Tsunami survivors share stories of resilience in Gretel Ehrlich’s new book, ‘Facing the Wave’
When a massive earthquake struck Tohoku, Japan in 2011, it shook the waterfront house of an 84-year-old woman so badly that it fell over. A local merchant who happened to be running past scooped the older woman onto his shoulders and carried her to higher ground. Interviewed later by a local journalist, the woman revealed that she was the last geisha on the northern coast of Japan and the last person who knew a traditional song.
“She kept saying, ‘I’m so grateful because I had this one last thing I had to do before I died. I have to pass on this song so it’s not forgotten.’ And she did that,” says author Gretel Ehrlich, who met the woman in the coastal farming village soon after a tsunami had devastated the region.
Ehrlich had read the woman’s story when it was picked up and published by the New York Times, and she includes a retelling of the tale in her newest book, “Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami.” She will read from the book and sign copies at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Feb. 24.
Ehrlich is a travel writer, poet and essayist whose work often illustrates the interwoven relationship between natural elements and human cultures.
“I just don’t see a boundary between nature and culture,” she says. “Humans are nature. You can’t move away from being influenced by [natural space]. It shapes consciousness and language and movement. How you walk is shaped by the kind of terrain you grew up walking on.”
Ehrlich’s latest book is the product of her spontaneous decision to travel to Japan following the disaster. She has been a Buddhist practitioner since she first traveled to Japan in 1968. She has since spent several long periods of time in the region and says she feels a strong connection with Japanese culture.
She arrived in Japan after the disaster with no particular plans in place aside from visiting with victims and listening to their stories.
“A way of healing is being able to talk about what happened, and so I wanted to go there and be a witness, and listen to peoples’ stories,” she says. She’d been to the area before and felt an affinity and personal intimacy with its rural way of life.
“I just went, and it was kind of haphazard,” she says. “I got in touch just by chance with two women who translated for me, and at the last minute we got this driver who was this really great 48-year-old guy who lives way up in the mountains in a little house with no heat or running water. That’s where we stayed because there was nowhere else to stay … it had all been washed away.”
Ehrlich was born on a horse ranch near Santa Barbara and attended UCLA film school. She worked in film for 10 years, and then began to write full-time following the death of a loved one. She had been filming on a sheep and cattle ranch in northern Wyoming at the time, and there she stayed.
That experience inspired her first published book, “The Solace of Open Spaces,” in 1984. While Ehrlich has now published 14 books in total, including “Match to the Heart,” in which she describes her recovery after being struck by lightning.
Ehrlich is perhaps best known for her writing on arctic travel and global climate change.
“I’ve written not only about the arctic and indigenous arctic peoples, but also the horrors of human-caused climate change,” she says. “I have a very clear point, and that’s to wake people up to the fact that we are facing a global emergency.”
And rather than pose polemics on the changing world climate, Ehrlich implements anecdotal stories in her writing.
For example, she recalls the time she was riding in a dog sled in the arctic when the path of ice just ahead suddenly caved in and she barely survived.
“I experienced the changing climate really under my feet when our dog sled started running through the ice,” she says. “It’s happening everywhere, not just the arctic, and of course with all this violent weather, and tree mortality in the West and aquifers drying up—people can start seeing in their own lives the stories of what’s changing, and then what the possibilities are of mitigating climate change.”
While much of Ehrlich’s writing draws attention to climate change, “Facing the Wave” has a slightly different purpose. It is an illustration of human resilience via survivors’ stories.
Ehrlich says while walking the charnel grounds day and night she stumbled upon the people and stories she chronicles in her book.
“The book was written out of the inspiration of those moments there, and the amazing stories and the vitality of the survivors,” she says. “It’s really they who made it happen.”
Ehrlich adds that she composed the book in the spirit of a long tradition of walking journeys in Japan.
“It’s what the Japanese call ‘following the brush,’” she says. “You just follow whatever appears, whatever you come across, and that’s your material.”
Gretel Ehrlich will read from “Facing The Wave,” answer questions and sign copies at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. No cover. 423-0900. For more information, visit bookshopsantacruz.com.