In his book, The Myth of Solid Ground , David Ulin looks at what earthquakes might mean , from a cultural standpoint - including what scientific, or pseudo-scientific, techniques now hope to predict future seismic catastrophe. While researching the book, Ulin joked "that I would either learn enough about earthquakes to stay comfortably in California or so much that I'd have to move away. As it happens, I came to the former conclusion."
The book describes a wide variety of means through which non-scientists have attempted to understand earthquakes. "Predictors," for instance, as Ulin calls them, use a mixture of New Age philosophy, medical self-analysis, and geological conspiracy theory: headaches, back aches, bad dreams, aching joints - all could be signs of the Big One.
"Kathy Gori," Ulin writes, "a Los Angeles sensitive, has run off a string of better than twenty successful predictions - with just a handful of misses - by relying on headaches that come and go a few hours before a quake. The key, Gori believes, is that her brain contains higher-than-average levels of magnetite, the mineral that helps bats and other animals orient themselves to the electromagnetic field of the earth, which enables her to function as a tectonic receiver, as it were." More comically, there is an amateur earthquake predictor "nicknamed 'Pain-in-the-Butt Man,' because he feels pain shoot through his ass cheeks before the ground begins to shake."
There is also Charlotte King , "self-styled doyenne of the earthquake sensitives," who has mapped seemingly every part of her body to the earth's surface, limb by limb, continent by island chain: "Pain in ears, this is usually Italy, Sicily, Greece and Crete," she writes. Or: "Upper back as I have repeatedly said is for Japan." Her body itself becomes a seismic archipelago of nervous sensations, a kind of earthquake acupuncture , experienced against her will.
Jim Berkland , meanwhile, has his own method of prediction, "which is to read lost and found columns in various California newspapers," keeping "a daily log of pet disappearances in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, going back twenty-two years."
But is this science - or something else entirely? What is the psychology of living in an earthquake zone?
Donald Dowdy, for instance, found himself under FBI investigation after mailing "a bizarre series of manifestos, postcards, rants, and hand-drawn maps, forecasting full-bore seismic apocalypse around an elusive, if biblical, theme" to the Southern California field office of the United States Geological Survey . In a moment of incredible, if naive, beauty, Dowdy claimed that, "in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain 'the forces of the San Andreas fault'."
The emotional value of Ulin's book is such that it always hovers at the edge of belief: the poetic, even seductive, beauty of the predictors' systems is never overlooked or ignored. An urge toward faith in something that might promise meaning against random seismic catastrophe pulls at the author on almost every page - and the conflict is real, that desire to protect oneself against disaster, loss, and groundlessness.
The following interview - recorded over telephone, from Ulin's office in Los Angeles - has been published on the 100th anniversary of the great earthquake that leveled San Francisco.
“San Francisco in Ruins,” by George Lawrence . This photograph, taken by kite, shows urban damage caused by the 1906 earthquake. Photo from the Library of Congress , via the USGS ]
To what extent is The Myth of Solid Ground meant as a kind of psychological field guide for living in California?
[laughs ] Well, I'm probably not the best person to say whether that's the case! But in terms of my own intent for the book, it became something like that. It didn't start out that way.
How did it start?
The book actually grew out of a cover story I wrote for the LA Weekly , back in 1999. It was just going to be a piece about earthquake predictors - purely because I'm fascinated with left-field, fringe thinking. I'm really interested in systems of belief, and self-created mythologies, and how we individually or collectively kind of evolve belief structures to give life meaning - whether those structures are rational or not. And since adolescence I've been fascinated by conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theorists, both as a phenomenon in and of themselves and for what conspiracists say about our culture in general. So, in some ways, when I found out there was this subculture of earthquake predictors, it just seemed really fascinating to me.
I was interested in the notion of whether or not earthquakes could be predicted - but I was also interested in the idea that maybe some of these more left-field thinkers were stumbling across things that traditional science wasn't able to get at. Then, in the course of doing the reporting for the Weekly story, I wanted to learn more about seismology, to give myself some grounding, so that I could determine for myself whether I thought these predictors were on the mark or not. What shocked me about the predictors, in the first place, was that many of them actually seemed to make sense, in a commonsense kind of way. I wasn't sure whether that was just my ignorance, or whether in fact they were onto something.
