I don’t know what I was thinking, but I expected ruin. Although it has been more than five years since the shinsai, the tragic earthquake-tsunami that devastated the northeastern Tohoku region of Japan, the image of the disaster was so ingrained in my mind that, on the train to Sendai, I readied myself for the wreckage.
As in all tragedies, the historiography of the shinsai consists of just “before” and “after”. I was thirteen and in America when it happened; watching my mother’s country sink deeper and deeper into the ocean from a faraway TV screen, safe and sound. I think I must have sunk at that time, too–into guilt–because it has been since then that I have wanted to volunteer. Watching out the window of the train (for the wreckage that did not exist), I felt suddenly upset at myself for not being there to help when it was needed the most.
But it didn’t look like the country needed saving. On the drive to MORIUMIUS, an eco-conscious organization working to revitalize the town of Ogatsu, Miyagi, new construction lay all along the coastline. Next to future homes and future schools, huge lots of land are reserved for the creation of sea walls and the tetrapods lining them. It wasn’t until later that another intern would point out the symbolism: Years ago, nature reclaimed this country, reminding us of its presence and power. Now, the exact people it had devastated were building a wall to try to keep it out.
Certainly, it is not my place to speak on how the survivors of a disaster I was fortunate not to experience choose to move on in the aftermath. Still, to build a wall between human beings and nature seems almost antithetical to what I have been able to learn at MORIUMIUS. In just my first five days here, I have lived on a mountain with no station and no stores for miles; gazed down at the ocean from the top of a valley; eaten exotic foods that came fresh from the land and the sea; ruined my white Stan Smiths in a day; fed pigs with slop we formed ourselves; fed goats with plants we found ourselves; befriended the goat matriarch, whom I call mama; held mama whilst almost being kicked in the eye to milk her and drank the milk straight from the bucket; worked (cleaned) like never before; met people I like a lot; planted rice; sampled the farmer family’s own delicious rice crackers; confirmed my Shinto faith (How could there not be a spirit in all of these things?); cooked over a fire that was hand-kindled and hand-kept until the tears streamed down my cheeks; eaten from animals whose faces or names I have known; picked up a chicken; walked up a mountain completely unprepared; sat by the seawater in the freezing cold, drank the seawater on purpose; had pudding made from produce from our own goats and chickens; and climbed a sea wall using a rusty/rickety ladder so I could see the ocean stretch as far as the horizon. With each and every new thing I do here, I become more and more thankful for all that goes into my being alive. To me, it’s a lot less coincidence than a bunch of complex cycles at work–call it fate, maybe.
I used to live in a place like this, but I have been away for so long. All of this is an overdue reminder of how small I really am, and how large nature really is.