By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
At the heart of any mythology of earthquakes lies the issue of prediction, the idea that we may someday know in advance what the planet is going to do. It's like a seismological holy grail, as if, were we able to find it, we might somehow come to understand. Such a line of thinking, science tells us, is a losing proposition; the forces are too great, too incomprehensible, and besides, there is no proof. Yet if this is the case -- if the best we can hope for is to glimpse some larger pattern of probability -- then that's just not enough. It's one thing, after all, to know that the San Andreas Fault yields a major Southern California temblor every 140 years or so, the most recent being the 7.8 Fort Tejon quake in 1857, which means that we are nothing if not overdue. It's another, however, to suggest that this in any way fulfills us, that it can match the mix of exhilaration and dread we feel each time the earth kicks into motion, a sense of mystery that speaks to the very essence of our lives. If you go to the San Andreas, down in Redlands, say, where the fault runs alongside brand-new streets and housing developments, part of what you see is nothing, just a dry creek bed and vast empty distances, the only evidence of seismicity the soft contours of the mountains' alluvial fall. But if you stand there for a while, you notice the quality of the silence, the way that, besides the buzzing of an occasional insect, the quiet is as deep as the Earth itself. It's a majestic silence, a mythic silence, the silence of the San Andreas as it waits. This may be why, when it comes to earthquakes, science tends to fade into the fringes, where an odd assortment of researchers, psychics, witch doctors and apocalyptics make predictions to fill in the mythological gaps.
There is, of course, a peculiar commonality at work here, for geology, too, operates from a form of mythology, which mostly has to do with time. It's a field that deals in impossible increments, from the microseconds that mark the onset of an earthquake to the countless eons that constitute what geologists call "deep time." The Earth is four and a half billion years old, and not only that, it's in a perpetual flux of movement, of continental drift. What we experience as earthquakes are only the periodic spasms of this process; in another 15 million years, Los Angeles and San Francisco will come together, as the Pacific and North American plates continue to creep past each other at the rate of one and three-quarter inches a year. Given that time line, geology has no choice but to advance slowly, relying on evidence that's hard to come by and theories that shift, often drastically, as new information becomes clear. Just last month, a new fault discovered under ã downtown Los Angeles was determined to be responsible for the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake -- 12 years after the fact. "The Earth is a huge laboratory, and our experiments are few and far between," explains Tom Henyey, a professor in USC's Department of Earth Sciences and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, a research consortium funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Geological Survey. "Our experiments are the big earthquakes, and we have to wait for them. That's one of the reasons we move so slowly. We're operating on nature's time scale, and it's very different from the human one."
Because of this, geology is necessarily an intuitive discipline, in which science often merges with what, in Annals of the Former World, his geologic history of North America, John McPhee refers to as "geopoetry" -- as in "where gaps exist among the facts of geology the space between is often filled with things 'geopoetical.'" It's an idea that fascinates me, that seems, somehow, at the heart of the entire endeavor, regardless of which side you're on. Surely, geopoetry accounts for the current defining paradigm of plate tectonics; what else could it be besides a pure piece of poetry to imagine the Earth as a loose collection of floating land masses, a dreamscape of rock and magma that connects and splits apart and reconnects with stately elegance, both solid and fluid at once? The same could be said for deep time, whose incomprehensible, even terrifying distances are transformed by geopoetry, by the notion that, as one scientist notes in 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. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever." With that as a starting point, it may be the ultimate piece of geopoetry to imagine a system in which earthquakes can be predicted, in which there is a human logic to the geologic immensity, a way, in other words, to telescope time.
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