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A Writer Reflects on the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami, Two Years Later

March 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Poet and writer Gretel Ehrlich shares her reflections on the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, where she traveled to document the physical and emotional aftermath. Best known for her nature and travel writing, Ehrlich has authored 13 books, including three of poetry.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: Monday marks two years since a devastating tsunami hit Japan. We take a look back through the words of a writer.

Gretel Ehrlich is best known for her nature and travel writing. She’s authored 13 books, including three of poetry.

It was the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan, triggering a tsunami that reached over 130 feet, taking close to 16,000 lives and causing the meltdown of three nuclear reactors, a disaster of epic proportions.

Beginning in the 1960s, Gretel Ehrlich began visiting Japan regularly to study and write about its culture, its religion — she’s a practicing Buddhist — and its literature. Soon after the tsunami, she returned for the first of three trips to document the physical and emotional aftermath.

GRETEL EHRLICH, Author: I felt a need to go. And it’s been a lifelong thing about Japan that has called me. I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to help people tell what had happened to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The result was the new book, part reportage, part personal reflection, titled “Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami.”

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She talked to us about it recently on Kent Island, Md., where she spends the winter.

GRETEL EHRLICH: We came to cove after cove of villages that just didn’t exist anymore.

You would see parts of boats up in the trees and clothing and — from rocks and — but it was when we got to the larger towns, three of them right in a row, where you drive down a street, and the rubble on either side would maybe be two or three stories high. It became this illegible collage of a society that had been completely taken apart and left there.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Ehrlich, one response was in poetry, writing verse based on what she was seeing.

GRETEL EHRLICH: My old friend William Stafford, a poet now gone, said, a poem is an emergency of the spirit.

And I think that’s — were the moments that I wrote a poem, when I couldn’t sort of tell the news anymore.

“Here, the earth altar breaks. We have always been on the move. Past and future, those are places I have never reached. Where the tsunami wave came and went, that’s where I am.”

Everything in Japanese culture is about beauty framed by impermanence. And a poem can be very brief and, in a way, explode out like an open door. It draws the mind and the heart in, and then it lets go. It sort of steps aside. Everything is transient. Everything is in flux.

JEFFREY BROWN: But many things in Japan, she says, also have historical resonance. One of her poems, referring to the 17th century poet Matsuo Basho, makes a comparison between the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

GRETEL EHRLICH: “At Ishinomaki, where Matsuo Basho once wrote a poem, finally, the twisted roadbed drains and the daily flood tides at Ishinomaki dry out. The sky unmists itself and loss upon loss begins to feel like company. Nothing touches. Nights are brittle and soft, ink scraped smooth. To the South, Fukushima Daiichi blazes, flames we can’t see. Sixty-six years ago, two other seacoast towns vanished. I stick my forearm out in moonlight looking seaward. My skin burns.”

There was a sense of survival euphoria that came up, because it was so — in such a field of loss, the possibility that you were still alive was kind of overwhelming.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amid the devastation, Ehrlich says, she found a remarkable resilience. This is a country and a people with long experience of natural disasters, including tsunamis.

GRETEL EHRLICH: “Oceans. Even underwater, I try to see, is the abyss dark or fed by fire? I hold a cracked tea bowl in my mind. It is lopsided, beautiful, spilling. The chilled depths into which I slide break open like doors. Abyss-san says, you have to be alive to die.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Ehrlich says she hopes to return to Japan soon to help with efforts to move people from temporary government housing into permanent homes.

And there’s more online, where you can watch Gretel Ehrlich read from her poetry. That’s on our Art Beat page.