The Silence of Epiphany: An Unexpected Lesson in Geology



Having spent my childhood being carted hither and yon on the highways of NJ, I thought I knew what debris was: dirty plastic bags and forgotten dead branches lying on the side of the road, gravel and pebbles irresponsibly flying out of poorly secured dump trucks, piles of dried leaves crowding the entrance of sewer drains.

So, in the early hours of January 9th, when the local emergency text alerts warned of “debris flow” resulting from the newly scorched mountainsides to our neighborhood’s north and east, I imagined rapid streams of shrubbery, leaves, branches, and rocks cascading down and flooding narrow windy streets, and maybe dumping a couple feet of mud on someone’s property.

I had no clue that when geologists use the word “debris” they are talking about boulders. And that “debris flow” means lots of boulders essentially mud-boarding (as opposed to snow- or surf-boarding) down the mountain. No, let’s be more accurate here: actually, geologists say that the boulders “float like corks on the top of a flow” made up of water and fine sediment. (Great. That’s just great.) And then, gravity carries the flow down where it wants to go, and picks up everything natural and man-made in its path—houses, cars, trees, power lines…people— with such monumental force that it can only be caught and held tight in the arms of the sea.

I had no clue that six days before the flash flood, the local paper ran a story explaining that, after the Thomas Fire, county workers were trying to clear debris basins with the knowledge that local flooding and mudslides had followed fires in 1964, 1969, and 1971. And now, the Emergency Management director had already noticed that, “we’re starting to see gravity rock fall,” and that “one rock could close a road.”

I had no clue that a paper presented in 2001 by UCSB geologists began with “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood” and that significant parts of the city actually sit on top of old deposits from debris flows which “most likely occur every few thousand years.” Geologist Edward Keller had said, “If such an event were to occur again today, many homes and buildings…would be destroyed and the loss of life would be catastrophic.”

Right. So….

How do you wrap your mind around the fact that you just possibly experienced a once-in-a-few-thousand-year geological phenomenon? An occurrence that clearly exceeded what the city and its people were psychically prepared for (after being spent from the Thomas Fires), and where a lot of rocks that each “could close a road” did just that and much more, along with entirely cutting off access for two entire weeks on California’s major thoroughfare – Highway 101 –and transforming into an breathtaking vision reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou? And this is all without even beginning to account for the thousands of displaced persons—many of whom had to be rescued from their homes by the National Guard by helicopter or military vehicles, hundreds of damaged or destroyed houses, and the unspeakable horror that visited over a dozen families as their loved ones were taken from them and lost that night.

What can we utter, but silence?


And then, if you dared to keep pushing the logic of our damaged earth forward, to tremblingly realize that another mountain tsunami could actually happen again? That is, not in a few thousand years, but rather when the next major storm hits.

OK. (Bartender, another glass of silence, please.) I think I might need to just bracket that thought for now.


A local blog post began, “Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it.” For a neighborhood known for its lush green lawns and paradisiac views even in the deepest of droughts, this is a devastating observation. And now that the roads are mostly cleared and residents are being allowed back to their homes, our community is staring at a considerable Goliath. Apparently, 2 million cubic yards of mud and rock landed where it shouldn’t have. The local paper soberly reports that 90% of that debris load remains on private property. And, currently, since the County and the Army Corps of Engineers’ cleanup efforts do not include private property, there is no existing plan for how to remove this debris.


When I am out and about in the unaffected parts of town these days, I see with new eyes the large rocks and boulders on the sides of roads, in parks, on trails, next to houses. I can’t help but ask the geological question: what story could that boulder tell of how it ended up there?

As human beings, we like to think of ourselves as many things. Homo sapiens. Homo ludens. For scholars—especially social theorists and philosophers –the list goes on. For those who live in Montecito, it looks like we are about to become very acquainted with the rock-moving part of our species: Homo movens petram.

A prayer was offered by the Jesuits for the people of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. In some small but real way, it seems we, who bear witness to what has happened in Montecito, are in fellowship with their suffering. Perhaps then, this prayer belongs to us too:

Most merciful and compassionate God,
Giver of Life and Love,
hear our prayers
and let our cries come unto you.
We weep with your people
We hear the cries of orphaned children and laments of bereaved parents
We feel the desperation of those searching for loved ones
We behold the silence of vanished villages.
We see the devastation.
We are overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
Our hearts are hushed, our minds are numb.
Let not our hands be stopped, our voices dumb.
God of the universe,
Open our hearts to feel your compassion
Galvanize in us the act of continued giving
Bond us to our sisters and brothers in need
Comfort and heal the injured, the bereaved, the lost
Strengthen the aid workers and medical personnel
Bolster the resolve of governments and those with power to help
Open through this tragedy pathways to partnerships and peace
In Your Name of mercy and healing and compassion we pray.