The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith

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9780143035251: The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith

Earthquakes are one of the great unsolved geological mysteries. Attempts to predict them have ranged from studies of California’s fault lines by USGS geologists to the work of an odd assortment of psychics and apocalyptics who base their sometimes startlingly accurate forecasts on everything from changes in the earth’s magnetic fields to the behavior of whales. The Myth of Solid Ground is a journey, both personal and cultural, through the world of earthquakes and earthquake prediction, one that seeks a middle ground between science and superstition, while also looking for a larger context in which seismicity might make sense. An excellent primer on the science of seismology, The Myth of Solid Ground looks at earthquakes as the ultimate metaphor for living with impending disaster.

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About the Author:

David L. Ulin is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. His work has also appeared in GQ, the Nation, New York Times Book Review, and Atlantic Monthly. Ulin is the editor of two acclaimed anthologies of writing about Los Angeles, where he lives.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THREE APRIL EARTHQUAKES

Let me tell you about the earliest earthquake I remember. It happened in the spring of 1980, when I was eighteen years old and living in my first apartment, on Haight Street in San Francisco, with two friends from high school, a collection of Grateful Dead tapes, and a glorious sense of aimlessness, of being adrift in a magical universe, where virtually everything I confronted in my daily life could be construed to harbor a hidden message of some kind. Later that year, over the Fourth of July holiday, I would ask for a sign of God’s existence; two days afterwards, a car in which I was a passenger went out of control on the 101 just south of Novato, slamming into a guardrail and rolling once, end over end, onto the highway shoulder, yet somehow leaving all five of us who’d been inside miraculously unhurt. I mention this neither to support nor debunk the God story, but simply as an illustration, to show the kind of boy I was, the things I thought about, the way I saw the world. It was a period in which I spent a lot of time considering connections, pondering synchronicity and the heady, if inaccessible, question of truth, awash in the quest for ultimate answers and the meaning that, I felt sure, was waiting, if only I could peel back the surface of the earth.

Among the more self-aggrandizing legends to swirl through San Francisco in the days I lived there was one claiming that the city was a modern re-creation of the lost kingdom of Atlantis; both places, or so the story went, were ringed by water and anchored by large white pyramids with red blinking eyes at their apexes, and both (here’s the self- aggrandizing part) represented landscapes of enlightenment in a universe of human darkness, zones of fulfillment where people could exist as their most heightened, elemental selves. From the perspective of the present, I now see this story for the provincial fantasy it was, but I remain struck by just how often, during the spring of 1980, I happened to hear it, from people who didn’t know one another, people who had nothing in common, whose definitions of enlightenment could never have encompassed one another’s points of view. For one friend, it was a matter of mass reincarnation: San Francisco, she told me, was filling up with reborn Atlanteans—which, according to her scattershot cosmology, meant anyone who had ever been drawn to the city, or, in other words, nearly all of us. Another friend took things a step further, insisting that when all the Atlanteans finally reached San Francisco, the city would be destroyed by earthquake and tidal wave, just as Atlantis itself purportedly had been. The year this would happen, she told me, was 1982, although she couldn’t explain why, exactly, other than to say she’d heard it somewhere, from someone else along the never-ending daisy chain of myth. When pressed, she’d shrug her shoulders and point at the fog-swept hills or the bulge of Mount Tamalpais, reclining like a sleeping Indian princess in the soft green distance past the Golden Gate Bridge, and say in a voice marked equally by wistfulness and wonder, “It makes sense when you think about it. This place is just too beautiful to exist.”

In the midst of all this legend making, I was asked by another friend, a girl named Lauren, to spend Easter Sunday in Marin County, at her grandparents’ house. Easter was not a holiday to which I paid much attention—too fetishistic, too stained by blood and obligation, not to mention that I was Jewish—but living three thousand miles from home, I missed the rootedness of family, the quality of belonging, of a past that extended further back in time than yesterday or last week. Because of that, when Easter finally rolled around, my roommates and I accompanied Lauren and her parents across the Golden Gate, through the rainbow tunnel at the north end of Sausalito, and up into the hills of Mill Valley, where her grandparents lived in one of those cantilevered California contemporary cottages, all blond wood and sheeted glass, with small, neat rooms like ships’ cabins, and a redwood deck projected on four ridiculously skinny stilts a hundred feet above the slope of a shaded ravine. What impressed me about the house—what always impressed me about houses like that—was the sheer impossibility of it, the way it not so much occupied a physical space as hung suspended above one; airy, ethereal, less a residence than a promise or a prayer. Inside, however, the place felt far more tangible, recognizable even: the heavy floors and thickly braided carpets, the linen napkins and crystal goblets, the ease with which Lauren’s parents and grandparents sipped drinks and talked of absent relatives, while we, the teenaged visitors, remained polite but slightly distanced, as if we didn’t want to give ourselves away. More than anything, I found myself reminded of holidays at my own home, substantial gatherings marked by generations, by a continuity that made me feel connected to the world. It was as if, here in this improbable structure, I had stumbled across a piece of ground that turned out to be solid, rather than one that existed, almost literally, in thin air.

