When Nature's Way Spells Danger and Destruction

by Janadas Devan, January 9, 2005

THE word tsunami is a transliteration of the Japanese - tsu, harbour; nami, wave. The Japanese called these seismic sea waves 'harbour waves' for the obvious reason they weren't noticed till they reached shore.

Someone aboard a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean on the morning of Dec 26 wouldn't have felt anything dramatically unusual. As everyone knows now, it was only when the large mass of water, displaced by the earthquake off Sumatra and shooting off in all directions at 800kmh, approached the shore that it became a towering wall. Hence 'harbour wave', a deceptively innocuous term for what is in fact a ghastly visitation from the deep.

The word's first recorded appearance in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1897. Someone by the name of L. Hearn reported in his book, the strangely entitled Gleanings From Buddha-Fields: ' 'Tsunami!' shrieked the people, and then all shrieks and all sounds and all power to hear sounds were annihilated by a nameless shock... as the colossal swell smote the shore with a weight that sent a shudder through the hills.'

It is unfortunate that the English word derived from Japanese instead of Hawaiian. According to the Pacific Tsunami Museum website, Hawaiian has two tsunami-related words: Kai e'e for the tsunami waves themselves, and Kai mimiki 'to describe the withdrawal of the water before the Kai e'e arrives'.

How many lives might have been saved two weeks ago if English (or Malay, Thai, Singhalese and Tamil) also had words that made similar distinctions? Unaware of the danger, many people had rushed forward as the tide went out (Kai mimiki), excitedly picking up the stranded fish in the suddenly emptied sea, only to be surprised by the waves that just as suddenly rushed in (Kai e'e). They didn't know; nobody had warned them; their language lacked words to describe this dark aspect of nature.

 THE New York Times reported that many Sri Lankans, including fishermen, who once loved the sea, now hate it. A woman, the paper reported, was seen on Monday 'standing and cursing the ocean, waving her arms in fury'. She, like millions of others, felt betrayed that what she had thought of as the sustaining sea could also be the destructive sea. The 'murderous surge' of Dec 26, the Times said, has rewritten, 'perhaps permanently, the covenant between the people of this island nation and the sea that surrounds it'.

Could it also have changed our attitude to 'nature'? Can we, after this meaningless calamity, continue to look upon nature as always sustaining and nurturing?

'Nature' has long had an unusually favourable press in the West, at least since the Romantics, as well as in the East. Any number of phrases and concepts in English testify to this fact: 'against nature' we say of some act peculiarly repugnant or immoral; 'natural law' we say of principles of justice deemed so fundamental even to codify them seems otiose; 'nature is the best physician' we say to indicate our faith in the restorative power of natural processes.

This last conceit has had particularly good press in recent years. 'Natural foods', usually meaning produce grown organically without the aid of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, are among the fastest-growing growth industries in the United States. 'Natural childbirth' has led women to refuse epidurals during childbirth, and has gone a long way towards making pain a respectable experience again (for women, at any rate). Pharmaceutical manufacturers need only stick phrases like 'nature's cure' or 'nature's way' to various bottled extracts, roots and essences to have them fly off the shelves.

Much of the good press nature has received is well deserved, of course.

Generally speaking, it pays to follow 'nature's way' for the simple reason nature does have a way of retaliating when we don't. Cut down too many trees and we are liable to get soil erosion and, in extreme cases, deserts. Pollute the air and we are liable to choke. Continue burning fossil fuels at the criminal rate that we do now and we are more than likely to see average global temperatures rise, polar ice-caps melt, sea levels rise and global weather patterns alter dramatically for the worse.

Humanity's perverse abuse of nature played a role also in accentuating the destructiveness of Indian Ocean tsunamis. Areas in Thailand and India where the mangrove forests had been destroyed suffered far more than areas where they hadn't. Mangroves and coral reefs, it turns out, function like shock absorbers to dissipate a tsunami's energy.

STILL, there is no denying that Nature the Preserver is also Nature the Destroyer.

As it so happens, none other than William Wordsworth, that High Priest of Nature Worship, knew this fact.  He is remembered as the poet whose heart leapt up when he beheld 'a rainbow in the sky', who saw the earth 'apparelled in celestial light', who spied 'splendour in the grass'.  

He was, however, also an honest man. On at least one occasion, he acknowledged nature's 'severer interventions'.  It occurred one moonlit night when he was a boy.  He had rowed out on a lake in his little boat, fixing his eye 'Upon the summit of a craggy ridge'.  

'I dipped my oars into the silent lake,/ And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat/ Went heaving through the water like a swan;/ When, from behind that craggy steep till then/ The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,/ As if with voluntary power instinct,/ Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,/ And growing still in stature the grim shape/ Towered up between me and the stars, and still,/ For so it seemed, with purpose of its own/ And measured motion like a living thing/ Strode after me. With trembling oars' the young Wordsworth fled. 

This unnerving encounter with the 'grim shape' left his brain reeling for many days 'with a dim and undetermined sense/ Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts/ There hung a darkness, call it solitude/ Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes/ Remained, no pleasant images of trees,/ Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;/ But huge and mighty forms, that do not live/ Like living men...' 

We learnt on Dec 26 that nature does indeed have an unspeakably alien, even anti-human, aspect. That Sri Lankan woman who cursed the sea, like a latter-day Job cursing God, uttered a quintessentially human cry.


Posted January 11, 2005