I was living in southern California in 1989, but many of my loved ones were in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area when the earthquake hit. So was Alice Wentworth, the female protagonist of my novel-in-progress, Schatz. On the 30th anniversary of the earthquake, I’m honored to offer the first chapter for you to read.
Santa Cruz – October 1989
Closed for the Battle of the Bay. Alice capped the black marker and admired the baseball she had sketched on a sheet of paper below the hand-lettered words. She shooed her last customer out of the Daily Grind, then grabbed the sign and the slim paperback under the counter that she had reached for a dozen times this afternoon. Her coffee house was running smoothly enough that she could finally take a few weeks off next summer, and during her lunch break she’d walked over to Bookshop Santa Cruz to buy a guidebook to the John Muir Trail. Although she was itching to pore through it, the one thing that could deter her was about to start: Game 3 of the World Series. The A’s had won the first two in Oakland, but now the San Francisco Giants were coming home to Candlestick. She planned to watch the game tonight with her cousins Will and Liana. and they were all certain the home field advantage would turn the tide.
Alice taped her sign on the door and stepped out into a golden Indian summer afternoon. She had just enough time to walk over to Zanotto’s to pick up sausages and potato salad and still get home by game time. Liana and Will would meet her there as soon as they could. In her jeans and Giants tee shirt, trail guide tucked in the purse over her shoulder, Alice strode down the block and then slowed when she turned right onto the Pacific Garden Mall. Its flower-filled planter boxes and leafy trees made Pacific Avenue feel more like an oasis than a street, and the warm sunshine made her dreamy. The thought of Will Clark hitting a home run mingled with images of the Sierras, craggy peaks and alpine —
A heavy truck suddenly rumbled up behind her, and Alice whirled around, but there was nothing there. She could feel the reverberation in her feet, yet all she could see was a car parked in front of Shockley’s Jewelers and a woman jogger also looking around for the noise. Then it magnified. Like tumbling boulders, thunder pounded up from the ground and threw Alice off balance. Earthquake! If she were inside, she would dive under a table or race inside a door jamb, but —
The pavement began to ripple, and panic swept through Alice. The street was actually rising and falling like ocean waves rolling towards her, the monster from the deep that haunted childhood dreams, and there was nowhere to duck and cover, nothing to hang onto. Alice froze in place, hands out to keep her balance. “It’s a big one,” a man near her yelled. Screams rose from all around and more rumbling; people came running out of buildings; the sound of breaking glass filled the air. Something caught the corner of Alice’s eye — the flagpole in front of the post office was whipping back and forth in an arc so wide it nearly touched the ground with each swoop. Was she losing her mind, or was this suddenly elastic pole for real? It almost transfixed her, but then bricks tumbled down from a nearby store. A long creak pierced the sounds of grinding stone, and a few yards away the roots of a tree began to undulate beneath the ground like a living creature. As if in slow motion the tree began to topple, and Alice backed away as it crashed into a car in front of her.
Then the shaking stopped; the ground seemed solid once more. But was it really? Alice’s heart pounded, her whole body trembling. Instinctively, she drew a deep breath, held it for a count of five, then released it, the trick her grandmother had taught her for coping with acrophobia. Maybe it worked for earthquakes too. No, not really. Her heart was still thumping like a drum in her chest.
It seemed like forever since she had been daydreaming about Will Clark. A cloud of gray dust hung over the Pacific Garden Mall, and Alice wasn’t even sure which direction she was facing. Up and down the street littered with bricks and chunks of masonry, people stood looking as dazed as she felt. She thought she heard wind chimes, then realized it was more bricks falling off a building across the street. A man in a business suit came towards her, picking his way through the rubble.
“Alice, is that you?”
She peered into the dusty face and recognized Sean, the lawyer who came into the Daily Grind every morning for a depth charge. She nodded as they stepped into each other’s arms. This morning he’d been a customer she barely knew, and now he felt like family. She hugged him tight and felt her heart rate slow just a little. In this tiny island of comfort, tears sprang to her eyes, they would flood her in a minute. Get a grip, she told herself and pulled away. “Are you all right?”
