Finding Ground

This town is on edge. After a fatal landslide this week that buried three people, you can feel the anxiety everywhere. I feel it looking out the front window, at the long trees swaying on the steepest mountain in town, about 100 yards from our front door. FullSizeRender-24On Tuesday, the morning of the landslide, the rain growled and receded then revved up again, coating the windows like water in a car wash while we ate eggs and toast at the table. "The rain hears so loud," Zaley said, her wide eyes looking into the streams running down the window panes. Friends texted things like, "This is ridiculous." Sometime in the afternoon, it stopped and the sun appeared and we took advantage and went for a walk. We did not know about the three men down the road who tried to outrun the running earth. In our front yard, the little creek had become a powerful gushing thing the color and opaqueness of a frapuccino. Purple fireweed petals were spinning down from Eliasen Loop, the street perched on a shelf of stone above ours. And sometime around the time we were walking, a woman put on rubber gloves to look for her husband's body on the hill behind a washed away house.

Last night was the first heavy rain we've had since the landslide. In the middle of the night, the blue tarp strung tight over the hot tub snapped in the wind, and my dreams translated the sound into the cracking of fast-moving trees. I flew awake, didn't sleep for three hours, and then Luke was leaving in the dark trickle of morning.

FullSizeRender-23There is no TV station to turn to here, to see what has transpired overnight. There's a "Sitka Chatters" Facebook page, so at 5 AM, I cruised through there, watching movies of the deceased till I realized I felt weird invading into the sorrow that should be reserved for the lovers of the dead. There are receipts posted on the Facebook page, too: people "paying it forward" all around town, buying meals anonymously for families who have evacuated, funding $300 worth of coffee at the Highliner for anyone who orders till it's gone. Someone who makes oven-glazed ceramic mugs has been leaving them on the trails with love notes to locals pinned between clay and stone.

This aftermath-feeling of surrounded aloneness reminds me of the New Orleans feeling: a low-grade, disappearing and reappearing dread. Like butterflies before a performance, wings steeped in a real, unshakeable worry. My friend Lisa went to set crab traps in Nakwasina Sound--an area 11 miles from town, but bordered by other islands--and she said she saw the scars of three new slides on those similar mountains. I heard there were six landslides yesterday on our island alone. Even though this was called a 25-year storm, it would be  foolish to assume that more of these mountains won't fall. I have learned this summer that you can't always be surprised when you are the 1 in the statistic--1 in 25, 1 in 250, 1 in 2,500.

FullSizeRender-21I have been doing what I do, which is seeking consolation through questions: "Are you scared this will happen again, too?" An acquaintance whose boys were playing with Zaley on the beach yesterday said, "If Mount Verstovia came down, my house would land on top of yours." But then I saw my neighbor and her one-year old boy at the kid's storytime and exercise class at the library and while the toddlers were pretending they were bears, she told me that the mountain that fell has a foundation of almost pure mud, whereas Verstovia is only inches of mud atop a thick rock slab. A slab, she said, that should stay put. I have been clinging to the image of that slab since we spoke.

I drove past Kramer Avenue, where the deadly slide happened, and my arms prickled in the sun. It's all taped off, but you can see where the trees are still supine, where the cadaver dogs had their horrifying success. The two bodies they've found were guys in their 20s from our church--pretty boys I would have had a crush on if I were their age. The other was a man I've seen in town many times, the Facebook photos jarring me with how much sharper loss is made by familiarity. There's also a video of the precursors to Tuesday's slide: 20-foot logs creeping downhill on a tall bed of brown. There is only the slightest volume to this deluge of soil, and I think of Anna, how she will not know danger first by its sound.

All day, looking up at this mountain through the window above our front door, I picture another landslide. I picture running with my girls, if we had time, if we would go down the steep gravel driveway in reverse, the baby on my lap, Zaley in the passenger seat, no time for carseats or brakes or belongings. I keep comparing natural disasters in my head, and though it seems I've always neglected to think of landslides in the list of the biggest and bad-est (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis), landslides may be the worst because there's only a second or two of warning before that life-eating suture.

Some people escaped the Kramer Avenue disaster by bolting up the mountain. We escape this morning's ominous sky full of helicopters and clouds by going to my friend Shelley's for coffee and Dutch baby pancakes, which she pulls puffy and golden from the oven in butter-coated, glass casserole pans. Inside Shelley's warm home, Emmylou Harris's voice croons from the counter and I realize it's the first time I've heard music since we found out Anna is deaf, and I am so full of sadness I cannot speak.

FullSizeRender-20Zaley is the best distraction, though--the kind I wish I'd had in New Orleans ten years ago this week, when I found our street stripped down to nothing by the power of water. She is excited today to "balance like a tree," waving her arms and lifting one leg. She doesn't know about natural disasters, despair, any feelings that might underride all the joys in one given day. I wish that Luke were here, too, but he sends an email from his boat: "Don't worry about the things you can't control." It is simple, but that's what saves me from thinking too much today about what we lose before we're ready. I keep saying it over and over again, "Do not worry about the things you can't control," looking at this mountain overhead, looking at my Anna.