I just returned from a weeklong spring break field trip in West Texas with my geology students to news of the 8.9 (now upgraded to 9.0) magnitude earthquake, and related 30-foot tsunami, nuclear reactor explosion and meltdowns, and oil refinery fire in Japan. In the El Paso airport on March 12, I picked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal to find out more about the events. The images of buildings, boats and other transport vehicles tossed willy-nilly by seawater — like toys swept aside by a frustrated child — took my breath away; they impressed on me yet again the spatial magnitude of Earth’s powerful forces.
I appreciated the clear rendering of the mechanisms of the quake and consequent tsunami — subduction of the Pacific plate beneath this outpost of the North American plate with massive uplift of the seafloor and displacement of voluminous amounts of seawater. Reporters for the Journal contextualized the historic proportions of the seismic event (the fifth-largest recorded earthquake in the past century and the biggest in Japan in three hundred years); they lauded the country’s high degree of earthquake preparedness.
What struck me most, however was the extensive coverage of the economic implications of the quake for the global economy and speculations about how quickly life in and beyond Japan could get back to normal especially in terms of industrial and technological production. Of course I realize that business and financial news is that paper’s focus, nonetheless, I’d like to take the opportunity offered by this recent cascade of events to highlight a lesson that I think the Earth offers about reactions to stresses that can traumatize all living beings.
As readers of this blog know, I’m a seeker of “Earth dharma” — examples of Earth processes that resound with the wisdom of dharma teachers. For me, this recent temblor echoes teachings related to the devastating effects of the build-up of stress on a body and mindful approaches to healing.
In this seismic event, a locked fracture at the juncture of two lithospheric plates caused strain to accumulate in the rocks beneath the sea near the east coast of Honshu, Japan. It was released catastrophically as images of demolished landscapes and towns continue to show. As one geophysicist put it, “the rocks cracked under the pressure.”
I find it impossible not to take this as a metaphor for the effect on the human body of stress accumulated over the long-term and extract from it ideas about the delicacy of healing after such crises on earth. I’m sure others must have the same impulse but I feel especially inclined to it just coming off this field trip which took me to, among other places, Carlsbad Caverns (in New Mexico, just over the Texas border).
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The moist, cool, subterranean world of Carlsbad Caverns beneath the rugged, desert landscape is an unparalleled realm of colossal chambers and extraordinary cave formations (known to geologists as speleothems). Formed a few million years ago by the dissolution of parts of a much older reef—the remains of sponges, algae and other marine invertebrate organisms that lived during the late Paleozoic — and then decorated beginning around 500,000 years ago, drop by drop, with crystals of calcite, steep passages connecting horizontal levels provide access to the Earth’s shallow interior.
While walking along the dimly lit paths through the caverns, I pointed out to one my medical school-bound students, “popcorn” speleothems precipitated so as to resemble, in my view, the alveoli of human lungs.
She marveled at the formation along with me. Then, further down the trail commented, “I feel like I’m walking inside the body of the Earth.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Upon learning of the Japan quake, President Obama said at a news conference, “Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be.” Ostensibly sturdy, our Earth and all living beings on it are really quite delicate. The Prime Minister of Japan asserted that the current situation is the most severe crisis the country has faced since World War II and one that, in his words, will require people to join together in order to overcome the catastrophe. I agree that people will need to cooperate with one another but I think also that the current situation requires honesty — what is happening at those damaged reactors? — and patience. Is a focus on the possible effects of the catastrophe on the global economy a compassionate first response?
This portion of the Earth and the people who live there have experienced what my colleague David Applegate, senior science adviser for earthquakes at the U.S. Geological Survey has called a “low probability, high consequence” event. Foremost among my responses to the crisis, fresh from my recent intimate encounter with the Earth, is the wish that all living beings effected by this trauma be healed over the course of time.