Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In a World Gone Upside Down

Nothing seems as it should. Yet everything is falling precisely into place.

Soledad O’Brien and Rose Arce were on their way home to the United States from Haiti when their travels were redirected to Chile in the aftermath of yet another earthquake. The CNN anchor/special correspondent and her producer documented their journey in an article published March 1st on CNN.com titled: “Sadly, there are similarities between Haiti and Chile.” It took them forty-eight hours to reach their destination. Forty-eight hours later they were penning the comedy of errors that marked their departure as three of their four vehicles were temporarily sidelined and they grappled with fatigue, guilt, and gratitude.

In their own words, the trip had been “an odyssey to get to the epicenter of disaster” only to realize the story that needed to be told was waiting to be finished in the United States . . . and for the children in Haiti, every day that passed was another day too many. Still, it wasn’t easy.

As if she felt a need to explain, Soledad wrote: “Whenever you leave a story, you feel enormous guilt. After all, you’d come to tell people what’s happening, to hold the authorities accountable, to record history in the making. This town was in crisis, and we were leaving.”

What Soledad didn’t know was her work in Chile was completed the day she arrived. The title of her article conveyed an expectation that many people shared, but the essence of what she wrote belonged to something else. She and Rose were living the unfinished story.

There are no similarities between Haiti and Chile. Haiti’s story is about a human crisis of uncommon proportions. Chile’s story involves ocean waves and the lessons that are learned by following them.

In the early morning hours of February 27th, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck along the coast of Chile, generating a tsunami that threatened the shoreline of all nations bordering the Pacific Ocean. At a depth of 35km (21.7 miles), the quake was the 5th most powerful in recorded history and 800 times stronger than the one that had struck Haiti 6 weeks and 4 days earlier. It shifted the axis of the earth 3 inches, shortened the length of each day, and raised the elevation of Concepción, Chile’s second largest city, 6 feet while moving it 10 feet to the West. It accomplished all of the above in the span of two minutes.

If numerology were the only indicator, I would tell you the gemstone of stories was continuing to find its way into reality. However, numbers aren’t what hold this collection of gems together . . . threads do. Specifically, threads spun of words that have a presence and hold significance in one story, then reappear in seemingly unrelated writings and events, bringing with them greater meaning and deeper understanding.

From the moment I saw the words “massive earthquake” I began looking for a way to connect what was unfolding in Chile with what happened in Haiti. Names always have meaning and cities have stories. The first thing I did was look up Concepción. It’s Spanish for “conception” in reference to the Roman Catholic Church dogma Immaculate Conception. In Chile, Concepción is the capital of the Biobío Region . . . also known as Region VIII.

Probably like most people, I expected Concepción to be decimated, or worse. But photos and film clips that captured city streets in the immediate aftermath didn’t match up.

Haiti had suffered apocalyptic type destruction; Chile was in a catastrophic condition.

Live broadcasts redirected viewers’ attention to the tsunami racing across the Pacific Ocean. Waves were expected to hit the shores of Hawaii at 11:19 a.m. local time. Sirens began to sound at 6 a.m. giving coastal populations 5 hours to evacuate.

As the world waited, a story emerged telling of waves that had roared ashore on Robinson Crusoe Island. No formal warning had been provided this group of islanders; in fact, they were told they were in the clear. A twelve-year-old girl named Martina saw the boats in the bay crashing into each other and ran to the plaza where she rang the town’s emergency bell.

Earthtimes.org reported, “A wall of water—possibly nearly 5 meters (15 feet) high—ravaged everything in its way. Within a few minutes, the scene of the adventures of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk—marooned on the island from 1704 to 1708, and immortalized in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe—had been razed to the ground.”

On the mainland, a similar scene played out. Chilean officials formally announced there was no local threat of a tsunami. However, a group of teenagers drinking on the beach noticed the water in the harbor had receded and ran through the streets of Constitución—located in Region VII—yelling for everyone to get to higher ground. The seaside resort was crushed as 30 foot waves cut a 1 ½ mile path through town.

Nothing was as it was supposed to be. Buildings were still standing where there should have been piles of dust. The death toll was a fraction of Haiti’s. Places said to be safe were hit hard, while those told of imminent danger were passed over without incident. A child used instinct to save a town, while experts were at a loss of words to explain what happened. Gerard Fryer of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said, “I think we dodged a bullet.” “We will analyze this thing to death, but I think it was right to issue a warning.”

At the end of the day, I had one thread of a detail to work with: a marooned sailor named Alexander Selkirk.

If you’ve read my blog “The Question that Begs to be Answered: Has the Story Come to Life,” you may recall that the history of Haiti included slave-trade and inter-marriage which led to a mixed population that French settlers called the Maroons for their reddish-brown skin color. You might also appreciate the dilemma I found myself with. After the quake in Haiti, I had pages and pages of details that originated in the imaginary stories that were appearing in news articles reporting events unfolding day by day.

I can tell you what’s happening . . . but I can’t begin to explain how.