And that's when the book became more about the psychology of earthquakes?
Once I got into the actual science, I began to see all of this in terms of belief, and in terms of... I don't know if I'd use the word "psychology." The way I often described the book while I was writing it was that it was about the sociology of earthquakes, and what they meant in terms of the personality of California. I've spent a lot of time writing about both the literature and culture of southern California, and California in general. What is the defining aesthetic of this place? What sociological role do earthquakes play?
So the book drifted away from seismic science as such, and became more about mythologies and personal belief structures? The context, in a way, was almost religious?
Well, this kind of left-field, fringe thinking has always attracted me. When I was 12 or 13, for instance, I stumbled upon the Kennedy assassination - which totally changed my life [laughs ]. In a pathetic sort of way - but actually in a really transformative way. Because, again, with the Kennedy assassination you get all these people constructing elaborate stories about how this event may or may not have happened. Partly because the official story is so factually unsatisfying - but it was also emotionally unsatisfying: the idea that this mythic figure like Kennedy could be taken out by someone as insignificant as Oswald. It almost begged for a bigger story. And, in fact, if you go through the physics of it, there probably was more than one gunman. But my point is that a lot of conspiracy theorists and Kennedy assassination theorists - and, as we'll see, earthquake predictors - constructed incredibly elaborate theories to support their own worldviews. In many ways, if everything can be explained, and there is no randomness and chaos, then somehow life has meaning. We can understand it and respond to it. There's a reason why everything happened.
That's the need for a belief system - an elaborate, self-perpetuated mythology, whether it's about JFK or the '06 quake.
What interests me even more now is what those belief systems gave to their theorists - in terms of meaning, in terms of esteem, and in terms of a structure through which their lives and their work could make sense on a larger scale. As I talk about it in the book, a lot of the predictors' theories seemed to be intimately connected to their own psychological make-up.
"Ruin of the $7,000,000 City Hall ," San Francisco, 1906]
It's interesting that the predictors all turned to science, instead of art, for validation. In other words, did anyone you researched think of themselves not as rogue scientists but as outsider artists, with a sheen of irony around their projects?
I don't think there was. I mean you could read it that way - but someone like, for instance, Donald Dowdy: I think this is a guy who absolutely would not see himself in any kind of ironic way, outside of his own belief system. Yet if you look at that system, and step outside of the pathology of it, it is a beautifully and elaborately constructed myth, in an artistic way. But I didn't run across any predictors who saw their work ironically . In fact, all the people really saw themselves in the context of science, even if that was rogue science. Jim Berkland , or Cloud Man, or even Charlotte King , who predicts off of body aches - they all believed that there was some kind of scientific, or chemical, or even mineral reason for what was going on. It wasn't - what's the word? - it wasn't psychic . It was physical . Of course, there were also people who just didn't know, people like Kathy Gori, who later theorized about the magnetite in her brain - but she was just reporting a phenomenon, not constructing an elaborate artistic or scientific system.
For me... By and large, I'm an arts journalist - so I tended to read things in a certain way. In fact, one of the things that fascinated me about the predictors was how much they reminded me of poets, or writers, who I've spent a lot of time with. That's in terms of certain superficial things - you know, they're all bad dressers -
- and socially mal-adept, but also in terms of the monomania of it, and the intuitive leaps. That's why I sort of stole that notion of geopoetry from John McPhee , and used it as a defining metaphor. Once I realized this similarity between earthquake predictors and poets, even I - coming from outside of science - found there was a common ground: I could talk to these people as poets , even if they didn't see themselves that way.
To what extent is there a unified, self-aware culture of earthquake prediction - or is the myth of the rogue, lonely outsider something too hard for them to resist?
