Work inspired by the Indian Ocean tsunami, December
Art, electronic images, and text copyright © 2005 by Lorena Babcock Moore.
Do not use without permission.
On the first Full Moon after the Winter Solstice, in
the southernmost of the lands of the Tiger, an enormous earthquake shook the
Earth that rests on Turtle's back, and created a great wave in the Indian Ocean.
Within minutes and hours it had crashed over the sandy coasts, sweeping everything
away. Tens of thousands of people died, and hundreds of thousands lost their
homes and families. They came from diverse tribes and countries, and their traditions
had no word for what had happened. But they were one in their shock and grief,
huddled under the pall of hunger, the fear of disease, and the utter fatigue
of starting over after the end of the world. So their tongues claimed a word
full of power and menace borrowed from the islands of the Rising Sun, whose
people watched from afar with the memories of generations: tsunami.
Weeks later the dead still washed ashore like driftwood, and some of their wandering spirits
sought help from those who knew the old ways of guiding souls to the otherworld.
This picture tells the story as it might be told in years
to come around a fire in the forest, painted on a temple wall, or scratched
in the sand with a piece of broken shell. The style is a reminder of the meticulous
detail of Indian miniatures, Thai niello silver, and Indonesian woodcarving.
The turtle shell is round like the earth. Its pointed edges recall the Spiny
Turtle (Heosemys spinosa) of Asian tropical forests, and the handprints, blurring
into sand or light reflections among bubbles, honor those who were lost to the
1. A great earthquake caused undersea landslides as Naga, the World Serpent,
tectonic life-force of the planet, writhed under the ocean crust. Five days
after the winter solstice, the pale sun flickered on the swirling water, but
it will never illuminate the Serpent's eye.
2. The uncoiling power of the earthquake spawned a swell in the ocean, a compression
wave that did not simply swirl across the surface like an ordinary stormwave,
but walked on the seabed in all directions at once. The seismograph needles
recorded its jagged energy in zigzag lines.
3. The sea drew back from the coast with a rush of wind and tiny waterfalls,
and for a few moments it revealed a coastline that had never been exposed
before. Then the three great waves came, one on top of the other, a wall of
deep blue water with a foaming mountain crest that exploded in whirlpools
when it smashed into the beach.
4. A dizzying number of people were lost. Some were indoors and had no warning
until their houses collapsed. Others saw the wave and could not or would not
run away. In Aceh, many were already confused and injured after the earthquake,
and were caught in the chaos as the water rose through fallen buildings and
debris-choked streets. Each body that washed up afterwards had a story, but
the tales had dissolved into the sea, and they lost all meaning anyway as
the numbers of dead rose beyond comprehension. After two hundred and sixty
thousand, people stopped counting.
5. Even the Moon wept, for many of the drowned were her own fishing folk,
and she looked into the dazed painted eyes of broken boats that stared impossibly
from rooftops. She wept also for the sea's children, the smashed coral reefs
and their myriad creatures smothered under scouring sand.
6. Thailand's Moken Sea Gypsies survived the wave, recognizing the threat
in the ominous retreat of the water from tales handed down by ancestors. In
this picture, a wall hanging forms the door of the boat's tiny dwelling. Woven
of Indonesia's famous ikat cloth, it depicts the eruption of Krakatoa, the
volcano that exploded off Sumatra's southeast coast in 1883, causing a tsunami
in these same islands. Are some of Aceh's tsunami survivors the descendants
of refugees from Krakatoa?
7. An Indonesian shaman transforms into a tiger to guide the souls of the
dead, and to chase the spirits of sickness away from the homeless people who
are now vulnerable to hunger and illness. To make the necessary journey, the
shaman catches a snake and tames this earth spirit into a rope hung with brass
tiger bells, making a ladder into the sky.
8. A figure with the head of an Indian vulture carries a shaman's purifying
flywhisk and lights a funeral pyre with a torch of incense. The despised but
sacred task of burning bodies is necessary to prevent disease among the survivors,
and many believe that it releases the spirits of the dead. India's vultures
have suffered a frightening decline in the last decade and are now endangered
in the southern part of the country. Some people attribute this decline to
toxins or pesticides, and see it as a sign of greater environmental imbalance.
9. A cracked coconut, fruit of the tree of life, rains sweet moon-milk. It
is not just a symbol of purity and survival, but its very substance, and in
all the affected lands it is a familiar and comforting food. Coconuts floated
on gentle tides to the few survivors who clung to scraps of wood in the sea,
quenching their thirst until help arrived. Coconut wood, leaves, and fiber
build temporary shelters and permanent new homes. The husks make bowls and
utensils to feed the hungry and carry women's prayers and offerings to the
Goddess of the Sea.
10. The bodies of many of the dead are never found, but undergo mysterious
transformations. To find their souls, the most primitive shamans use quartz
crystals and the skulls of ancestors in divination rituals.
11. A single skeleton, curled up in a sea turtle shell, is cast adrift toward
the sun in a heart-shaped boat on a quiet sea. It could be anyone's. In the
Andaman and Nicobar islands, the wave swept away sea turtle nesting beaches,
coral reefs, and fishing grounds. The earthquake slightly repositioned some
of the islands, and the surviving tribal people say that the tides are now
12. The calcium in the skeleton is transformed into a handful of uniquely
beautiful Indian Ocean shells, and the chaotic energy of the Naga drifts away
in the form of a graceful sea krait whose poison holds no threat for the shells.
A hand curls into a spider conch and the ribs and other bones form the combs
of a murex. The eyesockets swirl into sundials, the snails that are called
Architectonica, builder of worlds.
13. Lit by a jellyfish moon, spirits ride the back of a leatherback sea turtle
on their final journey to the deep ocean or the night sky. Undersea or deep
heaven, it is all one to the Swimmer, who dives to sunless depths with constellations
sparkling on her back, and wanders the globe on the sea-road of the Milky
Mineral pigments in egg tempera, 7"x12"
Forged iron, shaped like a desert coralbean pod. 10" long.