Alice glanced down at her shirt and jeans covered in gray dust, amazed to realize that her purse was still slung over her shoulder. Her legs were shaky, but she seemed unhurt. “I’m okay.”
Together, she and Sean took in the uprooted tree in front of them and the crushed car beneath it, the broken windows and crumbled facade of the jewelry store. As far as they could see, the mall looked the same: torn branches, collapsed storefronts, bricks everywhere. She smelled gas.
“Oh no.” Sean pointed, then headed down the street. A block away several people were digging through a pile of debris in front of a building. Alice started after him, scrambling among the bricks and crumbled concrete, then suddenly remembered Will and Liana.
“Purple Moon!” She tapped Sean’s shoulder. “I have to go!” With a reluctant look at the panicked activity in front of them she turned back and down the first side street she came to, trying to dismiss the image of her cousins and all the children in the daycare center trapped inside a wrecked building. And what about her dad? Her aunt and uncle?
Just a block from Pacific the streets were clear, and Alice ran as fast as she could, grateful for the sneakers she wore at work. Within a minute she jogged up to the Purple Moon InfoShop. Its sign dangled by one corner, but the building itself looked intact. A scribbled note was taped to the front door: We’re in back. Watch your step. Alice slipped into the entryway and could hardly believe her ears. From a distance, through the open door with the purple sickle moon painted on it, came the chatter and laughter of children. Alice stopped to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Loose ceiling tiles swayed overhead, and the photos of Ghandi and Martin Luther King and the Maurice Sendak prints had flown from the walls, but somewhere down the hall children were playing. Alice followed the improbable sound through the playroom, where crayons and toys were scattered across the floor, and out the back door to the small playground.
Although it was starting to get dark outside, it was still brighter than indoors, and compared to the devastation on the mall, the normalcy of the scene made it look like heaven. Will, Giants cap on backwards, was pushing a toddler in one of the swings, while Liana talked to a mother cradling a child on one hip and holding the hand of another. The rest of the kids clamored around a student intern Alice didn’t recognize who was passing out sandwich quarters dripping with peanut butter and grape jelly. Well, actually it wasn’t normal to hand out snacks at the end of the day, but what could be more comforting than a PB&J? And now that she thought about it, she’d never seen Will on the daycare side of the building. Amidst the prattle of the children Alice made out words like terremoto and aventura.
“Alice!” Liana had just noticed her and came running to hug her, Will right behind her. Quickly they filled her in: the power was out, their parents were okay, so was their sister Julie and her family, but the phone line went dead before they could reach Alice’s father.
“I’ll go to his house,” Alice said. Jonathan was either there or at the university, and the house was closer. It made sense to start there first.
“I’ll go with you,” Will said. “Might as well walk. Traffic will be a mess.”
“Grab a flashlight from the playroom,” Liana instructed. “Let’s rendezvous at Mom and Dad’s. I’ll head over as soon as all the kids are picked up.”
Sometimes Liana’s bossy teacher mode drove Alice crazy, but at the moment she couldn’t think about anything except making sure her father was okay, and she was glad to have a plan. She started to go, then stopped, put a hand on Liana’s arm.
“What about Scott?”
“He’s on duty.” Liana’s fiancé was a paramedic. “I don’t expect …” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“He’s a tough nut,” Will said. “Don’t worry.”
Typical male, Alice thought. How could Liana not worry? She hugged Liana. “See you soon.”
She and Will strode into the playroom and then stopped short in the near darkness.
“We’ll never find it,” Will muttered as they crunched over legos and game pieces.
A moment later Liana followed them in, walked across the room to where a drawer had spilled its contents, and picked up something from the floor. A circle of light filled the room. “Here you go.” She handed the flashlight to Alice and disappeared back out to the playground.
Alice and Will looked at each other with a grin, and Alice led the way back out to the entrance, trying to avoid the pictures on the floor in their little pools of shattered glass. Will gestured towards the InfoShop as they passed, and Alice pointed the flashlight in that direction. The door to the radical reading room Will managed was closed, but through the windows she could see empty shelves and toppled filing cabinets.