Well, again, I think it's not as self-conscious as I may have portrayed it to be. When I say it's a “culture,” that's just my word. Some are in touch with each other; some aren't. Berkland's got a website , for instance. Charlotte King's got a website , too. There are also prediction and earthquake usenet groups, and discussion groups, where seismologists will come in, and just regular people who are fascinated will come in, and they'll all discuss various issues or various advances in the field. People will post about events that have happened, or new books - but I don't think it's actually a self-conscious “culture.” I think that's more me, the sociologist/observer, imposing that view from the outside.
Panorama of the Destroyed City
What was the reaction to your book, both in scientific circles and in the earthquake prediction crowd?
I think it was pretty mixed. The scientists who weighed in on it were less thrilled because I actually took the predictors seriously - at least I took them seriously as a social phenomenon. At the end, though, I really veered away from prediction. I began to think that prediction is really something of a side-show, frankly, and that what was really interesting was this notion of geologic time and geologic order : did the world work according to some kind of pattern, whether it was a pattern we could see or not? In which case prediction would really be sort of a moot point, because there's an unbridgeable gap between human and geologic time.
Amongst the predictors, the only one I heard from was Jim Berkland. He wasn't necessarily pleased about what I had to say about him - but he was pleased, I think, by the size of his role. Still, Berkland is a very compelling figure to me. He's very complicated, and I hope that comes across in my portrayal of him in the book. Berkland fascinated me from the very beginning, from the time I first spoke to him. The fact that he has worked as a geologist and a seismologist, and that he's worked with the USGS - that really gives him a grounding, and the appearance of a weight or an authority which, when you look at his theories, he doesn't really seem to have.
In a way, Berkland became a symbol for my own back and forth on the whole question of prediction: I found him very believable at the beginning, but the more I learned, the more I found his theories to be flawed.
In the process, did you become distrustful of the scientific community? How did writing the book make you feel about actual tectonic science?
You know, I actually found myself to be totally enthralled and very trustful of them. I mean, it's a double vision: I found, almost without exception, that the seismologists I spoke to were extremely smart, extremely up front, extremely honest, and they didn't seem to have a particular agenda at all, other than what the focus of their research was. I was surprised, in fact, being generally suspicious of official culture, of official ways of thinking, that they did seem so guileless and so on the level.
But the one thing I did find reinforced almost everywhere was the limitation of official science - of pragmatic science - to encompass large theoretical areas. I think there has been a failure of imagination on behalf of seismologists - and geologists in general - in terms of how they approach the subject of earthquakes. That's probably because of the failure of prediction to pan out in the 1980s, for instance, when prediction was a big thing. They really thought this was going to be possible. Millions of dollars were spent, papers were written, careers were staked - but it failed to pan out. I think they got scared and, basically, retrenched. Earthquake prediction became the kiss of death. People are now reluctant even to use the word prediction , to the point of using the word forecast . That's a failure of imagination - or a failure of nerve in some way.
But doesn't that open up something of a niche market for new teams of seismologists - or for anyone, really, who wants to run a few experiments?
Well, it's also a matter of funding, of funding for research: it's much easier to get grants for hazard management, assessment, early warning systems, that sort of thing. If you can get enough sensors around, for example, you may have an extra minute or two as the waves travel from where the earthquake hits to where human settlements are. That's not a question of prediction, it's a question of managing the immediate response. It's defensive.
The real issue that I have with traditional earthquake science at the moment is that they seem unwilling to invite the metaphorical in - and I realize that's a tricky thing. I mean, science isn't about metaphor - it can be used as a metaphor, but it's not about metaphor - and yet I do think there's a middle ground somewhere, between the perspective of the predictors and what the actual scientists are doing.
You could encompass a sense of wonder and a sense of larger meaning, a larger metaphorical structure, and still make it scientifically sound. Who knows, a hundred years from now, what we'll know. What we currently think of as superstition we may end up thinking of as science - and vice versa.
Southern California Earthquakes , a shaded relief map by the USGS
Do you think that some people actually move to California precisely because of its seismic activity? In other words, for the poetic effect that unstable ground might have on their lives? A sense of precariousness, of adventure, danger...?
