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Reading Between the Fault Lines

David Ulin's The Myth of Solid Ground

Los Angeles writer David Ulin understands that earthquakes, like hurricanes in the Caribbean and the midnight sun in the Arctic, are not just external phenomena but live deep within the bones of Californians.

What he doesn't understand, and what he spends the entirety of his new book The Myth of Solid Ground exploring, is how earthquakes got into our bones and how such an intimate, perilous coexistence affects the way we see ourselves.

Solid Ground is not explicitly about California in the way, say, that Joan Didion essays dismember the state and coolly reassemble it to fit her sociocultural pitch. It more closely resembles the popular science, homespun with underlying rigor, of John McPhee's Western geology series, although Ulin can't approach McPhee's craft and style.

Though Ulin dutifully explains the latest theories in seismology, he is more interested in examining our relationship with the grinding, uncertain Earth by bouncing between interviews with legitimate geologists and the earthquake predictors who hover on the fringe of science -- or beyond it -- with their talk of cloud formations, UFOs and lost pets. Ulin narrates his interrogative quest like a hippie Columbo, scratching his head, voicing skepticism, but all the while admitting that it's blowing his mind.

Problem is, watching someone's mind expand can turn tedious. (Just ask anyone who's ever been sober and listened to a long stoned conversation.) Ulin makes us privy to every turn of his mental processes: Tail-chasing, thumb-sucking, call it what you will, his ruminations sometimes come to rest with slim philosophical payoff, as in this description of a creepy earthquake predictor who sends cards and letters to government geologists: "Dowdy's New Year's greeting is an eerie dispatch from the obsessive underside of California, an alternate universe bounded by complex fixations, strange enough to laugh at, but disturbing also, as if there's something going on here that you just can't put your finger on."

Ulin does this often enough to make you say, fine, get back to us when you put your finger on it. But just when the quasi-philosophical noodling starts to wear thin, Ulin breaks through with quirky, revealing steps toward uncovering what he calls "geopoetry," a phrase coined by McPhee to explain the gaps among the facts of geology.

I'll admit that as a natural disaster junkie and native Californian, I have extra patience as Ulin constantly adjusts his own mental fault lines, as his seismic exploration spirals deeper into a treatise on human existence.

Others might not be so patient. But swim past the foamy whoa-dude cosmicity that sometimes obscures his prose, and you end up in fascinating waters fed by the twin currents of paleo-geology and chaos theory, two branches of science that as Ulin rightly deduces owe as much to poetry (or at least the creative expansion of the mind) as to charts and numbers. It takes a lot to wrap one's head around the enormity of geologic time, in which earthquake prediction down to the day, even the month, seems absurd; or the complexity of chaos theory, which informs the latest theories on the delicate interconnectedness of pressure points that can trigger an earthquake. It is worth trying.

Curiously, there's not a single map in The Myth of Solid Ground to orient us, despite many discussions of specific fault segments. I suspect it's intentional, a way to keep quakes and faults and epicenters as much a function of our imaginations as a product of topography and tectonics. It simply accentuates Ulin's belief that there will always be geopoetry -- gaps in our knowledge of the natural world. Near the end of the book he quotes geophysicist David Bowman: "Science is not about answers. It's about questions. Once you know an answer, it's not science anymore."

Indeed the book climaxes not with answers but with a moment of geopoetic ecstasy in a remote Central California location, where the spasms of the San Andreas Fault have shifted a creek bed thirty feet off-kilter. It is a famous, perhaps even holy spot among seismologists, and as might happen to any spiritual pilgrim, Ulin is overcome with the evidence of Earth's raw power:

"Yes, that evidence tells us, you could disappear here, but you also might be enlarged beyond your wildest imaginings, joined not only to the world around you, but in some fundamental fashion, to yourself."

He lies down in the dry creek bed, out in the middle of nowhere, and all of California comes rushing at him: James Dean, who died nearby, Charles Manson, Universal Studios and its fake-quake thrill ride, Parkfield, the tiny town that bristles with scientists and instruments, but most of all he feels eons of time and power and rock. In the ultimate whoa-dude moment, he feels eternity.

Ulin certainly explores enough science to satisfy quake hobbyists. He does enough road-tripping to qualify his book as a California seismo-social study (although not as good as Thurston Clarke's California Fault). But ultimately Ulin has an ulterior motive, using the framework of science and sociology to explore what he calls his own "eternity on the cosmic level." Thankfully, for all his hazy solemnity -- "When it comes to earthquakes, though, eternity is right in front of us, if we allow ourselves to see" -- Ulin is self-aware enough and Californian enough to sum up earthquakes with the word his young son utters after a temblor shakes the house one night: Cool.

The Myth of Solid Ground
by David L. Ulin
Viking Books; ISBN 0670033235
Hardcover: 289 pages (August 2004)