“Every single thing is on the floor,” Will commented.
“It could be worse.” She hadn’t even told him about the mall yet. A siren spiraled through the twilight, but they hurried in the opposite direction, away from downtown and towards her father’s house.
The old oak, benevolent sentinel on the road to New Camaldoli, seemed like the tree of life to me. Since before I was born, it has offered shelter to birds and shade to pilgrims. For many years now I have been one of those pilgrims, and coming for retreat season after season, I developed an arrival ritual. As soon as I can, I walk down the road and press my forehead to the oak’s rough bark in silent greeting from me and from the redwoods of my native place. In return it welcomes me to the land, this Big Sur mountain above the Pacific.
When my selfishness threatens to prevail over loving kindness, I like to sit beneath its leafy branches to inquire about generosity and fortitude. A tree gives glory to God by being a tree comes the wind-sifted answer.
It was suffering, I realized when I was here in June, and I wondered if I had failed last winter to notice the brown leaves covering entire sections or if the disease had attacked that quickly. Today, on the brink of autumn, most of those limbs have been lopped off, and the arborist’s work truck stands ready to take more, now adorned only with lichen. A few neighboring oaks are beginning to succumb.
The oak seems like half the tree it was, no longer beautiful, except in art and memory, no longer magnificent. Yet who am I to judge? Surely below ground its roots sink as deeply as ever into the earth. They still commune in fruitful friendship with mycrorrhizal fungi, a crown to mirror the canopy that once was, above.
When I am a crone, white-haired and wizened, may I find sanctuary beside the snag the tree of life is on its way to becoming. May we sit heart to heart with a secret no one else can see – grounded, glowing beauty.
Did you have a favorite tree as a child? Mine was the pine tree in our backyard, a bit of the wild in our tract house neighborhood where my sisters and I could climb, build a clubhouse, or imagine elves and fairies. The green needle canopy of that single pine, its sappy branches, duff carpet, and unique scent formed an entire arboreal world, Sherwood, Narnia, Fangorn Forest. And when I tired of company and play, it became a place to hide out, just the pine tree and me, my first hermitage.
Nicholas Hoel, a character in The Overstory by Richard Powers, also grows up with a special tree. For him it’s the chestnut on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa. Readers meet that tree as a nut gathered by a young Norwegian on Prospect Hill in Brooklyn in the 1850s and carried across the country when Jorgen Hoel and his bride move west to homestead. By the time Nick is born, it has become a landmark sentinel in the prairie, its growth improbably recorded in a series of monthly photographs taken by generations of Hoel men.
Mimi Ma’s childhood tree is the mulberry planted by her immigrant father in their Wheaton, Illinois backyard, “the Tree of Renewal, the tree at the universe’s center, the hollow tree housing the sacred Tao.” In this language you can hear the author’s reverence for trees, one of the many reasons I adored this book.
Nick and Mimi are just two of nine characters spread across the country, all survivors in one way or another (shot down from a plane in Vietnam, electrocuted, paralyzed after falling from a tree) with completely separate, fully realized stories, and it’s astonishing to watch the way trees bring them together. For trees are the stars of this book, the trees that connect the human characters and speak to the reader too: Listen, there’s something you need to hear.
Some of the trees I loved as a child are long gone. The weeping willow that dripped long fronds over our neighbor’s driveway was the perfect backdrop for Halloween when Mrs. Brookman dressed as a witch and – unrecognized in her theatrical makeup – passed out candy to the neighborhood children, but one weekend when the family was out of town the neighbor on the other side chopped it down because the roots were forcing their way up through his driveway. Gone too is the little grove of eucalyptus that grew in the field behind our house, taken down to make room for more houses. Perhaps the most painful loss of all was the liquidamber in the middle of our backyard lawn with its big leafy branches that turned red and orange in autumn – who says we don’t have seasons in California? One winter a storm knocked it down, and we were devastated to see it lying on its side, massive roots ripped from the earth. My father and uncle rigged ropes to hoist it upright and replant it, but the wounds had gone too deep, and the tree could not be saved. It was like losing a loved one.
