The Monday following Japan’s deadly earthquake, tsunami, and unfolding nuclear nightmare, we bought fish for our first family aquarium. Jennifer and the girls and I pored over the beautiful swimmers at a pet store in Seaside, Oregon, evacuated three days prior.
An employee’s helpful advice about keeping a healthy tank were a welcome counter-balance to the grief and worry hanging over us. The catastrophe in Japan came less than three weeks after a smaller quake did serious damage in New Zealand. Are we next in line for tectonic turmoil?
The question has prompted our family to tighten up emergency plans. We’ve stocked up on reserve supplies for our home where we can hole up above the tsunami zone. We’ve scoped out quick routes to higher ground at routine locations: at schools and workplaces; when visiting friends; running errands; while choosing whether to start with guppies or goldfish.
On the way to the pet store, Jennifer and the girls met me at our bookstore in downtown Cannon Beach. They gave me a backpack full of survival goodies – water purification tablets, food, blanket, first-aid kit, flashlight, batteries, matches, etc. I spend much of my workweek in a vulnerable spot — near the north end of town close to Ecola Creek. My family wanted to improve my future chances of making it home.
If I feel the earth shake, I’m not getting in my car. I’ll grab that backpack and borrow a bike from my neighbor at Mike’s Bike Shop, who has graciously offered to lend anyone his wheels in the event of a sudden evacuation. If it’s a vigorous quake, I’m told the downtown bridge will probably collapse, cutting off our closest access to high ground above the north entrance. It will take twice as long for us to get to a comparable elevation just south of midtown. Yet without a quake-proof crossing of Ecola Creek, most people I’ve talked to plan to head south.
Trying to think through all the ifs can be unnerving. What if the big one happens at one of those all-too-frequent times when I’ve been postponing a bathroom break in order to serve customers? Should I dash into the bushes, or start pedaling and accept whatever happens as comic relief? If an earthquake wrecks the bridge, odds are it will crumble the cinder-block garage that houses my shop. I’ll be lucky to make it out from under the books, with or without a full bladder.
I contemplate this thing we call luck while admiring our new goldfish. These creatures are said to bring good fortune to their caretakers, according to Asian custom. In Japan the keeping of ornamental fish has been a tradition for over a thousand years. Gazing at them is a form of relaxation; some say it can even induce a meditative state that heightens human perception.
Here’s what my heart tells me while watching our fish. If people are good caretakers, we are more likely to have good luck. When we give loving attention to the life around us, we are more apt to understand the details of our survival. It’s a practical realization, and it applies at all levels of society.
Locally, we take good care of our families by planning and investing in emergency preparedness. For Cannon Beach, a strengthened bridge would bring peace of mind to people at the conference center, school, and throughout the vulnerable north end of our community. This should have been done many years ago, using transportation money that was squandered elsewhere on new boondoggles and sprawl.
While we’re focusing on our immediate surroundings, we must not neglect the bigger picture of human caretaking. Radiation leaking from a huge nuclear facility across the ocean shows how the earth suffers from our colossal crisis in human judgment. Corporations cut corners in so many ways. Their agents place massive risks on our earth in pursuit of private profits. Public officials fail repeatedly to right this imbalance, despite advance warning from citizens.
This collusion between big business and big government is breaking creation apart, even as it drains away limited resources we need to repair the damage. The nuclear nightmare in the Pacific echoes the grim incompetence we’ve seen with oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico and with Wall Street’s predations on our economy. We’ve given control of our planet to high-risk gamblers who only pretend to be caretakers in order to push their game.
Watching fish is a peaceful contrast to this reality, even if part of me would rather watch a Clint Eastwood movie. Yet fish aren’t just symbols of gentle fortune. According to Japanese folk religion, earthquakes are caused by giant subterranean fish called “namazu.” Their movement is triggered by an imbalance in society and considered to be an act of “yonaoshi,” or world rectification. These creatures literally shake things up in order to correct some deep disorder.
On the surface, the idea seems distantly related to the Western school of religious justice – the one that teaches how floods and plagues and other disasters serve as retribution for sin.
Modern thought rejects that kind of supernatural causation; yet moral hazards can indeed have mortal consequences. We bet against good judgment when we invest in sprawl over safety, power over prudence, and consumption over conservation. Humanity loses when our grab for short-term gain is greater than our mindfulness of the risks at hand.
My heart ponders these things while gazing at our goldfish. It tells me tragedies often reveal ways to right our priorities and mend broken trust.
Do we feel lucky? Are we listening?
An earlier version of this post was published as a column in the Cannon Beach Citizen. It has also been cross-posted at FireDogLake.com and Dagblog.com.