Penguin.com (usa)

The Myth of Solid Ground

Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith

David L. Ulin - Author

Paperback | $15.00 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780143035251 | 304 pages | 26 Jul 2005 | Penguin | 5.27 x 7.87in | 18 - AND UP
Summary of The Myth of Solid Ground Summary of The Myth of Solid Ground Reviews for The Myth of Solid Ground An Excerpt from The Myth of Solid Ground

"A stunning, enchanting" (Los Angeles Times) inquiry into the science—and pseudoscience—of earthquake prediction

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.

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 stories as anything other than folklore, which, of course, is what they are. Yet the more I consider them, the more intrigued I find myself, and not just from an aesthetic point of view. Earthquakes, after all, do strange things to our psyches, by shattering what may be our most widely held illusion, the inviolability of solid ground. Not only does this undermine our belief in the everyday stability of existence, it also offers, in a way I can’t pin down exactly, evidence of an entirely different vision of reality: odd juxtapositions, inexplicable happenings, situations that don’t add up. At 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994—the moment of the Northridge earthquake—my wife and I both sat bolt upright in bed at the exact same instant, looked at each other, and said, in something close to unison, “Quake!” By the time the shaking kicked in, a split second later, we were already scrambling towards our bedroom doorway, where we huddled for the duration while outside, electric transformers blew, one after another, like giant flashbulbs, and a million car alarms sliced the eerie stillness of the night. Across town, a friend of mine, a long-lapsed Catholic, awoke at two that morning, and, seized with a dread she couldn’t dissipate, began to pray, on her knees, fingers knitted, stopping only two and a half hours later, when the quake tore through her hillside home. On the one hand, incidents like these leave me skeptical; what are they if not coincidences, tiny blips of psychic radar, bits of something we imagine to reassure ourselves, something that isn’t real? I’d be lying, however, if I said I didn’t wonder about them, didn’t stay awake nights trying to put together all the pieces, as if somewhere deep inside the moment an answer might be found.

All of this might seem like wishful thinking, but I prefer to look at it in terms of intuition instead. Even geologists acknowledge the role of suggestion, of serendipity, in their investigations; theirs is, by necessity, a conjectural discipline, in which verifiable information is hard to come by, and science blurs into what John McPhee calls “geopoetry,” as in “where gaps exist among the facts of geology the space between is often filled with things ‘geopoetical.’ ” Surely, geopoetry accounts for the current defining paradigm of plate tectonics—what else is it but a pure piece of poetry to see the earth as a loose collection of floating landmasses, ethereal as a dreamscape, a stew of rock and magma that connects and splits apart and reconnects with stately elegance, both solid and fluid at once? The same is true of deep time, geologic time, whose incomprehensible, even terrifying, distances are transformed by geopoetry, by the notion that, as one scientist says in McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time.” That the earth could exist in a state of constant evolution is as vivid a metaphor for the concept of a living planet as we’re likely to come across, and it gives the entire arc of lithic history, and our finite, fleeting place within it, a grandeur as vast as that of heaven itself. With such a metaphor as a starting point, it may be the ultimate piece of geopoetry to imagine a system in which earthquakes can be read or reckoned with, in which there is a human logic to the geologic immensity, a way, in other words, to telescope time.

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas L. Friedman describes how, during the early 1980s, Beirut residents developed a set of complex psychological defenses against the random devastation they faced every day. “I rarely heard any Beiruti admit,” he writes, “that the violence around him was totally capricious and that the only thing that kept him alive was callous fate—which was the truth. Instead, I would hear people say about a neighbor who got killed by an errant shell, ‘Well, you know, he lived on the wrong side of the street. It is much more exposed over there than on our side.’ Or they would say, ‘Well, you know, he lived next to a PLO neighborhood,’ or, ‘He shouldn’t have gone out driving fifteen minutes after the cease-fire started; he should have waited twenty minutes—everyone knows that.’ ” I’ve never been to Lebanon, but I understand instinctively what Friedman means. Here in Southern California, one friend of mine won’t stop his car under a freeway overpass, no matter how irate other drivers get. Another spent the first six months after Northridge sleeping in her clothing, including socks and shoes. As for me, I don’t have an earthquake kit—because somewhere along the line, I decided that, were I to prepare myself, it would be a way of tempting fate. By now, I can’t remember how this particular superstition got started, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. What’s important is not the idea, but what it tells us, which is that to live on any kind of fault line, we need to believe in something. This is a story about myth, after all.

