prayers for Japan

Rarely does the earth manifest such awful force as we have seen over the last few days in Japan.  While I want to talk about the social implications of this devastation, I would loath to do so heartlessly.  The news reporters are doing plenty of that already.  Think of how deeply the disaster has affected so many around the world, those in your community and in your life, not to mention those far away and abroad.  The power of prayer cannot be measured in a time like this.  Possibly the most important thing we can do is go within to that place where time and space dissolve into light and hope, and from there send strength to those who are suffering.  On the island itself worry, desperation, and grief render distraught those who need clarity, courage, and healing love in order to persevere.

Like a rose blooming from its stem the future grows from the present.  Throwing a pebble into a still lake, the pebble is small, but the ripples radiate through the enormity of the water.  This is like the power of prayer.  Speaking through prayer is a way to speak universally, subtly changing the attitude of the present to manifest a better future.  Compassionate prayers will enrich the healing process that will follow this tragedy, easing and guiding the pain of transition.  Blessings to all who are struggling.  I mean in no way to criticize the people devastated by this disaster, only to condemn the global agro-industrial systems which have exaggerated their hardship.  Let no blame or guilt add to the weight on their shoulders.  But though our compassion should be uncompromised, this event has revealed the plight of our species like little else can, and remembering that plight only furthers the work of healing on an even broader scale.
The Sands of Japan

The earthquake struck like a phantom, arising from the mist of the unconscious as people went about their familiar routines.  It shook through the earth and all that rests upon it, rattling whole cities like a cold shiver.  As its shock waves swept through the ocean and finally mounted the shores of Japan, the unstoppable water turned light poles to sticks of driftwood, buildings to the lightness of crab shells, and cars to grains of sand.

And among all this, there was still driftwood, crab shells, and more grains of sand than stars in a pure sky.  But while vast swaths of industrial infrastructure crumbled in the waves, losing all edifice of worth, the sands endured.  Those sands formed under the endless beating of the waves.  So how could a wave destroy them?

Lessons from the Tragedy

Sometimes the most dreadful events become our most revered teachers.  The forlorn graveyards of wreckage and silence in Japan communicate a wisdom ripe with sorrow.  While the wounds from this travesty are still sore, if we don’t glean the lessons behind them they are bound to open again, as history has shown us.  These lessons are not like those we learn in classrooms, or from books and movies.  These lessons only come when we are faced with the tremendous forces of the universe, awakening us both to the delicacy of life’s balance and the unfathomable magnitude of the elements which shape that balance and the very world which we inhabit.

What was once called Sendai is now essentially nameless once more—or it only exists as a memory of its name—along with myriad other settlements along Japan’s coast.  Like all other cities and monuments of the past, oblivion has taken the city into its folds, and in a way it has returned to a truth that preceded and will outlast all of humankind’s creations.  In its wake we find, tragically, what we can only call pollution, a relic of how far this establishment of civilization was detached from the natural forces which destroyed it.  This is ultimately the price of sedentary life, reliance on a system which cannot sustain itself in the face of nature, and which only acts as poison to the harmony of the spirit.

Even a humble patch of grass growing through the sidewalk conveys the same message that we receive through any cataclysmic upheaval—that the great laws of nature are essential to the life of the planet itself.  These laws are the result of the timeless labor of the cosmos—of the sun, the elements of earth, the moon and stars.  Nothing can transcend this ground of existence.

Even if civilized humanity chooses not to live in harmony with these laws, they will act upon us and the land no less, eventually reclaiming any ground which they lost to our vanity.  (Though probably worse for the wear).  What a mistake, to build a castle of sand without realizing that the castle will soon enough disappear, though the sand remains untarnished.

This lesson, if brought to bear before the construction of Japan’s nuclear power plants, could have saved the world from a potentially lethal leak of radiation into the jet stream.  Our landfills and landscapes filled with trash and toxins reckon the same message—where did we think all these poisons would go if not eventually into the environment at large?  The alienation which spawned them lets some imagine that we can magically detach ourselves from the land where they are doomed to dwell, but obviously this is not the case.  This is the planet which gives us life and which we give our lives to.  We are one with it as we are one with our bodies and souls.  When we damage the water, the air, and the land, we damage ourselves, and vice versa.