Since the earthquake in Haiti, the only thing that has changed is Love Happens was added to the gemstone of stories. Love Happens uses human actions to visually project words and ideas, much like Ezekiel acted out God's words in the Bible. At the start of the seminar on working through grief, attendees describe the person they’ve lost solely in terms of their, "you know," physical attributes. Burke has them climb the stairs to the top of a building and asks them to view life from a different perspective. It’s the one scene in the movie that includes an obvious thread to the Bible—the naked bather in the hot tub captures the visual of Bathsheba as King David had seen her. In Seattle, from the rooftop they see rivers, beautiful rivers, Mount Rainier, the ocean, and the sun. The view is reminiscent of the second to last scene in The Story of the Grail:

His host the boatman and the knight
went up around the spiral stair
beside the vaulted palace far,
until they reached the tower’s summit
and viewed the lands surrounding from it.
The country round the citadel
was lovelier than one can tell.
So, from on high, the lord Gawain
admired the river and the plain
and forest filled with birds and deer.
“By God, host, I’ll like living here.”

In Love Happens, Burke uses the stairs instead of the elevator. Curiously, he has to go down stairs whenever he interacts with people. On the stairwell he takes note of his position, glancing down to see how far he’s progressed and peering upward to see how far he has to go to reach his quarters. Inside the flower shop, Eloise's Garden, Eloise tells Burke she’s still trying to wrap her head around what his thing is. He responds, “You’re just going to have to read my book.”

Eloise: You’re slippery.
Burke: I prefer mysterious.

Eloise overcomes all the obstacles that would have prevented her and Burke from watching the band called Rogue Wave perform and proudly proclaims, “Where there is a will, there is a way!”

The events tied to the earthquake in Chile are mysterious and it took me a while to discern where this chapter of the story was going. I decided if I only had one thread, I was going to follow it wherever it went.

A sailor marooned on an island: Alexander Selkirk was part of the crew aboard a ship called the Cinque Port that landed on the shores of Juan Fernández Island to restock supplies in the year 1704. Alexander didn’t trust the seaworthiness of the ship and requested to be left behind . . . assuming another ship would be stopping to restock water and food within a reasonable period of time. The captain was happy to oblige his request. Selkirk grabbed his clothes, a musket, gun powder, some carpenter tools, a knife, and a Bible to sustain himself. But he had sorely miscalculated the passage of ships and was alone on the island a total of four years and four months.

Selkirk’s adventures of survival inspired Daniel Defoe to write the novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. To honor the literary lore, in 1966 the Chilean government renamed Juan Fernández Island, officially calling it Robinson Crusoe Island and applied the sailor's true name to an adjacent piece of land, Alejandro Selkirk Island. Around the year 2000, an archeological expedition led by Daisuke Takahashi discovered an early 18th or late 17th century nautical instrument that almost certainly belonged to Selkirk. (Like the astrolabe discovered in The Last Templar.)

Robinson Crusoe Island is the largest of three islands that form the Chilean Juan Fernández archipelago, 674 kilometers west of South America. They're part of the World Biosphere Reserves and are considered of maximum scientific importance because of the endemic species of flora and fauna. To be endemic means that a species is found only in that part of the world . . . and nowhere else.

Biosphere reserves are protected areas that are meant to demonstrate a balanced relationship between man and nature. But even their remoteness doesn't free them from the threat of extinction as the islands' own endemic lovely red hummingbird, the Juan Fernández Firecrown, is on the list of species identified as critically endangered.

In the days that have passed since the 8.8 magnitude temblor generated waves that crashed ashore Robinson Crusoe Island and Region VII, news reports have been few and far between. Of the stories that do arise journalists want to compare Chile’s quake to other earthquakes. On March 2nd, CNN.com provided a look at the famous 1835 Chilean quake which happened exactly 175 years and 7 days prior. Striking at 11:00 a.m. on February 20, 1835, the quake has been estimated as magnitude 8.5.

As it so happened, Charles Darwin had stopped in Chile in the course of his voyage on the HMS Beagle and experienced the quake first hand. The observations he gathered in the days that followed inspired Darwin to ask how it was that living things changed in order to adapt to an ever-changing world. And his answer was evolution.

In the years to come, Soledad O’Brien and Rose Arce will reflect back on their experience in Chile and recall their own observations in those early days after the quake of 2010. I imagine they will always remember, “Getting there was half the story." "We were followed by an enormous full moon and skimpy clouds that danced along the skyline. This region seems to be too lovely to be the scene of any tragedy. Its tall green mountains peaked with whitecaps and broad lakes give way to fields and sparkly beaches.”

Other quakes will have erased whatever similarities they thought were unique between Haiti and Chile. Hopefully Soledad will come to understand that she was at ground zero when she wrote, "the beauty and efficiency aren't enough to diminish what connects these folks to Haiti — that the people waiting for buses beside the blackberry fields along Panamericana Ruta 5 are running scared."

In the movie Love Happens, after the symbolic event of releasing Rocky into the wild, Burke Ryan makes his way back to civilization via Interstate 5. But that's a completely different road . . . in another hemisphere.

Permission to use photo does not include endorsement of this blog:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hectorgutierrez/ / CC BY 2.0