At 5:12 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco was struck by what is still considered the most destructive temblor ever to hit California, a quake that, along with the three-day firestorm it ignited, flattened more than five hundred blocks, more than twenty-five thousand buildings, in the very heart of the city, reducing what had been the West’s most vibrant metropolitan center to a landscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. Looking at pictures of San Francisco from before and after, you can see the scale of the destruction, a destruction so complete, so overwhelming, that even now, nearly a century later, it literally takes your breath away. At the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco, one wall is covered by a large photograph of the intersection of California and Market streets taken barely a month before the earthquake, revealing a cosmopolitan cityscape, with tall buildings and streetcars, and masses of pedestrians decked out in suits and bowlers—in short, much the same vista you’d find in New York or London, Paris or Philadelphia. I’ve stood at that corner thousands of times, watching the cable cars climb the slope of California Street like brightly painted insects, immersed in the bustle of business, the warm light of morning, the feeling of a city on the move. Across the room, near the museum’s entrance, an old wooden stereopticon showcases the other side of the earthquake, offering a photo flip-book of what one caption calls “Ruins as Far as the Eye Can See.” In the most stunning shot, Nob Hill stands stripped and ravaged, elegant mansions gone as if they never existed, silent hillocks covered in rubble and ash. Such an image makes three-dimensional the scene described by an anonymous reporter in a combined edition of the San Francisco Call-Chronicle-Examiner, published the morning after the earthquake:
Death and destruction have been the fate of San Francisco. Shaken by a temblor at 5:13 o’clock [sic] yesterday morning, the shock lasting 48 seconds, and scourged by flames that raged diametrically in all directions, the city is a mass of smouldering ruins. At six o’clock last evening the flames seemingly playing with increased vigor, threatened to destroy such sections as their fury had spared during the earlier portion of the day. Building their path in a triangular circuit from the start in the early morning, they jockeyed as the day waned, left the business section, which they had entirely devastated, and skipped in a dozen directions to the residence portions. As night fell they had made their way over into the North Beach section and springing anew to the south they reached out along the shipping section down the bay shore, over the hills and across toward Third and Townsend streets.

Warehouses, wholesale houses and manufacturing concerns fell in their path. This completed the destruction of the entire district known as the “South of Market Street.” How far they are reaching to the south across the channel cannot be told as this part of the city is shut off from San Francisco papers.

After darkness, thousands of the homeless were making their way with their blankets and scant provisions to Golden Gate Park and the beach to find shelter. Those in the homes on the hills just north of the Hayes Valley wrecked section piled their belongings in the streets and express wagons and automobiles were hauling the things away to the sparsely settled sections. Everybody in San Francisco is prepared to leave the city, for the belief is firm that San Francisco will be totally destroyed.

Downtown everything is ruin. Not a business house stands. Theaters are crumbled into heaps. Factories and commission houses lie smouldering on their former sites.

The two-tiered banner headline, in boldface capital letters, screams out:
EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE
SAN FRANCISCO IN RUINS
The San Francisco earthquake is a watershed in California history, an essential turning point in the narrative of the state. It represents, in many ways, the genesis of contemporary California, the origin of our identification of the place as earthquake country, as a fractured landscape of devastating possibility, where hope and terror may abruptly coincide. That’s not to say there weren’t significant California temblors before the destruction of San Francisco; Southern California was rocked twice in the nineteenth century by powerful earthquakes, while in 1865, and again in 1868, the Bay Area experienced tremors large enough that each was referred to, in its own time, as the “Great San Francisco Earthquake.” During the 1800s, however, California was still too unsettled for earthquakes to have taken their place as part of the subterranean mythos of people’s lives. What culture existed was pioneer culture, defined by a wholly different set of legends—those of the missions, of the gold rush, of the building of the railroads. When, on the morning of January 9, 1857, the San Andreas Fault slipped at Cholame, in Central California, triggering the 7.8 Fort Tejon quake, only two people along the nearly two- hundred-mile rupture died. At the time, California’s population was not much more than half a million, its written history—its records, its newspapers—less than ninety years old. Earthquakes were considered, when they were considered, as localized, even isolated, events, with no particular relation to anything but themselves.