I don’t remember very much about that Easter Sunday, just a few scattered impressions here and there. I know that we had lunch, and that, caught again in the pull of family gravity, I made a phone call to my parents; I also know that, during the course of the afternoon, Lauren and my roommates and I slid down the hill beneath the house and smoked a joint, shadowed by the weight of that deck jutting out above us like a canopy of dreams. It was still light when we got back to San Francisco, or so my memory dictates, even if, thinking about it now, that seems impossible to me. Either way, at the end of the day I was alone in our studio apartment, looking out the kitchen window at the unkempt slope of Buena Vista Park where it crawled up the other side of Haight Street, and talking on the phone. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, I felt a slight pitch and yaw, like a hiccup in the floor beneath me, and the whole room started to rock, gently, even easily, as if the world had been cast on rollers and was being shaken by a giant hand. Our apartment was on the third floor of an old wood-framed structure covered with what looked like pale green linoleum, and as the beams in the ceiling began beating out a distinct rat-tat-tatting rhythm, I found myself facing a strange dislocation, as if I’d been caught between moments, between “normal” reality and a new territory I didn’t understand. “What?” I said, and then I turned, and—this I recall as distinctly as if it were happening this very instant—noticed our collection of motley thrift-store coffee cups start to dance upon the shelves. In some strange way, it was like what would later happen in that rolling car, the idea that I was in the grip of something, that time had stopped and the simplest things—my name, my sense of self, the position of my body—had been suspended, cast aside. “Do you feel that?” I heard through the telephone receiver, but before I could answer, the shaking stopped, leaving in its aftermath something like total stillness: no birds chirping, no wind rustling, not the sound of breathing even, just the squeak, squeak, squeak of my chandelier as it slowed its swaying, and the fine, high hum of the phone connection buzzing in my ear.

Given who I was and how I saw the universe, you might think I’d have taken my first earthquake as portentous, as a harbinger of things to come. But the truth is that, as soon as the temblor was over, it didn’t even take a second for reality to snap back into position, as if nothing extraordinary had occurred. Out the window, I could see cars moving up and down Haight Street, and people passing on the sidewalk; inside, I finished my phone conversation, and went on about my day. It wasn’t until late in the evening, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep to find me, that I began to consider what all this might mean. By then, I’d heard—from someone, a roommate perhaps?—that the quake had been a 4.5, big enough to rattle nerves and windows, but too small, really, to do lasting harm. In that sense, it was more or less a momentary pinprick, a reminder of the ephemerality of existence, albeit easily dismissed. Yet there in the darkness, I couldn’t help thinking about the way the quake had rumbled out of nowhere, then disappeared as quickly as it had come. It was as if, under the surface of this placid Sunday, there was nothing you could count on, as if, much like Lauren’s grandparents’ cottage, California itself existed in a state of elaborate balance, equally solid and insubstantial, between the quotidian landscape of daily living and the explosive possibility that lay beneath. Ever since I’d arrived in San Francisco, I had wondered, in an abstract fashion, what an earthquake might feel like, how it would move me, what might happen, how I would react. Now that I’d been through it, the experience seemed like an initiation rite. It wasn’t that I felt settled, nor that I understood, in any real way, where I was. But I had been given something. If nothing else, I had an earthquake story to tell.

The earthquake story I’ve just told you didn’t really happen. Or, at least, it didn’t really happen like that. There was no Bay Area temblor on Easter Sunday 1980; in fact, the only noticeable quake anywhere in California was a 3.3 down at the southern end of the state, near the Salton Sea. According to the National Earthquake Information Center, much of the day’s seismic activity—a cluster of 3.1s and 3.2s, with a 4.3 towards midnight to cap things off—took place a thousand miles or so north of San Francisco, in the vicinity of Mount St. Helens, which less than a month and a half later would explode with the force of an atomic bomb, showering the entire West Coast with a relentless rain of flat, gray ash. The quake I remember, most likely, was a 3.5 that struck across the bay, in Emeryville, the next afternoon, although it’s also possible that I’m thinking about any one of the three small tremors that shook Hollister, in the Santa Clara Valley, throughout the following Sunday, or the 3.0 in Livermore a few days after that. One of the first things you learn when you move to California is that earthquakes are as common as breathing, as the beat of blood in your heart and lungs and temples, although most of them are so small, 1.8s and 2.2s, that they affect us, if at all, at a level below conscious reckoning, a shadow region where the boundaries between what we believe and what we know are rendered indistinct.

