Mudslide Not an Act of God
By Carl Hammerschlag
The massive landslide that killed 41 people in March came without warning. It happened so quickly that there was no chance for people to run for safety. It swallowed homes, businesses, and cars, all holding lifeless bodies. The oozing mud continues to bubble forth artifacts — wallets, paintings, uniforms, toys — all the remnants of lives well lived.
The insurance companies call this an “act of God.” That’s the legal term to describe an event outside of human control for which no one can be held responsible. But this was not an act of God. It was an act of irresponsible over logging and there were warnings for decades about the very hillside that collapsed.
Oso, Washington, lies in a stunningly beautiful, picture-postcard valley on the banks of the Stillaguamish River. The Stilly, as locals call it, is world-famous for its fly-fishing in crystal clear waters that I waded almost 50 years ago. I was an intern in Seattle at the time, and I still recall the mountains covered with thick forests of old-growth trees. But those forests are no more. There is a powerful lumber industry here, and over the last 30 years these woods been excessively logged until no tree has been left standing.
Years before the landslide, geologists warned that the hill above the residential area in Oso could suffer a catastrophic collapse. Among them was Seattle-based geomorphologist Daniel Miller, who said he would never have built a house where the disaster occurred. He co-wrote a 1999 report for the Army Corps of Engineers that looked at options to reduce sediments from landslides in the area. The 50-page study identified “a very large volume of material that could potentially become unstable,” Miller recalled. Matters had not improved in 2001 when he prepared a second report for a local Native American tribe and again warned of “a significant risk to human lives and property” at the slide site.
The Stillaguamish Indians, who have lived there forever, have also issued warnings. They always knew that such large-scale manipulation of their natural world would yield serious consequences. They warned us and the scientists warned us, but they were not heeded. Building in the area spanned decades, but a number of homes on a street hit by the mudslide were built after the danger became clear.
Native Americans are still praying and warning us. The Bad River Band of the Anishinabe people is fighting against the powerful mining industry in Wisconsin. The Anishinabe live just down river from a proposed iron ore mine that will be the world’s largest open pit mine. It’s slated to be four miles long, a half-mile wide, and nearly 1,000 feet deep — but it could be extended as long as 21 miles. The industrial waste from this mine will pollute the waters of this pristine wilderness because there are sulfides in the iron-bearing rocks. When exposed to air and water the sulfides oxidize and make the water acidic. That means the fish will die here, just like they did in Kentucky and West Virginia. When they do, they’ll take with them a piece of the Anishinabe soul.
In keeping with the Anishinabe tribal tradition, members of the Bad River Band think about land and water with the same respect they think of the elder members of their tribe. Just like grandparents, the land and water provide home, food, and life for generations of families.
The Anishinabe want to leave this land to their great grandchildren at least as well as they found it. They make all decisions on the basis of how it will affect the seventh generation. They are fighting to save their tribe; they are fighting for the State of Wisconsin; and they are fighting for our soul as a nation. We ought to be praying and fighting along with them.
These catastrophic disasters are not acts of God, and they are not outside of human control. Instead, they are a tribute to our arrogance and greed, according to Joe Rose, a professor of Native American studies and member of the Bad River Band. “We have to start thinking a new way, not about economic activity but about things that are priceless. We must challenge and eliminate corporate greed,” Rose said. “We are undergoing a paradigm shift from values based on money and political power to the new times where wealth is measured in clean water, fresh air, and pristine wilderness. Anishinabe have been given the responsibility to share the knowledge of how to live in harmony with creation.” We should learn from them if we want to have lives well lived.
Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology — mind, body, and spirit medicine — and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership, and authenticity. He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world. For more information, visit www.healingdoc.com.