Most Californians know they’re living in the path of potential disaster.
Punishing windstorms. Falling trees. Landslides. Wildfires. Floods. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Even volcanoes, although they’re not currently active. All are lurking out there like the Wicked Witch of the West, waiting to smack us upside the head to jog our memories about who’s really in charge here.
But, as Mother Nature reminded us again in mid-March, Californians have lots of company. The calamity in Japan — which some have labeled the most horrific disaster trifecta in modern times — is the latest and most intense example. But remember Haiti, Australia, Sumatra, New Orleans? So many other catastrophes, so many lives lost or changed forever.
We philosophize about our risk, telling ourselves that no place is safe or perfect. Even an ordinary tornado causes a lot more grief than carrying a little girl, her dog, her house and a witch on a bicycle to the Land of Oz.
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On the other hand, humans do tend to congregate in areas that have calamities built in. For instance, it’s estimated that 55 percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the shore, drawn to waters that can quickly rise to smite us.
We build homes on the sides of mountains and cliffs, and then watch as soils turn into water slides that carry those houses along for the ride.
In Cambria, we build along the ocean’s shore, in the hills in a forest. What makes our town so very special also makes it potentially risky.
All this would be less tragic if only structures suffered. But people die when Mother Nature stamps her foot, turning disaster into unspeakably, heartrending tragedy.
Now more than ever, that’s been recorded for posterity. The Japanese triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear holocaust are likely the most filmed catastrophes in the history of the earth. The video images are so hyper-unreal, I suppose we can be forgiven for expecting a credit roll at the end of this real-life “Godzilla” film.
What’s amazing is how much footage there is. Yes, I know the Japanese are known for their inner calm and technological savvy. But so many of them managed to ride out the disasters with digital equipment in hand and running!
Why do we do we put ourselves the path of danger? Why don’t we find a safer corner of the world in which to live and do our business, a place where Mother Nature doesn’t take her periodic pound of flesh in exchange for the right to be so close to so much beauty?
I got some answers from artist Peter Fels, who lives on the edge of the continent just north of Ragged Point.
I’d e-mailed Peter to find out how he and his artist wife, Phoebe Palmer, were faring, given the recent closures of Highway 1 north and south of Big Sur. I also asked him why they’d chosen to live in Big Sur, including in winter, with its isolation, frequent slides and often fierce winter storms.
I already knew some of the answers. First, of course, there's the setting itself, which has inspired poetry, prose, photography and other artworks for centuries. Second, it takes a certain kind of person to live along that 90-mile stretch of Highway 1.
Winter is his favorite time of year, he replied, as he waxed poetic about the joys of Big Sur winters, road closures and all.
“The weather can be big and dramatic. The ocean thumps, roars, tears up the kelp beds and casually tosses huge masses of sand, stone, wood and water as she will.
“The earth tries to reclaim the highway,” he wrote. “All is washed to its true colors and the mountains are verdant...green, green.
“The road is blessedly quietonly nature gets to make the sounds. One’s sense of place is unsullied by tourists and visitors.
“The dynamics of geology are visible, often tangible. People somehow become much smaller. The rest of humanity becomes less significant and imposing.”
However, the artist also is a realist. “Regardless of what we wish of the weather,” he said, Mother Nature “will do as she damn well pleases,” whether humans are living in the path of disaster or not.