It’s tempting to read my memory lapse as a product of that indistinction, of the tendency, two decades later, for specifics to slip against each other like the edges of a fault. Certainly, this would explain all those small discrepancies of detail, the differences in date and magnitude, my unsettled sense of time. To be honest, though, I’m not sure that’s really accurate, since there’s nothing fuzzy in my mind about either the earthquake or my visit to Mill Valley—or, for that matter, the uneasy way they coincide. Even now, I can feel the sudden onset of the shaking and see my apartment start its fluid swaying, just as I can recall staring up at the underside of Lauren’s grandparents’ deck and wondering how it could remain aloft. The more I think about it, the more these moments seem continuous, like two halves of an extended dream. In that sense, what matters, strictly speaking, isn’t the so-called truth of my recollections; what matters is the way they add up to some larger narrative, a myth of wildness, of instability, which, in staking out a passage between disconnection and rootedness, tells me something about the way we live in California, even as it creates a context where my experience begins to resonate against itself.

How do we talk about earthquakes? How do we even approach them, let alone integrate them into our lives? More than half a century ago, the social critic Carey McWilliams laid out a model of the process, one that found identity in the turbulence of the land. “On the basis of their reaction to the word earthquake,” he wrote, “Californians can be divided into three classes: first, the innocent late arrivals who have never felt an earthquake but who go about avowing to all and sundry that ‘it must be fun’; next, those who have experienced a slight quake and should know better, but who none the less persist in propagating the fable that the San Francisco quake of 1906 was the only major upheaval the State has ever suffered; and, lastly, the victims of a real earthquake—for example, the residents of San Francisco, Santa Barbara, or, more recently, Long Beach. To these last, the word is full of terror. They are supersensitive to the slightest rattles and jars, and move uneasily whenever a heavy truck passes along the highway.” For anyone who’s spent much time in California, McWilliams’s words ring with authority. What’s more, once you’ve been through the cycle, you never lose that edge of awareness, that anticipation of the quake to come. For years after leaving San Francisco, I would tense up at the rumble of the New York City subway or feel a strong gust of wind shake the walls of a house in which I might be visiting, and experience what I came to recognize as a muscular memory, a clenching of both body and imagination. Little more than a month after I returned to California, in 1991, I was awakened one morning by the tribal drumming of beam against beam in the walls of my bedroom, a sound that told me, as viscerally as any shaking, that I was back in the earthquake zone.

This is a story that takes place within that seismic landscape. It’s a story that begins and ends with an earthquake, a story about the way that, here in California, the soil we stand on can, without warning, turn as fluid as the sea. It’s a story about how, in the face of all that motion, we evolve elaborate strategies of protection, strategies that help us get on with our lives. Some of these strategies are talismanic, like our unwillingness to forget the long, drawn-out seconds of the shaking, as if in survival there is an element of protection, a spell cast against the fault line rumbling again. Others are more practical, like the ritual of putting bottled water in our car trunks or stashing canned goods and emergency money by the door. As with most stories, there are two sides to this one, which, for want of a better frame of reference, we may think of as reason and faith. But for all their differences, both are after the same elusive something, which is to take the movements of the earth and endow them with a mythology by which they may finally, inevitably, make a kind of sense.

Earthquakes have always inspired such an air of wonder, a middle feeling between fear and disbelief. Almost twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle suggested that they were triggered by breezes trapped in underground caverns; when the winds blew, the earth shook, and the size of the earthquake was re-lated to the force of the gale. Here in Southern California, the Gabrielino Indians told one another a different story—that the ground lay spread across the shells of enormous turtles, who would argue and then swim in opposite directions, making the earth shake apart. In Siberia, local legend was not dissimilar, if somewhat less picturesque: the world, or so it was believed, sat in the well of a giant sled, and every time the dogs who pulled it stopped to scratch their fleabites, a temblor would result. For ancient Peruvians, however, quakes were actually the footsteps of God himself, who periodically returned to earth to tally up the numbers of his children, even if, in the process, he killed many of those he had come to count.

From the perspective of the present, it’s hard to frame these ...

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