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The tree and the photograph

Japan, May 16, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The sole surviving Matsu tree in Rikuzentakata stands in the distance. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

Once not long ago, in the city of Rikuzentakata, there were 70,000 Matsu trees. These trees were planted more than 300 years ago along the city's ocean coast to keep salt water and spray from inundating precious rice paddies.

Rikuzentakata's Matsu trees were so abundant and iconic that people from all over Japan traveled here to see them. Walk among them. It was declared one of the one hundred most beautiful places in the entire country.

But now only one Matsu remains. Its brothers and sisters were ripped out by the roots or broken in half, becoming part of the tsunami wave that flattened Rikuzentakata. This sole surviving Matsu is being called "The Miracle Tree" by survivors from across the region; it's an inspiration to them as they stand strong and begin rebuilding.

On our way back from work at a temporary housing center, my colleague Mao Sato from Peace Winds Japan asked us if we'd like to go see the tree. So we parked the car in the midst of what was once downtown Rikuzentakata and began walking alongside three- and four-story piles of rubble, sorted out by what they'd once been. Metal appliances. Plastic toys. Furniture. One of the biggest piles was an enormous stack of Matsu trees, many of them still almost whole.

Very often along our walk to the tree, an object in one of the piles would catch my attention: a toy. A hat. A chair. And I thought of whose it might have been, then said a prayer each time. It was a long walk; there are still 10,000 people missing from this city of 26,000.

We finally reached the Matsu tree. The four of us stood nearby it, taking time to appreciate it and wishing it long life. Then it was time to walk back and return to Ichinoseki for a night's rest.

The walk back was quicker — but about halfway back to the car, I found something that slowed me to a stop: a photograph laying on a ruined road. I knelt to take a look.

In the photograph, there were three people: they looked to me like proud grandparents with a young grand-baby. There was a plate of food on the tray of the baby's highchair. A Winnie the Pooh pillow. And all around the three, everything that had once been their home.

But there was something in their expressions that I just couldn't fathom; it felt as though they were looking right into me. So I picked up the photograph and walked with it for a while.

It was still wet after all this time, but not smudged. There were holes and tears — some tiny, some large — all through the photograph, but none that obscured the faces. I held it with both hands and kept walking.

Then, as walked around the last pile of debris and approached the car, I felt a dilemma: should I carry the photograph from this place and find someone that might know this family, or should I leave it here for someone to find? I wanted to save it in whatever way I could.

So I asked my colleague Mao what I should do. She stood and thought for several moments. "You should leave it here," she said. "People are coming around to find their things." And so I found a plastic table that was standing a bit off to itself, laid the photograph down and put small rocks on either side to keep it from blowing away. Then we got in the car and departed.

I can think of many artifacts from the places I've been, especially conflicts and disasters. Some things I've taken after asking, but most I've left. Here in Japan, there are two so far, both left behind: one big, one small, both haunting in its own way.