Thursday, April 28, 2022

A Crack at the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

Source of book: I own this.


I first read Simon Winchester back in 2018, after a few years of recommendations from friends and book websites. While he is best known for his writing about geology - he was a geologist briefly, before switching to writing - I ended up starting with The Professor and the Madman, his first big hit. Over his nearly 50 year writing career, he has written on a rather broad range of topics, from travel to geopolitics to science to biography to culture. Even within a given book, he brings in ideas from multiple disciplines, tying together history, science, culture, politics, and covering eras from the precambrian to the modern. If it isn’t obvious already, I enjoy his books. The other two I have previously reviewed on this blog are Atlantic, and The Map that Changed the World. I should add that my teens have also enjoyed these and other Winchester books. 

 This particular book is about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Which means it is about plate tectonics, the history of California, anti-Chinese discrimination, the history of modern geology, and a lot more. He draws from contemporary accounts of the earthquake and fire, of course, but also from more modern research on the magnitude and focus of the quake. Included throughout is an account of his road trip across the North American Plate (including a stop in, believe it or not, Iceland, which has the eastern edge of the plate) and back via Alaska. Yes, this is a sprawling book, but it is so much fun no matter what he is talking about. 


The book opens, as many do, with a quote from a poem, in this case “Carmel Point” by Robinson Jeffers. The book quotes only lines 7-10, but I think the whole poem is worth reading. 


The extraordinary patience of things! 

This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—

How beautiful when we first beheld it,

Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;

No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,

Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—

Now the spoiler has come: does it care?

Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide

That swells and in time will ebb, and all

Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty

Lives in the very grain of the granite,

Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;

We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident

As the rock and ocean that we were made from.


We Californians know Carmel Point, and its location in relation to the San Andreas Fault, of course. Jeffers is on point with the ephemeral existence of humanity in geologic time, and the fact that the rocks will outlive us in the end. This ties in perfectly with Winchester’s chapter on the deep geologic history of the earth - which is one of the clearest descriptions of the various eras when the surface of the planet was vastly different than it is now. 


The prologue to the book is a series of first-hand accounts of the earthquake from various scientist sorts, whose first thoughts were to carefully record the time of the first jolt, and write down as much data as they could - during the earthquake! The description of Englishman George Davidson is worth quoting. 


Professor Davidson must have been as terrified as anyone, but he was a man trained to observe, and he knew in an instant what was taking place. So, he took painstaking care to note that his watch, as he later reported, stood at 5h 12m 00s. Only he then added the caveat, for safety’s sake - and with the sense of caution that was hardwired into his astronomer’s mind - that this observation was subject to an error of plus or minus two seconds. This reflected, one imagines, any error that he might have made when calculating how long he had spent staggering, his nightshirt awry and his mind still marginally befuddled by sleep, from his bed to the bureau where his watch was ticking and readying itself to slide, along with the pitcher and the shaving cup, onto the redwood floor.  


Winchester talks about a lot of other earthquakes in the book. One of those is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which he contrasts with the San Francisco one. 


Lisbon’s disaster, widely regarded as an unstoppable act of a cruel and capricious God, is now largely forgotten. The San Francisco catastrophe, recognized, on the other hand, as having been the act of a perhaps not wholly unpredictable nature, never will be. San Francisco will not be forgotten because, thanks to the growing understanding of science, it became the first seismic event to awaken mankind to the realization that nature’s whims could perhaps be measured, perhaps one day anticipated, then met and even overcome. The tragedy led scientists to begin studying the earth with far greater vigor than ever before. It offered the first opportunity for humans to imagine what it might be like if they, and not God or nature, were ever to be in control. To that extent, the fact that the earthquake occurred in this specific changeling year of 1906 was more than a little fortuitous. 


I must say that, having lived through a number of earthquakes of various sizes here in California, and loving to hike and explore throughout the American West, geology has long fascinated me. I like rocks, and I like science, and I like knowing things. But also, geology has some of the coolest words. In the chapter on Iceland and Greenland, Winchester talks about the Skaergaard Layered Igneous Intrusion, in which magma cooled so slowly that it formed layers, including a layer of chromium so metallic it rings when hit with a hammer. Which is cool. But even better is the fact that such intrusions are called “Plutons.” 


Winchester devotes a chapter to the history of California, and in it, he describes how people came from literally everywhere during the Gold Rush and then the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. This explains something that we Californians struggle to understand about people from elsewhere in the US. While white Californians have been and can be bigoted (see all of the anti-Chinese and anti-Black laws of the past - it’s a sordid history), we have always lived in a diverse society. When we travel to mostly white places (see: parts of Utah or Idaho), it just feels weird. As Winchester points out, by 1900, California already had an “extraordinary demographic diversity” in its cities - and that has only increased over time. This makes for an astonishingly good selection of food throughout the state, and a wonderfully vibrant mix of cultures. I for one love this, and thus bristle at the xenophobia which has come to characterize the American Right in the Trump Era. (And, sadly, the way people like my parents, who introduced me to so many cultures and once embraced diversity, have gone anti-immigrant in their old age.) 


