Monday, 1 June 2015

When the Earth Begins to Tremble

Contemplating life from a lofty ridge in the Himalayan foothills can be a risky business, perhaps none more so than now!

Naturally, we feel that our meagre 'existence' is, in some inexplicable way, important to the world.

However, the 'reality' is incredibly humbling.

'We live, move and have our being' upon a mighty, living and moving organism, for such is this Earth that gives us the very foundation, sustenance and refuge that we often so roundly take for granted!

When the Earth begins to wake and tremble we all must stop and take notice...

"It’s more than unnerving to be tossed about in an earthquake, the whole mechanics of being caught up in the movement of the earth’s plates and tectonic zones potentially lays us open to a complete shakedown and not just physically but psychologically as well.
When I was about eight years old, I remember waking up one night in Nelson, my home town in New Zealand, and thinking I was being driven in the back of a horse-drawn carriage that was bumping over a potholed road at great speed. Moments later, I understood that it was the earth itself that was heaving, not some imagined carriage.
Now, so many years later, I find myself in a tiny, fragile hut, clinging to a small outcrop of rocks several thousand feet up in the Himalayan foothills and pondering over the impermanence of life.
I built my “tin palace” some years ago. It sits on a forested ridge about 2000 meters from any other human habitation, save a small retreat centre and Buddhist Temple. It is rather near the edge of a precipitous cliff that drops about 250 meters to a small cluster of houses which are nestled at its base.
I had often mused that I would not like to live just below this cliff, but when the earth becomes unstable, living on the top of it is also not such a pleasing sensation.
On the 25th of April at 4:45 am, my long time winged friend, a species of dark iridescent blue bird found in the Himalayan foothills, landed with a thud on the tin roof. This had become a familiar sound to me over the years. My eyes popped open in time to see one black eye peering over the side of the awning into my loft. She was letting me know that it was time for me to get up. I took a little longer to heed her call that morning and paid the price as she jumped up and down at five-minute intervals, reminding me, like a snooze alarm, that she was waiting for her cheese.
This had been our little ritual over a good many years. Despite the fact that I had only recently returned from 24 long months away, she had not forgotten and no sooner had I settled back in than she resumed her old habit of waking me up at the crack of dawn.
I was reluctant and slow to get going that particular day. No sooner had I taken my first gulp of Darjeeling tea than a furry head appeared at the little side window in my kitchen. Shortly after that, there was an almighty crash on the tin roof, as a large simian male dropped down from the tree above the hut. It was not a promising beginning to my day.
This was followed by various annoying and inconvenient visitations from hairy and hungry monkeys of all sizes and generations hailing from a large group that had been roaming about these forested hills for the past few years. Joining in the fray were three excited dogs, frantically enjoying the chase as they tore in and out through the bamboo railings of my fence and dashed around the base of trees as monkeys taunted and teased them from the safety of the branches above.
By 11am I was worn out with trying to keep vigil on my little stock of food and remaining pot plants and stay sane. All possibility of meditation and quiet time in the loft had flown out the window the minute these visitors appeared. Despite threateningly dangling my slingshot at the monkeys, who were by now making a sport of leaping from the branches onto my roof making the loudest crash possible, there was little I could do to keep the group at bay, so I just continued on with my usual daily routines as best I could.
Around noon, having no sooner sat down and taken a couple of mouthfuls of my midday repast, there was a strange tremor and creak. My first thought was, “monkey.” But then the tremor continued and increased. The hut began to sway and the wooden beams made strange creaking, groaning sounds. Soon I heard an eerie, deep rumbling sound. I managed to stand up and noticed that the water in the small pond outside was splashing back and forth.

It was a big quake, accompanied by all of the unsettling emotions of surprise, alarm, shock and fear.

Cries soon started up from the villages on either side of the ridge and also from below. People were running in all directions in a bid to flee their houses. The quake that day was the 7.8 that rattled Nepal to the west of Darjeeling.
The next day at approximately an hour later than the previous one, we had another quake. This was the aftershock of 6.7 that struck close to the same region in Nepal.
The third day at dusk, just after I returned to my hut from a walk around the Temple, there was a much more powerful jolt. Screams, cries and shouts rose up from the neighbouring villages yet again. Dogs began to whine and howl and pandemonium broke out on all sides.
I caught my breath and scrambled outside. The earth was still shaking even as I tore up the path to the main temple. Rigzen Dorje, the current care taker, appeared from the retreat center with a loud and startled cry.
In the neighboring towns and villages people were engulfed by a wave of fear. Never in their lifetime had they been so rudely shaken three days in a row.
One, two, three more days passed and there were no more tremors. Slowly but surely the normal sounds of life and business resumed. Jeeps could once again be heard plying the road above our forest and people began to forget their terror. Those that had been camping outside, in fear of their houses crumbling down on top of them, once again returned to their homes and life swiftly resumed its normal flow.
How brief are the memories of those not directly affected by a catastrophic event?
Brief. So brief, that merely the span of a few days could elapse before, by all appearances, it would seem that nothing at all had even happened. How quickly we all resumed our egocentric lives, but then wham!
On the 12th of May another large quake struck, this time much nearer. Eerily, it unleashed its power at almost exactly the same time as the first large quake. But this time in the mountainous region not far from Everest. Those “pillars” of all that stand for “solid” and “stable,” quite literally began to crumble—an appalling and unforgettable sight for those who witnessed it.
The story is still unfolding and by no means passed. At any moment the Earth can shake us off her back. We may disrespect her, ignore her, mistreat her, adore her, even pay homage to her. But at no time are we ever anything more than her guests—just visitors passing through.
Mere specks riding on the back of a mighty and vastly mysterious “being.”

The above article was written for and published in the May 31st 2015 edition of Elephant Journal

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