Earthquake

The ornamental cherry trees are a rich pink. Underneath, there are swaths of white snow drops. The sky is blue and the sun not yet summer-warm is still welcome. People are starting to clean up the debris in their gardens.

Today, off the coast of Vancouver Island there was another earthquake. Far enough out that no one got shook up. But there have been a number of earthquakes lately. People live here for the mild winters, trading snow for rain, clear blue skies for clouds. We have green winters. Green on green, every shade imaginable. That’s because of the winter rains.

People come from the prairies to escape the blizzards, the thirty or forty below temperature that keep them trapped inside. They fill up the motels and hotels that rent by the week or month. Some motels have nothing but prairie people, people who come back every year from Winnipeg, Red Deer, Saskatoon. They hold pool tournaments for them, arrange social events.

Even in the rain, walking is possible. An older crowd knows that it needs to walk, get out and exercise. If you are determined, you can even play tennis in the rain. Slow, soggy ball but that’s okay. Most visitors are of the age where a slow ball is just fine.

They check the weather every morning, comment on it as soon as they go downstairs to the lounge. “Thirty-eight below in Medicine Hat today”, they say as they trade weather statistics.

Why not go further south, cross the border to the USA, get some real warm weather. Health insurance is expensive. Crime. They read about robberies and muggings and guns, guns and more guns. They want to be somewhere that if they have a heart attack and don’t die, that they won’t be bankrupted. They don’t want to go to a big city like San Diego or Los Angeles. They’re not looking for excitement. The quiet, boring life of Victoria with its veneer of tourist Britishness suits them.

They like high tea at the Empress. A light lunch at Murchie’s. A lamb burger at the Irish pub. There are pseudo-UK shops on Wharf Street, shops where you can buy Scots tartans and Irish Beleek.

The druggies are nearly invisible. They’ve also come for the weather. Trying to sleep outside in Winnipeg in January is suicidal. Here they can sleep under a bridge or, more likely, in a shelter. There’s always food and, if they hang around long enough, a welfare cheque. Mostly, though, the tourists never encounter them.

Like most tourists, the Canadians from East of the Rockies leave worrying about the day to day problems to the locals. They’re just here for a day, week, a couple of months, then they’re gone again. If it even crosses their mind, they just hope that there’s no serious earthquake while they’re here. They read an earthquake headline, look out the window and no one is in a panic. People are walking their dogs.

For those of us that live here, it’s a bit different. We know we’ll be here when an earthquake hits. Little ones don’t matter. They happen all the time. I wake up during the night and my furniture is shaking. I roll over and go to sleep. It’s the big one that lies in the back of our minds. Not 7s or 8s but 9s, the kind of earthquake that made a mess of Japan’s coastline, that drove a tsunami inland, a great rising tide that nothing could stand against.

Fifty feet. That’s a number that sticks in our minds when we buy a house. All three of my houses have been away from the ocean, up higher than fifty feet. That’s likely the high water mark for a major tsunami. It’s the rich people along the water who will have their mansions swept away.

The other thing we pay attention to is the map showing areas of Victoria where the ground would liquefy. A lot of buildings are built on soil that would turn to mush. Buildings will sink, tilt, disintegrate. It’s all been worked out. My place is built on solid granite. However, the one end of the house rests on concrete pillars. I doubt if it would stay in place if there was significant shaking over minutes instead of a few seconds. My son’s house, even though it is on a steep slope, doesn’t rest on pillars. Instead, it is pinned to pillars like a massive cradle. It should swing with the movement of the earth.

We depend on ferries to provide all our supplies, to get us to the mainland. A severe shaking could put the ferry terminals out of commission. Experience during storms have shown that the stores start to run out of food in four days. Food in your fridge and freezer will go bad in a couple of days unless you have a generator. And fuel. Electricity will be out. No lights, no electric heat, no elevators, no lots of things. In my earthquake training, we were told we could not expect any help for at least seven days, maybe three weeks. The closest staging area is Edmonton.