One afternoon, in her office at the Pasadena field office of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), seismologist Susan Hough showed me an 1890 history of California called The Golden State, which insists, with a kind of native pride, that “indeed, compared with the earthquakes of other times and countries, California’s earthquakes are but gentle oscillations.”

“Gentle oscillations?” I repeated, not quite sure I’d read it right.

“Yeah,” Hough said, laughing, as she took the old leather-bound volume from me and slid it gently back onto her shelf. “I love that. It’s like they’re talking about an entirely different world.”

Within this entirely different world, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake reverberated like . . . well, like an earthquake, an upheaval that turned into its own odd kind of fault line, separating the present from the past. It shifted perceptions, shattered preconceptions, suggested whole new topographies of iconography and fear. Partly, this had to do with the earthquake itself, as a discrete geologic event, which did so much damage, over such a large area, that it changed how people thought about the land. “Rupturing the northernmost 430 kilometers of the San Andreas fault from northwest of San Juan Bautista to the triple junction at Cape Mendocino,” explains a USGS Web site on the subject, “the earthquake confounded contemporary geologists with its large, horizontal displacements and great rupture length. Indeed, the significance of the fault and recognition of its large cumulative offset would not be fully appreciated until the advent of plate tectonics more than half a century later.” Stories abounded about the devastation. Throughout Northern California, ground surface ruptures of five yards were not uncommon, and at least one measured twenty feet. In Point Reyes Station, the 5:15 commuter train to San Francisco was shaken off the tracks just minutes before departure; a photograph taken at the scene shows the locomotive laid out on its side along the railbed, a crazy zigzag of cars splayed in serpentine behind it, like playthings swept aside by a giant hand. Just to the south, in Olema, it was reported that a cow had fallen into a ground fissure and been crushed to death, a tale repeated so often, and with such convincing vigor, that even Grove Karl Gilbert, one of the preeminent geologists of his era, believed it. From the perspective of a less hysterical moment, the crushed cow saga is clearly an exaggeration or, perhaps, as Philip L. Fradkin theorizes in his anecdotal history of California earthquakes, Magnitude 8, a practical joke played by a farmer with a cow to bury, who “made up a good story for the bothersome newspaper reporters and geologists.” Either way, it’s instructive, a three-dimensional example of the way that, when it comes to earthquakes, the boundary between truth and legend becomes vaporous and indistinct. If the ground itself can shift and rumble, buckling streets and buildings and throwing trains from their tracks, it’s not much of a leap to think that the earth might swallow an animal or, for that matter, fall away entirely, casting California out to sea.

What’s interesting is that, in the case of San Francisco, all these mythic subtexts coexist with a wealth of documentation, from films and photographs to a wide array of firsthand testimony, and at least two large-scale official reports. In that sense, the temblor stands as the first truly modern earthquake, in which the evidence, such as the images, is as important as the event. The more I think about it, the more appropriate this seems, since for all we know of the earthquake, there is plenty that eludes us still. I’m not talking now about the larger, geologic issues—how earthquakes work, what starts and stops them, how they spread and grow. No, I mean details far more basic, which exist on the most mundane, superficial strata of the event. The death toll, for instance, reported at the time, and for years afterwards, as around five hundred, was almost certainly higher, especially when you consider the destruction of neighborhoods like Chinatown, where the immigrant population was recorded only sporadically, if at all. (The latest casualty estimates are five to seven times that initial estimate, although even this may still be low.) Magnitude, too, remains open to conjecture; in 1958, Charles Richter—who, with Beno Gutenberg, developed the Richter scale at the California Institute of Technology in 1935—put the temblor’s strength at 8.25 or 8.3, which became the commonly accepted figure, as well as the popular threshold for what we think of as the “Big One,” the eight- plus-point catastrophe every Californian dreads. Two recent studies, however, at the USGS and Caltech, suggest a magnitude of 7.7 or 7.9, which only points out how little we can say for sure. If we can’t with any accuracy determine how many people died or track the size of the earthquake, how can we determine anything? Even here, it seems, we’re in the realm of geopoetry, where intuition, the ability to make connections, may be the most essential tool we have.

