First, define cat·a·calysm. Call it “a momentous and violent event marked by overwhelming upheaval and demolition; broadly: an event that brings great changes.” Then, recall that eerie poem you performed in the backyard as you swung on the tree-branch swing chanting “The permanent is ebbing.”
Define the poem’s title, sea change (noun) as “archaic: a change brought about by the sea; a marked change; transformation.”
Now tell them the facts, broadly. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook New Zealand November 14, 2016 at 12:02 a.m. It was the strongest earthquake to hit the island nation in over a century. You were there, an American student tucked in a bunk bed in a hundred-year-old convent. You feared the world was ending. The quake ruptured 25 fault lines (a world record) and moved the whole town one meter northwest. Prompted by the 2016 earthquake, a group of scientists confirmed that kelp genes bear marks of sea change (read: fault lines thrust above water) and survivors carry a record of devastation and renewal in their genetic material. In other words, these scientists provided evidence that cataclysmic events can be a catalyst for adaption and evolution.
The quake began in a dream. It began with a jostle that could have been your bunkmate shifting below you. But then a shudder went up the convent’s two-story spine. A roar came from everywhere all at once and you rocketed awake and upright. You home turned spooked horse, turned nightmare roller coaster, turned hurricane-thrown boat. Muffled shouts ricocheted down the hall; you felt plaster falling, pulled a blanket over your head, choked on dust and a scream you couldn’t recognize as your own. You called for each other in the darkness, vaulted over fallen dressers down the stairs out the door, collapsed on cracked-open earth.
Full moon, tsunami threat, race up the mountainside. Your vans were first in a line of glowing red taillights serpentine downslope. Half the town’s inhabitants signaled to the others gathered high on the peninsula like a pair of lighthouses. The mountain vanished behind your closed eyelids as the earth rocked the van—you were adrift on a storm-ridden sea.
Landslips rushed down the mountainsides like waterfalls and your ears couldn’t tell the difference. Earthfalls. Earth fall.
Day broke and the world did not end. No tsunami arrived, only a moderate wave. The vans snaked down the mountain and dodged huge potholes and live wires. You returned to survey the damage and found your home uninhabitable. With a burst of panic, you saw a gape in the red-tiled roof and realized the chimney fell through your bedroom ceiling, but you can’t recall if you were still in the room when it happened. The oddest things are recovered from the wreckage. A full carton of eggs is retrieved from the kitchen unscratched. Everyone’s passports are found. Molly the cat is spotted streaking through the flax bushes.
a. Earthquake-driven genetic structure
The backyard poem by Jorie Graham.
Un- natural says the news. Also the body says it. Which part of the body—I look down, can feel it, yes, don’t know where.
“Little contact has been made with Kaikoura,” says the news, says the disembodied voice from the emergency radio. This is unnatural: the aftershocks rippling through the ground like buried waves beneath the parking lot asphalt. The ground doesn’t move like this in Iowa. The ground doesn’t move at all. In Iowa, disaster means wind, means tornado, means go underground to safety. The ground is your constant. Not here. Unnatural, betrayal. You can’t escape these tremors; rather you can only fantasize about hovering a foot above the ground, can only grip your friend’s hand each time another peels through the bedrock.
The body screams I am here! I am afraid! I am alive! You can’t tell which part of the body feels the tremors. They radiate from the once-solid, once-permanent earth, clattering in the bones and sloshing in the soul.
Everything unpreventable…unknown future. Who shall repair this now? The permanent is ebbing.
Two minutes of shaking turned home into disaster zone. Three impassable roads. Zero power. Zero water. Two days spent resurveying the seabed before a ship can arrive to begin the evacuation.
a. Post-earthquake recolonization routes
Make a map to show them where you went. Start in the bedroom.
Circle garden. Mount Fyffe. Sleep in the van. New Life Church parking lot, oceanside. Sleep inside. Hospital lawn. Church again. Pastor’s yard. Pastor’s trampoline. Pastor’s living room. Church again (big aftershock, tsunami threat). Hilltop tent (windstorm). Church, again.
Evacuation point: Bus, rubber dinghy, open ocean, rope ladder, Navy ship (14 hours aboard, no sleep). Pacific Ocean. Christchurch. Bus. Mountain retreat center. Sleep in a bed. Two days watching classmates leave. You are the last to go.
Back to Christchurch by car. Plane to Auckland. Plane to San Francisco (turbulence so terrible you’re sure you’ll fall out of the sky). Sleep on an airport windowsill. Plane to Minneapolis. Car.
Then home, Iowa. Your own bed.
You never wanted to talk about it. For years, you oscillated between silence or sharing too much when someone had the nerve to ask. You couldn’t stop the fear-stained memories from spilling out of your mouth like pages slipped from a sheaf. You tried so hard to make meaning from it all, used all manner of defense mechanisms to shield yourself from the pain and confusion.
