The early Shoshone called this the land of healing waters. Soaking here with my 9-year-old twins beneath gray skies at the Lava Hot Springs in eastern Idaho, I try to imagine the earth opening, get flashes of my children running, terrified; I am terrified as well.
The death toll from the tsunami had risen to 20,000 as we left Boise. Water on the other side of the earth had carried off people and buildings and trees. Because they are not our families, our shock and sadness are intermittent, different than waking up each morning to the horror of our own dead children, our own lost home.
My sons dunk their head under the warm water and wait for icicles to form in their hair, but these seven days since the winter solstice have been unseasonably warm. Normally, deer would already be down low, grazing along the sides of the foothills surrounding the spring, but there is enough food still up high. The mountains are bare except for their highest points.
Part of living in the mountain West is living with the possibility of fire or earthquake or avalanche. We half expect some natural disaster, the way people in some cities half expect their car to be gone when they come out from the movie theater.
Local news tends to involve nature. Last winter’s stories: 89 elk crashed through the ice while trying to cross a reservoir during a January thaw; an avalanche filled a cabin, killing two; an out-of bounds skier who had lost his way Dec. 31 was found five days later, frostbitten but alive.
In summer, there are almost always the fires. Our house is just above the tree line, where brush turns to kindling during dry years, and where hospitals are an hour’s drive down winding roads. We clear foliage from the side of our houses and build using fireproof siding and steel roofs. We stay because it is our home and we don’t really believe we could outwit nature by moving.
To live with nature is to give up the illusion that we can conquer it. Most of the time the mountains are peaceful, the snow glistens and the trees provide shade. Elk wander through our yard on cool mornings, a scene as serene as the liquid blue that laps the shore of Thailand and Indonesia.
My son, Dylan, stands up and walks off into the fog, the last of the large pools, the hottest, shaped like a long rectangle. People are the quietest in this pool, and I realize when I reach it, that it is because it is too hot to move or speak. A bright-eyed couple with faces etched by wrinkles leans against the stone wall and each other. Dylan’s brother, Gabe, hands me a dark smooth stone from the floor of the pool. He believes that rocks have souls and he’s half convinced me.
Sometimes I sound like a Buddhist to myself and other times a Native American. Jesus is as real to me as my breath, and I’ve known too many resurrection stories in my own lifetime to doubt his own. I realize I would drive a strict constructionist of any faith crazy. But the text I’ve learned to listen to best comes from a wild river or the mountains, the surf pounding the shore. Here, too, where the water is peaceful, we seem to inhale steam and exhale prayers. Hot water streams down our forehead and necks.
When we arrive home the death toll has risen to 140,000, and we weep at a loss too big to imagine. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, "If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe's main concern. We're just gnats on the crust of the earth."
These seem odd sentences to me. Does humanity need to be at the center to be important? And I realize, again, that I’ve been shaped by living in the lightly populated West, a region suffused with the history of tribes long gone. We wish we knew their stories, knew what forces they faced that were greater than themselves.
To admit that nature is powerful doesn’t diminish us. Nature is us.
Now, when I think of those corpses floating in the waves, I imagine souls rising — over a hundred thousand souls shimmering in the now tranquil seas — like healing waters, like grace.
Laura Stavoe Harm is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer who lives on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho.
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