03/21/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Into the Wake of the Quake: A Witness to the Japanese Tsunami and Meltdown

2013-03-21-facingwave.jpegTwo years ago this month, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale off the northeastern coast of Japan unleashed the energy of 600 million Hiroshima bombs, followed by massive seismic tidal waves. The world's media reported intently on the resulting destruction, especially since it triggered the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. Then international attention moved on, but Gretel Ehrlich chose to go to the heart, both physically and emotionally, of what became "a wild place of total devastation," where one hundred years of modernization seem to have been erased in one afternoon."

Ehrlich, renowned author of 15 books of nature writing, fiction, poetry and more, was no stranger to Japan, having spent much time there since childhood. She is a longtime student of Japanese poetry and writing. One of her most famous books details her experience of being struck by lightning. But nothing could have really prepared her for what she witnessed in the months following the "Three sorrows: quake, tsunami, meltdown." Traveling widely with local people through the most-impacted areas, she gives voice to over 30 local survivors -- fisherman, farmers, Buddhist priests and nuns, families ripped apart and decimated. Entire villages, including schools, hospitals, factories -- everything -- were swept away. Bodies were found in trees and hand stuck up out of mud. Hungry, cold -- it was snowing that horrible day -- the surviving "internal refugees" were left to wander and attempt to piece lives together while searching for corpses to burn and mourn in "a world of lost lives, illegible debris and sorrow."

Simultaneously, "the worst maritime contamination disaster in recorded history" was underway at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, with over 200,000 surviving residents evacuated. The extent of the radiation and risk and quality of the response were -- and are -- debated, and will take decades to truly determine. There was yet another breakdown in technology there this past week, and allegations of cover-ups of real risks and longterm impacts. But for many at ground zero, that unknown cloud results in what feels like "a futureless future."

The overwhelming tragedy, perhaps unsurprisingly, brought out both the best and worst in people. Looting and fraud occurred, but from Ehrlich's skilled reportage, it seems many more people responded with self-sacrifice in helping others. People tell of many large and small efforts to feed and comfort others, even when they have little to nothing to give. Monks begged for funds and baked bread to take to the disaster zone; temples and homes became shelters and morgues. Older men volunteered to work at the reactor to spare the young. Many risked their own health to rescue lost animals. Ehrlich strives to record it all and to make sense of the human dynamic: "To say that the tsunami survivors' attitude towards their tremendous loss is stoicism would be to underestimate the complexity of their response. Courage and self-discipline are evident everywhere... but the pain of loss is staggering; there's confusion, nightmarish fear, and there are suicides."

Yet Ehrlich, who stayed in Japan for nine months following the quake, finds and ends on notes of perseverance and hope. "We've been laughing alot -- I don't know why" marvels a Buddhist abbot's wife, who lost and suffered much. "The tsunami is past. We must think about the future," the abbott himself counsels. As Ehrlich concludes, "We can see the pain of loss and swing the other way, encountering the unexpected joy of survival." Her own account, both harrowing and beautifully told, in this brief but unforgettable book is itself a heartrending and unexpected marvel.

This is a much-extended version of a brief review which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle
FACING THE WAVE: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami
By Gretel Ehrlich
Pantheon; 240 pages