Remembering the wave

Gretel Ehrlich on her trip to Japan straight after the tsunami

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On March 11 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan sent a series of massive waves crashing to shore. An elderly fisherman cycled toward the harbour. ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ his son yelled. But rather than evacuate, the old man turned toward the tsunami. It’s in this fraught space – between father and son, land and sea, life and death – that Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave begins.

An American essayist who writes lyrically of travel and nature, Ehrlich had previously travelled to Japan, and felt compelled to return in the wake of the disaster. Her tragic yet moving account of the post-tsunami devastation combines first-person stories, blog posts, vivid observations and occasional haiku.

The reportage is arguably stronger than the poetry, but it’s effective how fluidly she moves among forms. The result is a searing portrait of a ravaged land: submerged shrines, displaced people and ‘boats [riding] waves of rice straw.’ She also describes unseen horrors: constant aftershocks and radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant seeping into the water and soil.

Ehrlich has a history of willingly going where others won’t. In her meditative 1985 debut, The Solace of Open Spaces, she recalls settling in Wyoming, much to the dismay of her city friends. (‘What appeared to them as a landscape of lunar desolation and intellectual backwardness was luxurious to me.’) In 1993, a magazine editor told her he wanted to send a writer to Greenland but couldn’t find one. ‘I’ll go,’ Ehrlich volunteered. In the two decades since, she has trekked to the remote ice sheet numerous times.

Like the best travel reporters, she demonstrates a keen ability to focus, adapt and observe, even in an extreme landscape or situation. In Facing the Wave, she shares survivors’ tales, including those of guerrilla animal rescuers, an 84-year-old geisha, and the son of the fisherman who faced the wave. At times, she’s overwhelmed. ‘Some days I too feel stricken. I tell myself I can’t go back to the coast; I can’t look any more.’ Still, the importance of the book lies in her subsequent realisation. ‘No, that’s wrong,’ she says. ‘I can’t stop looking.’
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