An epic novel about deforestation and activism, The Overstory is inevitably also about such loss. Powers is such an effecting writer the reader can’t help feel grief when blight takes out all the chestnuts on the eastern seaboard and western forests are clear-cut, but attachment to a particular tree becomes personal and deep when two characters take up residence in a towering old-growth redwood called Mimas in an attempt to save it from loggers (think Julia Butterfly Hill but with a boyfriend). In the face of corporations that view forests as money and loggers on the ground trying to earn a living, how else can one protest and protect? But what kind of activism is ultimately effective? And when does it go too far?
One of my favorite characters is Patricia Westerford, whose speech and hearing impediments have made her feel more at home with trees than people. After studying botany in college, she finds “an animist’s heaven” in forestry school, but quickly realizes that there’s something mistaken about a field in which the men in charge “speak of thrifty young forests and decadent old ones, of mean annual increment and economic maturity.” Ahead of her time she understands the forest as an ecosystem and sets out to prove that trees are social creatures.
The book she eventually writes, The Secret Forest, finds its way to the treehouse in Mimas where the young activists known as Maidenhair and Watchman read it during their long sojourn. It reminded me of a book in real life, The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester. Peter Wohlleben draws on scientific research and his own experience to show how trees are indeed social creatures with friends and families.
Nonfiction is generally where I turn for information about the environment, but fiction – with its possibilities for emotional engagement and spiritual resonance – may have a role to play too. Didn’t J.R.R. Tolkien offer his own powerful plea for the earth in The Lord of the Rings as the wizard Saruman cuts down Fangorn Forest and then despoils the Shire? More recently Deena Metzger’s novel A Rain of Night Birds tells a love story while also advocating that we reclaim TEK, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, to combat climate change. What do you think about environmental fiction? Any novels you’d like to suggest?
“I can hardly wait to have a drink,” a fellow churchgoer told me with a grin as we walked out of the Easter Vigil a few years ago. Ah yes, the bliss when you finally partake of a delight you’ve abstained from for forty days (alcochol! chocolate!), but that was the year I gave up social media, and I had no burning desire to rush home and check Facebook. In a relatively short time I’d gotten out of the habit of even thinking about it. Plastic, on the other hand, I have obsessed about like no other Lenten sacrifice of my life, yet there can be no blissful anticipation at returning to its use.
“How’s your plastic challenge going?” friends often asked me over the last six weeks, and the answer was always some variation of humbling – because I kept failing. Early on I imposed my own penance and promised to give 50¢ to charity for every piece of plastic I put in a trashcan and 25¢ for every piece I recycled. Any guesses on my donation to Save Our Shores? My transgressions add up to a shocking $25! The biggest culprits were trash bags, tamper-proof seals, and takeout containers. There’s not much I can do about those plastic seals, but I’m learning which restaurants use compostable containers and try to remember to take my own “doggie bag” with me when I go out for a meal. Despite my failure to completely eliminate single-use plastics, I have reduced, which means less garbage and fewer trash bags. If you’re contemplating reducing your plastic use, consider other side benefits. Eating less processed food is good for your body as well as the planet. By not shopping online, you will support local businesses and maybe even buy less stuff.
Which habits will stick now that Lent is over? To be honest, the ones that don’t require much of a sacrifice like using mesh produce bags and shopping bulk bins. Avoiding clamshell containers is much harder because I love fresh berries and those Trader Joe’s salads that are perfect to take for lunch at work, but I’m going to try. I’ll definitely keep relying on my Kleen Kanteen and Zojirushi coffee cup and plan to switch from liquid to bar soap, but I might not keep making my own yogurt (yogurt tubs can be recycled though!).
After forty days of considering environmental action as spiritual practice, I’m delighted that Easter and Earth Day almost coincide this year. At this double celebration of life and hope, I’d like to end with a poem in honor of the gray whale I wrote about last week.