On the Anniversary of the Sylmar Earthquake

Fifty years

the rumble
the shock
one minute brushing my teeth and
I've tumbled into the bathtub

dishes rattling
kitchen clutter
and the sudden knowing this was a 
BIG one,
not particularly so under our feet,
but down the temblor line

It was

buildings toppled
a hospital on the ground
freeway collapse

mangled mess disorder
asymmetrical landscape
some on the ground; some still standing

Fifty years



The neighbors fire up the chain saw
and I shudder.
I shouldn't judge.
Maybe they can't afford to do better.
Maybe there are future plans to
bandage wounds and salve the sore spots.

This tree's stood witness a long time.
She's endured.
Maybe I shouldn't mourn her
But I do.

                                                                                                      February 9, 2021 D. Fetterly

36 thoughts on “On the Anniversary of the Sylmar Earthquake

    • Thanks for giving the poem a try, and stopping by, Frank. I am very impatient with violence to trees, that’s true. I think people have a responsibility to support healthy growth and recovery in their trees, and any participation they have with the natural world. I readily admit that I’m challenged by those who don’t. 🙂

    • That’s so interesting that you could feel the shock as far down state as San Diego, Janis. The “good thing,” if that term even really applies, is many seismic retrofits were introduced after so much damage. Not that they’ll ever really catchup and cover all the old buildings, but at least in new construction. We haven’t had a good shaker in a long time…I think about that quite often. 😦

  1. An unknown event, to me; but you write about it pithily and descriptively, Debra ..
    As for the removal of trees .. it’s always hard to accept, I agree. But that one does look somewhat dangerous in it – ahh – lack of youth.

    • The old tree is a redwood that hasn’t been given much love, I’m afraid. My neighbors don’t “participate” in taking care of their trees or any other living thing, but now I sound like one of those really nasty people who put their noses in other peoples’ business, don’t I? I do, actually, but fortunately for them, I keep my opinions to myself…or put them into poetry! LOL! It’s a healthy old tree, more or less, but the way they hacked at it it is now more vulnerable to disease. We’ll see what happens. Thanks for stopping by, my friend.

  2. It must have been horrifying to be a part of that, Debbie. You would hate the cavalier approach to trees and pruning here. They lose limbs willy nilly, and go right on growing. Not the point you’re making, I know. Succinctly and beautifully told, hon 🙂 🙂

    • I have always lived in Southern California and have experienced some significant earthquakes. This particular one shook us up quite a bit but we weren’t on top of the epicenter. We’ve had others that have more significantly impacted us. It is a little hard for me to swallow that 50 years have passed! The tree situation next door is an on-going saga. My neighbors have wonderful old trees and don’t care for a one of them. The ones along the property line, although technically their trees, we pay to have maintained. But that’s a choice, and I hope this one doesn’t succumb to disease for its poor treatment. There were better ways to go, but surprise! surprise! No one asked me my opinion. LOL!

  3. Beautiful poem, Debra. I know how you love trees, and the wildlife they house. The black and white photo really emphasizes the scarring from the chainsaw. : (

    • Thank you very much, my friend. I do love trees. And I don’t feel “very kindly” towards those who go the “do it yourself” route, and just leave them open to the possibility of disease. When I rule the world, arborists will be on standby! 🙂

  4. I was in Dana Point when it happened. It even shook pretty good there. I had close friends living in Glendale. I went up there to help a couple days later. The freeway collapse up around Santa Clarita blew my mind. It was a very humbling experience.

    Lovely poem. An excellent vehicle to describe that day.

    • I think the 1971 earthquake was the first one I really recall that scared me. I was just out of high school and had a part-time job in a nursing home facility. The aftershocks were terrifying the older residents and I wasn’t much able to pass on any reassurance. Since then, we’ve had a few that did more direct damage to our home, and I suppose I’ve accepted certain possibilities. Now the tree…that I don’t accept! LOL! Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. It means a lot to me, Jim.

  5. Did you know that I started out in California. I came from a 200 village in Austria to Los Angeles. Talk about culture shock. My first earthquake was the last. I panicked, almost wet myself, the other students told me it was a mild one.

    We moved! 🙂

    • Oh my goodness! That’s a story, Bridget! I can understand your option to move. I think i do live in denial, a bit. I’m also a little fatalistic I suppose, knowing that there are few places that seem all that secure. The increase in wildfires has been the latest phenomenon to remind me that we’d be best to remember that nothing is permanent. I DO know what you’re describing, though, in panic. I do “fine” while the shaking is going on, and then when it stops, I typically fall apart. And wait for the next one? Thank you for sharing your story. And here we could have been neighbors! LOL!

  6. Thanks for this poem, Debra, I know how you feel about the tree. Whenever I hear a chainsaw nowadays I fear for the consequences. I know trees have to be looked after but it’s so easy to undo years of slow natural growth in a few minutes. Also, by juxtaposing the earthquake and the tree in your poem, both acquired greater resonance for me.

    • Thank you so much for sharing with me that you felt the emotion I was attempting to portray. Earthquakes are scary, but we don’t control nature’s violence. Seems to me we might want to do a better job of preserving a tree, rather than just butcher it. I smile at your comment that you have thoughts similar to mine every time you hear a chainsaw. My family laughs at me. I’m always commenting that I can hear them even far off into the distance. I’m so glad you stopped by. Thank you!

  7. Once in my life I remember feeling the tremble of an earthquake. And I mean a tremble, if I had been asleep or physically moving I may not have felt it. I cannot imagine having felt something like that.

    • You know, an earthquake is frightening. But I’ve never experienced a tornado, or a blizzard, or hurricane. I guess we just live where we live and make a mental adjustment to the idea that nature is calling the shots. I’m looking at the weather currently in Texas and Oklahoma, and I can’t even being to relate. I’ve never been in anything that even approximates. So I learn a lot when we globally share experiences, and I’ll be the California correspondent! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, my dear friend.

      • Like you, I am empathizing with the weather effects in all of our different areas. I love that you are the California correspondent. Finally, one I can trust!!!!! 🙂 Mother nature sure gives us a lot to adjust to.

  8. Your poem made me go and read about the Sylmar Earthquake. The LA Times had an excellent article with people’s memories very similar to the ones captured in you’ve captured. It must have been a very scary experience! I don’t think it made much of a splash in the UK news or I might have remembered it. If there is such an event today, anywhere in the world, and we all know about it within a few hours – such is the power of the internet to disseminate information.

  9. I certainly understand your mourning, Debra. It’s really a pity when big trees that have “seen” so much are simply cut down. As for earthquakes, I have still not experienced one, and don’t need to either.

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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