“Tell me,/which stars were my ancestors looking at?/…Am I navigating correctly?” from “Identity Politics” by Taya Tibble
Upon reading these words in this morning’s Knopf poetry email, I flash to that moment hiking in the woods yesterday when I wondered how I could possibly find my way using the way moss grows on trees for my compass. I recall that I’ve read this is many books—north faces invite moss, but here moss blankets tree trunks entirely. Because, on this gold and green afternoon in the woods, trees towering overhead allowing only peeks of sky, I am thinking of survival.
Early this morning my book club members and I met on a patio facing the Pacific to discuss Bonnie Henderson’s The Next Tsunami Living on a Restless Coast. Among the selections we chose for this year, I knew that this one would be difficult, as the fact that I delayed picking it up until a week before our scheduled meeting attests.
I recall reading Kathryn Schultz’s devastating article in the New Yorker, “The Really Big One: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when,” during a trip to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2015. While it didn’t keep me from moving here after I retired as I’d dreamed, it did haunt my dreams after I’d read it.
Yet we were here, discussing the reality, our tenuous one, on the Oregon Coast, the Pacific watching us implacably, sparkling and secretive. The woman who had proposed this book is a scientist, a geologist, engaged and riveting as she gives us her take. Her stance provides distance and invites awe at all that we don’t yet know about our oceans. “We know more about outer space,” she marvels, “but it’s all so exciting, what’s being done—and ignored, if I’m honest—being learned.”
After we disperse, heading back to our lives enriched by food for thought, I lag behind to chat with a friend from my childhood. She, too, is a scientist at heart, enthralled by the stories our Pacific Northwest holds, but works as an artist. Right now she walks widely, collecting natural pigments to create paints, making her mark with the tools time has deposited, what ancestors have left behind.
It is she who has led me to this trail, I who wanted to know what she would do, where she would go in the wake of the “Big One.” Both of us solemnly concede our unlikely survival. I would head inland to Corvallis where my son and his wife live. This trail would be a start, but it stops, leads to dense forest. Then what?
I will buy good boots, have water purification straws and tablets, packable food, layers for the weather, but… I return to the moss, and the uncertainty of it all: life.