Wiser now—and healing—you can put some distance between subject (read: past self) and researcher (or, present self). You can talk about that other person and what happened to them and so you do.
a. Rapid recolonization dynamics
Of bull kelp and an earthquake that struck the New Zealand coast eight hundred years ago, Elahe Parvizi wrote “the species investigated here have largely distinct habitat preferences and thus their recolonization dynamics are probably unaffected by one another.” Tell them that your lives after the earthquake were the same. The seasons reversed, you all scattered across North America. You tried to keep in touch but found yourself at a loss for words. That place and those people were half-dream, half-nightmare. The ones around you could not comprehend what you’d lived through. Answering How are you? became impossible. They cautioned you about reverse culture shock, but no one prepared you for this. There was no instruction manual for reacclimating yourself to a once-familiar environment. South Pacific spring became Midwest winter. The students in the apartment above yours stomped their feet and your bunk bed shook. You spooked at loud noises like a horse. You felt alone.
b. Genomic impacts of disturbance
Fast forward a few years. Read in that paper “these data reveal that disruptive earth-history events can simultaneously represent both destructive and creative forces for biological evolution.” Add yourself to the long list of transformed ones: the bull kelp, fur seals, Hutton’s shearwaters, Ohau rock daisies, Kiwis, tourists, little blue penguins, dusky dolphins, and Molly the cat. Like the authors of this study, let yourself be gobsmacked by nature’s ability to recover. Your genome is an architect, your body a monument to resilience.
Materials and Methods
Remind that anxious, storytelling brain of yours that the earthquake did not happen to only you. Repeat this as many times as you need: you are not alone. There is no singular, comprehensive theory of the earthquake to be discovered. No. You are one consciousness among countless others. There are a million subjectivities at play, and this intertidal, cataclysmic event will never be distilled to any tokenized, absolute truth. Once you had reason to think that way, but you don’t anymore. Remind yourself that you are not trying to convince anyone—most importantly yourself—to believe anything with finality. There are no right or wrong answers.
Imagine yourself collecting the memories of your fellow survivors. Survey the seals. Approach the rock daisies and nesting shearwaters and ask them for wisdom. Persuade the pūkeko and the eels in the creek. Ask them if they still feel it, too—the bone-shudder, the sea-change in the soul. Ask them how to heal.
When you are ready, use your voice. Speak. Write. Find a good therapist who will listen to the irrational anxiety you wish you didn’t still feel after all this time. Tell yourself it’s okay when you receive that long-overdue diagnosis. Be gentle. Read the story you wrote over and over until there’s distance between it and you. Heed the signs that you are healing.
c. Statistical approach
If you don’t understand why you still sometimes feel afraid, try the Richter scale. Explain that each whole number on the scale represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude. Remember the Kaikoura earthquake was a 7.8 and that you were only fifteen kilometers from the epicenter. Tell yourself that 7.0 – 7.9 magnitude earthquakes have a global frequency of ten – twenty a year and that New Zealand hadn’t been rocked by one in over a century. As you know, at this magnitude, earthquakes cause damage to even the most well-constructed buildings. Power lines fall. Roads crack open. The scale describes the damage, but you lived it. Use the PCL-5 to measure the internal effects. On a scale of 1 – 4, record how much you are bothered by unwanted memories, disturbing dreams, negative beliefs and emotions, and strong physical reactions to stress. Then, score it again. Watch your numbers drop over time. Prove to yourself that nature’s ability to recover is not limited to bull kelp. Tell yourself again, your body is a monument to resilience.
Mourn your journal as it slowly decomposes beneath a fallen bookshelf in the Old Convent. Accept that you have relied on memory and done your best to reconstruct these scenes with notes from classmates, copies of essays, and letters saved by friends.
Acknowledge Elahe Parvizi, Ceridwen Fraser, Ludovic Duiot, David Craw, and Jonathan Waters for authoring the paper which provided the structure for this essay. Recognize Veronique Greenwood for writing The New York Times article that brought it to your attention.
Finally, disclosure that the competing interests in this and every piece you write about the earthquake are your waning desire to make meaning and your growing belief that it is more important to resist easy answers. You are not trying to convince anyone to believe anything, not anymore.
Thank the anonymous alum from your college who donated $500 to help replace the many personal possessions you lost in the earthquake all those years ago.
Lastly, Thank the Royal New Zealand Navy, for their bizarre film choice and for the movies they played in the cargo hold of the HMNZS Canterbury for 14 hours. Thank Chris for his jacket. Thank Matthew for making you all laugh by throwing the stupid rubber chicken out a second-story window while retrieving your possessions. Thank Brian and Lisa, who allowed 20 people into their home and fed them a stack of frozen pizzas, for their kindness. Thank the man who drove around town with a tank full of well water, for his generosity. Express your gratitude to your companions and all kind strangers. Thank you.
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 A scientific paper with this title was published on July 8, 2020 in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B during another great cataclysm: the coronavirus pandemic. Its authors—Parvizi, Fraser, Dutoit, Craw, and Waters—found evidence of an 800-year-old New Zealand earthquake in the DNA of bull kelp. This provided empirical evidence to support the theory that catastrophic events can drive rapid biological evolution. This essay uses that paper as a scaffolding for my own reckoning with the 2016 New Zealand earthquake.
Craw, D., & Dutoit, L., Fraser, C.I., Parvizi, E., Waters, J.M. (2020). The genomic footprint of coastal earthquake uplift. Proceedings of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 287(1930). https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.0712
Greenwood, V. (2020, July 14). Scientists Find an Earthquake’s Toll in an Organism’s DNA. The New York Times, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/science/earthquake-dna-genes-kelp.html.
Graham, J. (2007, June 7). Sea change. London Review of Books (29) 11, retrieved from https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v29/n11/jorie-graham/sea-change,
Amie Adams earned an MFA in Creative Writing in Washington State, and her essays have been published in Midwest Review, Relief, The Tiny Seed, and Pilgrimage, among others. She was raised on the shore of an Iowa lake and is presently a walking tributary of the South Skunk River. Visit her website www.amieadams.space to read more of her work.