Nowhere is this more clear than in regard to the documentary evidence of the earthquake, which, far from offering a cohesive, comprehensive vision, gives us only glimpses, brief moments of focus that raise more questions than they resolve. On the surface, that seems a paradox; how, after all, can you argue with a film clip or interpret a newspaper photograph as anything other than itself? Yet if you read the eyewitness accounts and study the pictures, you find yourself experiencing a kind of inner earthquake, in which you’re left suspended between past and present, between the chimera of solidity and the realization that everything around you could, at any minute, disappear. This is what I felt when I first moved to California, before my first earthquake, when I used to walk the streets of San Francisco and try to see through every sidewalk and building, as if, were I able to peer closely enough, some hidden truth might be revealed. If the artifacts of 1906 have anything to tell us, it’s that beneath such façades lies chaos, and whatever meaning we uncover is our own. The pictures and stories, in other words, are not transparent—that is, they don’t really illustrate what happened, in any way that helps us understand. Rather, they function more as portals of imagination, letting us think our way into the experience while simultaneously reminding us of its irretrievable distance, a distance fueled by time. This is only heightened by their photographic nature, which makes these images both real and alien at once. Looking at them, then, is less like examining a historical record than staring through a window into a parallel universe, recognizable but different, in which everything we know is upside down.

That, of course, is exactly how it feels to go through an earthquake, and this uncertainty, this loss of equilibrium, is what gives these pictures their power. In one photo, of Van Ness Avenue, a row of Victorian buildings have partly slid from their foundations, leaning against each other like sloppy drunks. In another, taken in the Western Addition, two women wearing bustle skirts and bonnets promenade formally, in the style of the period, along a street sheared to rubble, where the only standing structures are a few unsupported chimneys and walls. Perhaps the most famous picture is one by Arnold Genthe, snapped the day of the quake from the top of Sacramento Street, looking downhill towards the bay, where clouds of smoke billow up to the horizon, and groups of people stand or sit almost to the vanishing point, watching as the fire comes their way. It’s a shot I’ve seen quite often, and what intrigues me are its odd, everyday touches, its glimmers of life exposed. Although much of Sacramento Street appears intact, one building’s front wall has collapsed, and on the second floor, you can see a corner of what looks like someone’s bedroom, where a bureau stands, undisturbed by the temblor, with a picture framed above it, still hanging on the wall. If there’s a better metaphor for the randomness of devastation, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine one, and it seems all the more miraculous compared with the destruction of the city as a whole. Far more horrifying is an aerial photo shot from a tethered balloon five weeks after the earthquake, which yields a panorama of San Francisco—or, more accurately, of all that’s left. Running like a scar down the center of the picture is a thin line of buildings rising up along Market Street to the dome of City Hall. In the foreground stands the Fairmont Hotel, one of the few identifiable landmarks, brand-new in 1906 and totally unscathed. On either side of that line, though, there’s absolutely nothing, just an endless sprawl of flattened, wasted blocks receding to the picture’s edge. You can see the rumpled rise and fall of hills and the orderly grid of streets; the roads are open, wreckage cleaned up and removed. Still, except for a few trees or pillars sticking up like silent tombstones, nothing breaks the view. It’s not even a ghost town, it’s just obliterated. Outside of downtown, San Francisco is gone.