Even the technophile fantasy of leaving the earth for another planet wouldn’t except us from the wise laws which govern nature—they run through the very fabric of existence.  We would invariably foul that world just as we have fouled this one.  Such a throw-away view of existence along with its toxic artifacts that now so blatantly litter Japan show how little respect, understanding, or love civilized logic shows for precious life.

Hand in hand with this reckless disregard comes the complexity of the modern infrastructure, the marginalized lives it takes to maintain it, and the scarcity following its inevitable collapse.  The water, food, and energy shortages we see in Japan have immediately revealed the Emperor’s clothes.  Behind the veneer of abundance produced by such a complex organization of distribution is the drought and famine of the urban/agricultural wasteland.  With their waterways tainted either by the tsunami’s grotesque sludge or the standard byproducts of industry, fresh water will be hard to come by for those entangled with the metropolitan jungle.  Food will also be scarce, the population as dense as it is and life having no means to flourish in a landscape dominated by pavement.  With the prospect of food ceasing to come from the store and water ceasing to coming from the tap, perhaps we might realize that they never have.

As we arose with nature, nature is equipped to take care of our every need.  Completely spontaneously the wilds furnish abundant healthy food, fresh running water, and all the materials to construct a nourishing life free for the taking, season after season, generation after generation, without ever being depleted.  With all hope we might learn this lesson from the tragic strife in Japan, and in awe of that humbling power remember that we, too, are forces of nature.  May peace and strength be with them, and all the blessings of heaven and earth.

Lessons from Oregon Mud Clams

A seabilly on the Oregon coast once told me this story:  He and his brothers were out harvesting clams from the mud flats.  The clams stretch their heads out to grab food, popping up periodically every few feet or so, giving the brothers an opportunity to spot them and dig them out.  But all of a sudden the clams disappeared.  For five minutes not a burble came from the usually bustling tide flats.  Then BOOM!  BOOM!  They heard two loud explosions come from the north.  One of the brothers said, “St. Helens just blew.”  The others were skeptical, thinking some large machinery had failed or a semi had crashed.  But somehow that brother knew what they didn’t, and somehow the mud clams knew well before any of them, that the earth had belched fire.

Mostly, we focus on thoughts.  Even the intricate sensations of our very bodies gets lost in unconscious static when we stay tuned into mental chatter.  But for animals and indigenous humans, the earth speaks a much finer language.  Its words are universal—they speak to the instincts of the heart.  Try to feel the land at one with your body, the energies in your surroundings speaking to you like emotional tastes.  Listen to the birds and the wind, the clouds and the soft whisper of the ground.  It’s difficult to interpret the feelings aroused at first, especially without a supporting community to orient us, but the more you practice the more you will hear, the more these different signals blend and sing in concert to a certain vibe.  That’s what the mud clams responded to.

During the 2004 earthquake and tsunami which devastated coastal settlements throughout Indonesia, native tribes suffered minimal casualties.  Not only did they take the precaution of living their traditional lives at higher elevations, they were saved by listened to the land, following the birds and the animals as they sought refuge in the hills long before the devastation struck.  Unhindered by sedentary attachments, they were able to followed their instincts to safety.  On the Andaman Islands, “of the six native tribes only the Nicobarese, who had converted to Christianity and taken up agriculture in place of their previous hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and mainland settlers suffered significant losses.”

Civilization’s deafness to the great principles of nature has already claimed more lives than any natural disaster.  We are now in the sixth great extinction in history, but rather than by the forces of ice, fire, or flood, this great death is caused by the hands of humanity itself.  If we don’t learn to revere and return home to the timeless harmony of the wilderness, we can only look forward to the cataclysmic results of our decisions.  At this crucial moment in history, we have to choose between apocalypse and the healing of the earth, between suffocating isolation and union with the great breath of the spirit, between the constricting shadow of civilization and the eternal cosmic love that only flourishes in the great hearth of the wild.


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