Terrestrial Oceanica

I’m grateful for two recent opportunities to publish op-eds, one for the Los Angeles Times back in May and the other just this morning in the New York Times. Both look at seismic activity and its poetic or philosophical implications, including fault lines as sites of emergence for a future world (“A fault is where futures lurk”).

They both follow on from the Wired piece about the Walker Lane, as well as this past weekend’s large earthquakes here in Southern California.

The L.A. Times op-ed specifically looks at hiking along fault lines, including the San Andreas, where, several years ago, I found myself walking alone at sunset, without cell service, surrounded by tarantulas. I was there in the midst of a “tarantula boom,” something I did not realize until I checked into a hotel room and did some Googling later that evening.

In any case, “Faults are both a promise and a threat: They are proof that the world will remake itself, always, whether we’re prepared for the change or not.”

The New York Times piece explores the philosophical underpinnings of architecture, for which solid ground is both conceptually and literally foundational.

The experience of an earthquake can be destabilizing, not just physically but also philosophically. The idea that the ground is solid, dependable—that we can build on it, that we can trust it to support us—undergirds nearly all human terrestrial activity, not the least of which is designing and constructing architecture… We might say that California is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.

To no small extent, nearly that entire piece was inspired by a comment made by Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, who I had the pleasure of interviewing several years ago during a Fellowship at USC. At one point in our conversation, Jones emphasized to me that she is a seismologist, not a geologist, which means that she studies “waves, not rocks.” Waves, not rocks. There is a whole new way of looking at the Earth hidden inside that comment.

Huge thanks, meanwhile, to Sue Horton and Clay Risen for inviting me to contribute.

(Images: (top) Hiking at the San Andreas-adjacent Devil’s Punchbowl, like a frozen wave emerging from dry land. (bottom) A tarantula walks beside me at sunset along the San Andreas Fault near Wallace Creek, October 2014; photos by BLDGBLOG.)

7 thoughts on “Terrestrial Oceanica”

  1. Geoff: You wrote “We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.”

    What meaning of vertiginous did you mean here?

    1. Jay, I meant that the sudden disappearance of solid ground from beneath our feet—inducing a feeling that we’re being tossed on the waves, over a great depth—can lead to a kind of dizziness, comparable to vertigo. Thus, going from standing still on solid ground to being more like a mariner, “rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate,” can be vertiginous. A loss of orientation in space.

  2. Great reading lately – the op-eds have been super, the recent flood of posts, and the anniversary! Thanks for all the good stuff over the years.

  3. Dear Geoff,
    I was inspired and moved by your Op-Ed in the New York Times on Tuesday. It’s a beautiful expression of the liquidity of the ground and our existence. It gives a larger view of our world. We get caught up by the seemingly solid moments of the present but they’re part of a much more fluid, ever changing and roiling existence . This is both comforting, wonder-full and challenging. Your piece is a rare vision that eclipses many others in its big view. I found your piece so helpful in thinking about our world. This is essential news. Thank you.

  4. Getting to this rather late, Geoff, but your point about mariners on land is preceded by Hans Blumenberg’s Shipwreck with Spectator (German original, 1979). The book’s opening sentence: “Humans live their lives and build their institutions on dry land. Nevertheless, they seek to grasp the movement of their existence above all through a metaphorics of the perilous sea voyage.” Thus, it’s not surprising that he mentions later that “myth assigns earthquakes . . . to the sea god Poseidon.”

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