After the Slide: Checking In with the Elliots

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Erin Stewart Elliot tries to explain how she’s feeling to her three-year-old son.

“Well, I’m feeling grateful,” she says, waving her hand around the living room of the friends’ home where they’ve been staying since their house was destroyed by a mudslide. “And I feel sad, about the cat. And the chickens and the ducks. And overwhelmed. And lucky.”

It’s hard to pin down, really.

One minute, you’re sitting on the couch in your PJs and underwear, reading stories with your toddler, with the rain beating on the roof. You’ve just picked up some new chickens to add to the flock, 140 pounds of tomatoes have been processed and put away, you’ve finally cleaned off your phone of four years of pictures, putting them all on the computer and the back up hard drive, you’ve splurged on a brand new ride-on lawn mower, and your husband has just gone in to town to see if he can get a generator given the gnarly weather.

Then, the neighbour is banging on the door and saying, “You guys should probably come up to our place.”

Within the hour, your house, farm, greenhouse, and everything you own are buried under metres of debris.

A mountain came down. You were there, but then you weren’t. Your house was there, and now it’s not.

You’re alive, but empty-handed. You’re a refugee, but not a Syrian. You’re lucky, but unlucky. It’s kind of hard to explain.

“We cry, feel happy and relieved, shake, but River keeps bringing us back to reality,” says Erin, because there are snacks to be made and stories to be read and the whole issue of wearing pants, or not, to be negotiated.

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Erin had lived at the property for five years, her husband Rob for 15. They had been slowly shaping and cultivating the eight acres, and were on the verge of being self-sufficient, with a home, offices, music studio, guest house, outbuildings, 80-foot greenhouse, gardens, hundreds of fruit trees, blueberry bushes, meadows, ponds and ducks and chooks — the pieces of a dream coming together.

Six of the eight acres are now completely buried.

The insurance company sent a 10-word email: We cannot cover your losses. This case has been closed.

Rob is a geographer and cartographer by training. He’d been up in the mountains above his property on a mapping project years before. He can still visualize the layers of history in the landscape, read the story of glacial retreat in the cirques and moraines and seasonal creeks, and he’s playing the massive drama that deposited it all in his backyard, over and over in his mind’s eye.

Now his task is to wrestle his way through the details of insurance claims, disaster financial assistance applications, Red Cross support and paperwork — and process the loss. “It will take some time to let go of the sustainable living dream that we were building together as a family,” he posted on Facebook.

“It would have been a lot harder if I’d been on my own and single,” Rob told me. “But having Erin and River — it’s many more orders of magnitude of importance that Erin and River are alive. The land is the worst for me (more than all the other possessions.) The land was beautiful and that’s the hardest for me. Even that doesn’t register compared to the thought of losing Erin and River. All I have to do is bring that thought into my mind and all of the rest disappears into a grain of salt.”

Grief and loss are complicated beasts though, and recovery and rebuilding take a lot longer than it takes things like mountains to fall apart.

As Mike Roger, neighbour and host of the Mudfest fundraiser, posted in response to a litany of Facebook offers of clothing and furniture: “That’s the thing with social media and people wanting to help. Sometimes, it’s too much too quick. Sure they will need things, but all good things in all good time. Think more of their present needs, food, money and emotional support, not something that will be overwhelming or a burden.”

That’s where Mudfest comes in. A jam session concert, gathering and fundraiser will be held at Willowcraft Farm in Poole Creek, on Pemberton Portage Road, on Saturday, Oct. 3. Mighty momentum needs an immediate outlet. Like the mountains know. Who knows what will take shape.

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