That's an interesting question. I'm sure some people do - though I think it's a more subconscious thing - but I'm sure that does happen. In fact, I think it goes beyond the seismic activity, into the harshness of the territory in general: the elemental nature of the landscape, the deserts, the floods, the wildfires. It fascinates me that California has this Edenic myth to it because it's so apocalyptic in a way - nature is always asserting itself.
There's a famous joke that, in California, we have four seasons: earthquake, fire, flood, and drought. But that underlies a few things: one thing a lot of people believe - and I know I believe - is that the '06 quake is kind of the creation myth for contemporary California. In terms of California's earthquake culture, in terms of this notion of a phoenix rising from the ashes - particularly in San Francisco - there is this idea throughout California: if everything's destroyed, or if Malibu burns down, we'll just rebuild it. It's that idea of reinvention. Even in terms of how San Francisco dealt with the '06 quake, which was by framing it as a fire , rather than as an earthquake, so that it wouldn't scare off investors. Fire was something that could happen elsewhere, to other cities, and so it made the destruction more palatable. In fact, it was known as the Great Fire of San Francisco before the earthquake reemerged.
So I think that on a deeper level there is this notion of erasure and of forgetting and reinvention - which is one of the clichés of California, but it's a powerful cliché of California. People come here for that. It is a part of the psychology here - in the same way that they'll knock down historic structures and build mini-malls, or how people will come here and change their identities, the way they live, in one way or another, putting their past behind them to move forward. I think a large part of that psychology has to do with the notion that the earth can wipe you out in any second, that, if you live in a place where the earth can erase a building or erase a neighborhood or erase a whole street - why not just do it yourself?
Something I ended up inadvertently doing in the book was using the physical landscape of California to kind of map or tell the story of California. I think maybe as the civilization of California matures - or at least stays here longer - that maybe you'll see more of that personality emerge.
In some ways, it seems like the 1906 earthquake has actually been used as a way to re-package California's seismic hazards as a kind of selling point for the state. In other words, living with seismicity gives California strange proof of its historical depth and cultural optimism.
Well, I think the anniversary of the quake really will just be an excuse to sell stuff. One of the interesting things about the '06 quake to me is that it's one of the most elaborately photographed natural disasters - the first modern disaster - where a lot of people had cameras, people on the street, and the cameras were sophisticated enough that you could take snapshots. They were blurry, but you could actually get an active sense of what was going on. Which is another reason I think the '06 quake has really stayed in the imagination: because you can see it.
But let me put it this way: one of the side-effects of writing the book for me was hearing a lot of people I know suggest that only an outsider, or a new transplant to California, would have spent so much time writing about earthquakes. Natives are supposed to just accept them as part of the landscape - certainly no one would spend five years writing a book about them. So I started doing little, informal polls at readings, and I would ask people whether they were natives or not - and there were some natives who were freaked out about earthquakes, and there were some transplants who didn't care... So I do wonder about that, if that speaks to the subconscious nature of earthquakes in California. Where is the awareness of them? On what level? Some people just literally might not even know the history or the science.
I think, in some ways, the hundredth anniversary is more of a media anniversary. I think it's more of a manufactured thing. People will read a newspaper article - then, tomorrow, they'll get on with their lives.
The San Andreas Fault; exaggerated-height photograph by NASA
David L. Ulin is book editor for the Los Angeles Times . He is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, selected as a "Best Book of 2004" by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune . David is also the editor of Another City: Writing from Los Angeles and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, the latter of which won a 2002 California Book Award. His writings have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly , The Nation , The New York Times Book Review , LA Weekly , The Village Voice , and National Public Radio's All Things Considered ; his essay "The Half-Birthday of the Apocalypse" was nominated for a 2004 Pushcart Prize. From 2000 to 2005, he taught in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Geoff Manaugh serves on the editorial board of Archinect . He is the author of BLDGBLOG and of a novel, called Film Night , about architecture and surveillance in London.