In the face of such a photograph, you can’t really tell whether what you’re seeing was caused by the earthquake or the fire. But that just adds another mythic layer to the experience, another question that’s left unresolved. On the one hand, it’s a chicken-and- egg issue; without the earthquake, there would have been no conflagration. At the same time, the source of the destruction couldn’t be more essential, in terms of thinking about what the San Francisco earthquake means. For all the accounts and images, the reports in newspapers across the country, one of the earliest myths to emerge in the weeks and months after the earthquake was generated by the civic leaders of San Francisco, who thought it best for the city’s future to blame the disaster on the fire. It’s not hard to see their thinking, since fire could happen anywhere: both Boston and Chicago had burned as recently as the early 1870s, well within the range of public memory, and if you look at pictures of the Boston fire, what you see is strikingly familiar: a ravaged downtown, flattened, scarred with rubble, in which a few solitary buildings stand like shocked survivors, presiding over a wasteland of devastation and fear. Earthquakes, however, were an entirely different matter—unpredictable, unpreventable, and (worst of all) seen as indigenous to California, a danger that could be avoided by living, working, investing somewhere else. Confronted with this, and its potential impact on their ability to rebuild the city, businessmen and local officials put their own spin on the situation, downplaying all mention of the temblor in favor of a new myth, in which the most important narrative was that of San Francisco rising from the ashes to be reborn.

Over the years, the shift in focus from earthquake to fire has come to stand for many things—the cynicism of the city’s leadership, the naïveté of its people, the primacy of the booster spirit in determining our image of ourselves. Without question, it’s a classic California story, in which reality, seismic or otherwise, becomes secondary to a kind of wish fulfillment, the idea that, if we just long for something hard enough, we can literally will it into being. Still, for all that makes me uncomfortable about such a notion, I can’t help but see San Francisco’s reinvention of its own history in terms more complicated, more psychological, than mere politics or economics, as the product of what we might call native optimism or, at the very least, healthy denial. There’s a certain suspension of disbelief, after all, that comes with living in California, a faith that the inevitable will never happen, or that, if it does, we’ll be able to keep it psychically contained. To manage this, we need the reassurance of a larger allegory, in which the details add up somehow, and our lives along the fault line are redeemed. You can write that off as a quintessentially Californian delusion, but I prefer to think of it as self-preservation, an ongoing process of finding order in disorder, of taking the random pandemonium of an earthquake and reconfiguring it to make unexpected sense. “With the earthquake and fire,” David Wyatt writes in Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California, “San Francisco began the immediate translation of the text into the myth. . . . The particular story that San Francisco told itself about the earthquake and fire was of a city coolly eyeing its own destruction, a city acting ‘casual,’ as Kathryn Hulme describes a man blowing drifting char from his hands, ‘casual when you knew he wasn’t feeling so.’ ” This could be said for all of us in California, where, beneath the shadow of a looming earthquake, we go about existence all the same. And late at night, when we recall the precarious terms of that existence, we reassure ourselves with the legend of San Francisco, how it did not vanish like Atlantis, but was, instead, reclaimed.

Ninety-four years, almost to the day, after the San Francisco earthquake, I’m driving down the seam of the Southern California coast, traveling the 5 from Los Angeles to San Diego, watching the edge of North America melt gently into the surf. Somewhere to my left, east in the desert, the San Andreas is dissipating at its southern terminus near the Salton Sea; to my right, the Pacific sparkles ocean-blue and hazy, like the literal end of the world. It’s about eight thirty on a Friday morning in April, and the 5 is empty—or, if not empty, exactly, then lonely, desolate, in that peculiar Southern California way. What I mean is that, here, just south of San Clemente, surrounded by the brown rolling hills of northern San Diego County, you get that wistful sense of drift, of distance, the disassociation that its detractors like to say has been California’s deepest, most defining fault line all along. This is the California where Richard Nixon once walked the beach dressed in suit pants and wingtips, pondering his paranoia; the California where, in March 1997, thirty-nine acolytes of Heaven’s Gate swallowed phenobarbital and vodka and lay down in their black Nike sneakers to join the comet Hale-Bopp as it swept past Earth. It is, in other words, an apocalyptic landscape, one where people live in disconnection, as unrooted as dust upon the surface of the world. Even the subtle sweep of the shoreline is deceptive; although it looks unspoiled and inviting, much of it belongs to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, and has been fenced off and marked with warning signs. As is so often the case in California, nothing on this drive is what it seems.

Three April Earthquakes

The X-Files

A Brief History of Seismology

Earthquake Country

Before and After Science

Shaking All Over

East of Eden

The Unified Field Theory of Everything

The Myth of Solid Ground

Index

A subtle, personal and adventurous exploration of what an immense natural phenomenon means in our culture at large. (Los Angeles Times)


To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication

Please alert me via email when:


The author releases another book