Water is the biggest problem. We get our water from lakes. The water main into town will break. Not might break. It will break. How many people have three weeks water in their basement or their garage? Not me. You need water to drink. Forget washing. You need water to cook with. I usually have a twenty-four of soft drinks around. I can cook rice with diet Coke if I have to. If you turn on your kitchen taps and there’s no water, what do you do? Calling the plumber won’t help.

Yup, Victoria is pretty nice. The tourists strolling down Fort looking in the antique shops love it. I love it. But there, in the back of my mind, sort of like a ghost drifting in and out of the picture as I eat hormone free burgers at Bubba’s, poke around the brick buildings of Chinatown, is that plate beneath our feet, ready, one of these days, to lurch forward and I and thousands of others will think, as our legs turn to rubber, I shoulda bought water.  

Dry Rot

This is an old house. By Canadian standards, that is. Not old like in Sweden or Italy. Old enough to have a certain lean to it. It’s built of wood as is appropriate for the West Coast. There are some stone houses around but they’re oddities, sort of like the places with sod roofs.
There are advantageous to a wood house. In an earthquake they’ll most likely shimmy and shake and except for some cracked plaster survive just fine. The problem is that this is the West Coast. It rains most of the winter. Things grow. If you leave something out for a few days, you come back to find it covered in periwinkle or blackberry vines or deadly nightshade. You have the feeling if you fall asleep in a hammock, when you wake you’ll need to call for help. A neighbor will have to come with shears to cut you free.
Visitors from the prairies rave about our gardens. These are the people who in late August put away their lawn mower and their shovel and hoe and rototiller for ten months. The snow buries everything so they can watch soap operas all winter or go curling.  Here, there’s no escape from gardening. If we get snow, it lasts two weeks, then disappears and leaves me with the job of chopping the broken branches off the rhodos. It’s nice that the Japanese quince blooms in late  January but that means gardening has begun again. The snowdrops soon appear and unless I resort to spreading Weed and Feed at night, there’ll soon be hyacinth and daffodils. I’ve barely had time to wash the stains out of the knees of  my jeans before I’m digging and fertilizing and weeding again.
With the rain comes mold. Not a little mold. Blue mold, black mold, white mold. Mold that covers everything. With the mold comes dry rot. Dry rot is a peculiar thing. Everything looks perfectly fine but when I step on the stairs one day, they collapse. When I look to see why, I discover the supporting beam has turned to dust. I can break apart the wood with my hands, push my fingers through it. Dry rot is a bit like marriages that disintegrate. They look great on the surface but in private they’re turning to dust. It’s like those people who appear on the news for having murdered their family or neighbours. Everyone says about them, they seemed quite normal, a little withdrawn perhaps, not hail fellow well met, but polite, considerate and then one day they butcher their family or friends. Rotten to the core under a veneer of politeness and paint.
That’s how  the steps to my back sun deck went. Perfectly sound it seemed and then dropping with a stomach clenching thunk. My father found a scrap of lumber and made a rough joint to hold everything in place but I knew I had to call  in a carpenter. He took the steps apart like a jigsaw puzzle, setting aside the good bits and throwing out those that had begun to dissolve. He hammered and sawed and banged and then the stairs were up again, sturdy as ever. He put a sheet of tar paper where the bottom step touched the ground.
“Earth and wood don’t mix,” he said. “The ground will rot out the wood in no time. Keep them separate as much as you can.”
I scouted around the property and discovered that when the lot next door was raised the contractor simply dumped fill up against the back of my carriage house. I got out my hoe and squeezed in between the embankment and the back wall and began to pull the soil away from the foundation.. The shingles were soft and punky.  There was no flat place to stand, no room to use a shovel. I had to hoe the debris back toward the lane, wrenching my hands each time I hit a rock. I’d dig that out and start again only to find another rock. I kept at it, though, because another winter and the shingles would be as soft as blotting paper, the uprights falling to pieces.
Now, I’m going around my yard, other people’s yards when I’m visiting, knocking on wood, checking the foundations, checking the beams that hold up our lives. I’ve got myself a small pocket knife, when no one’s looking, I press the point into wood just to make sure everything’s okay.