Monday, February 20, 2006

April 18, 1906

A Crack in the Edge of the World, by Simon Winchester, Read by The Author, HarperCollinsPublishers, Inc., 2005

Simon Winchester, author of the fascinating The Professor and the Madman, starts his book about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, A Crack in the Edge of the World, with the seemingly unconnected story of the First Son of Wapakoneta, Ohio, Neil Armstrong. He tells of space travel, of the Gaia theory, and of photographs taken of the planet from the moon. The link then is not as far off from the subject matter as you’d be likely to first think, the science of space travel coming to its initial fruition just as the science of plate tectonics came of age.

A geologist by training, Winchester readily admits that his particular scientific field of choice is a dry and dusty one, which perhaps explains why he’s spent so much time away from it. Winchester, an entertaining and educational writer, was ill-suited to the rather conservative and sedentary style of thinking common among his professors and instead became a journalist, writing as foreign correspondent for The Guardian for twenty years. The blooming of the late-comer theory of plate tectonics so rapidly altered the landscape understood by geologists, and continues to radically change the field, that he himself admitted coming back to it for this book and for Krakatoa, his third book, was a challenge.

But it is his background that gives this account an interesting twist. Rather than being merely a historical document of events as they transpired, Winchester writes a book that is part history of the settlement of San Francisco, part account of the immediate destruction during the earthquake, part summary of what followed the aftermath, part travelogue around some of the strangest geological plate activity in America, part history of the science of plate tectonics, and part personal biography. All of this seems a lot to cram into 480 pages, yet it never feels as though Winchester slights any part of the tale.

Winchester has a knack for making the stories and lives of academics fascinating where in another hand they’d be as dry as much of their research. His telling of the exploration of the West is lively enough to capture a high schooler’s attention. He is aided in telling this story by the fact that these scientists were often very much Indiana Jones type adventurers. One can hardly hear without admiration the story of U.S. Major John Wesley Powell (who surveyed the Rockies, the whole of the Colorado River, and the Grand Canyon), the one-armed Civil War vet who not only endured much hardship and adventure, but became famous, a best seller, then was eventually attacked by expansionist settlers for his beliefs that the west should be cultivated and not exploited and that the Indians should be respected.

The book is also fascinating for its trivia and for quite tasty little bits of gossip, such as Charles F. Richter, of the scale, being an avid nudist and vegetarian as well as quite the Lothario. But it also brings to light facts many in the general populace might be unaware of, namely the long-standing observation and dominance in the seismographic field of the Jesuits. Or the introduction to a variety of American earthquakes almost forgotten by history (save the local variety) which took place not along any particular fault line, but in unlikely places such as Charlotte, North Carolina; New Madrid, Missouri; and Meers, Oklahoma.

While other, more authoritative accounts of the San Francisco earthquake exist, produced in the months and years immediately following, Winchester’s telling of the earthquake unfolds with the gripping quality of a novel, it’s only weakness being that of reality — there being no one major character who holds the narrative together. Once the earthquake begins, the book takes on the kind of everywhere at once view of classic disaster movies, chaos pitching diners and bathers and fishermen and police officers and famous opera singers (Enrico Caruso) out into the streets as the whole world seems to come apart at the seams. (It is also fascinating to note just how many famous names happened to be at the sight of the disaster, including but not limited to a young Ansel Adams, William James visiting Stanford University, Jack London aboard a boat off shore, the aforementioned Caruso who sung the night before, Brett Harte, Ambrose Bierce, among others.)

The least considered aspect of disasters (or at least what’s often overlooked when one thinks about them) is how one incident sparks a second and a chain reaction of calamity sets in. In San Francisco you have a perfect example. The earthquake dumps water from a nearby lake into San Francisco flooding it, but it also cracks all the water mains and deprives the fire department of any means to stop the fires, which begin to be sparked by falling electrical poles, dropping live wires into the pools of water from the lake, setting the town on fire in various locations compounded by broken gas lines spewing highly flammable gas into this combustible atmosphere. So many blazes together in one place lift the air, join, and become a flaming chimney that sucks oxygen in from all around superheating the fire making it spread even faster, making it grow.

Disheartening enough, 1906 was apparently quite a vicious year geologically. Sizable earthquakes were charted all over the globe. January 31st saw Ecuador pummeled by an 8.6; on August 17th a 7.8 was charted off the Aleutian Islands followed thirty minutes later by an 8.5 in Valparaiso, Chile, which killed three thousand. Activity was also recorded that year in Venezuela, the Middle East, and Taiwan, followed later on April 7th by the eruption of Vesuvius, laying waste to Naples. The day after Vesuvius finally fell silent, San Francisco was essentially destroyed.

Much like in every other disaster, in the aftermath, there were be people who claimed that San Francisco was destroyed because it was a sinful place. The earthquake marked the very beginning of the spread of the Pentecostal sect. It had existed for a couple years prior, growing due the emotionalism of its services replete with speaking in tongues and holy rolling, in strong contrast to the staid Protestantism surrounding it. The earthquake was seen as vindication for their beliefs, a number of Pentecostal preachers having predicted a fiery end for the city, a Sodom apparently even then. Being a man of literary bent, Winchester must of course bring up Lisbon, the famous earthquake of which likewise unleashed an outbreak of religious irrationality, priests convicting left and right with heresy and hanging.

Books like this are a welcome addition to the public sphere because they enhance our understanding of things in ways that are more complex than mere history. Winchester has an engaging style that is at once learned and erudite while being quite warm and approachable. Listening to him reading the book is like sitting in one of those amazing college orations that every so often grip you wherein the lecturer speaks and history, ancient, geological, sociological, cultural lives and breathes in the moment and shades of the past walk the same floor. It’s a rare enough talent, but this author possesses it in spades.

He also has a nice, personal professorial kind of voice when he reads his story, though every so often when he reads an epigraph to a chapter in French, his accent goes into Clouseau-like hyperdrive. He also treats us to his Scottish accent when reading an account by a Scots-boatman on the Mississippi during a quake. In what passes for a geology joke, the person who submitted the CD track names to the online service supplying said information to Microsoft’s Media Player categorized this geological history under “Heavy Metal.” I’d classify it as a treat.


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