Also of interest to me was the mention of one of my heroes, John Wesley Powell, who explored the Green and Colorado rivers, and served as the second director of the great Geological Survey of the west.  


Powell was, however, a keen environmentalist. His appreciation for the great outdoors and for the peoples who were indigenous to it, and his belief in the need to explore rather than to exploit, in the benefits of preserving rather than plundering (beliefs that were personified by such figures as the great Scotsman John Muir, who went on to found the Sierra Club, and such painters of the wilderness aesthetic as Thomas Moran), won him more enemies than friends. His eager support for the preservation of Indian culture, his abiding preference for sensible and sustainable development, and his obsession with the value of water in the West proved too much for many of the settlers, foresters, and miners who were heading in that direction simply to exploit the country. 


Powell was right, though, and history has shown him to have been incredibly prescient about the water issues which are currently front and center. 


Over the course of my adventuring with the kids, we have visited various sections of the San Andreas Fault, including the places mentioned in the book. From the Salton Sea in the south, to the Sonoma Coast just south of the Mendocino Triple Junction, we have seen most of the visible highlights. In particular, we have seen Wallace Creek in Carrizo Plain, Pinnacles National Park, and the displacement zone at Point Reyes. That last one was created in the San Francisco earthquake. And, of course, I lived for six years a few hundred feet from the San Andreas in the Sierra Madre Mountains, in an area that had a massive rupture in 1857. 


Speaking of famous people in this book, I have to mention botanist David Douglas. Even if you do not know of him, you surely recognize the Douglas Fir, which he named and described. (And a bunch of other plants, too, that have his name in the scientific name.) He comes into the story because he first scientifically described Yerba Buena, a mint relative that once grew everywhere in the Bay Area. The first name for the city which would become San Francisco was named for the herb, before the Franciscans took over the missions, and decided that California’s leading city should be named after their patron saint. 


I mention Douglas, though, because of the weird way he died. Apparently, he was in Hawaii, and managed to fall into a hole. Unfortunately for him, a bull had previously “discovered” the hole, and being generally pissed about it, gored Douglas to death. 


Another fact that I learned in this book was that the term “hoodlum” originated in San Francisco in the late 1800s. Nobody is sure exactly how it came to be, although there are several competing theories. In any case, it referred to the “shanghai men” who would kidnap indebted men and force them into sailor service. 


Also fascinating was the passage on how Chinatowns came to be. Pretty much every city in California once had a Chinatown - and many still do. Bakersfield’s disappeared years ago, but CSUB did a bit of a video about it. These came to be as the result of both the way immigrant communities have always formed, and an increasingly vicious prejudice. 


The fact that the Chinese kept to themselves and made little effort to speak the language or to fit in with the cultural niceties of the majority, caused them to be regarded much as Jews were in other cities: first suspect, then loathed, then feared - and finally, and for all too long in San Francisco’s history, ruthlessly and cruelly discriminated against. 


Winchester gives a bit of history in this regard, but it would be fascinating to read a whole book on that. (I will, however, make a plug here for On Gold Mountain by Lisa See, which is her family’s history in California.) 


Each chapter is headed by an excerpt from something, often a contemporary account. But there are also a number of poems. I love Robert Frost, and I love this poem, which is quoted in part before chapter nine. 


Once By the Pacific 


The shattered water made a misty din.

Great waves looked over others coming in,

And thought of doing something to the shore

That water never did to land before.

The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,

Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.

You could not tell, and yet it looked as if

The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,

The cliff in being backed by continent;

It looked as if a night of dark intent

Was coming, and not only a night, an age.

Someone had better be prepared for rage.

There would be more than ocean-water broken

Before God's last Put out the light was spoken. 


Oh, and I have to mention another amusing anecdote. A number of famous people were in San Francisco at the time of the quake, including Caruso (who has a connection to my wife’s family - I’ll have to tell that story sometime.) But also, there was Ansel Adams. Who was all of four years old at the time. Apparently, he was thrown down by the tremor while running in for breakfast. He smashed his nose against a low garden wall, and broke it. That broken nose is now iconic, and Adams like to joke about it and the way the earthquake gave him his face. 


Every bit as unexpected was the way that Winchester connected the earthquake to the Azusa Street Revival, which kicked off the Pentecostal movement. Apparently, they started meeting just a few days before the quake, and they saw it as a sign from God. They weren’t the only ones, of course - the book also mentions British preacher G. Campbell Morgan, one of the most notable expository preachers. Morgan, like so many since, blamed the “wicked city” for the disaster. Although there are some things I like about Morgan (his book, Life Applications from Every Chapter of the Bible sits on my shelf, and was part of my own spiritual journey), it is unfortunate that he played a role in the ongoing attribution of “evil” to cities - which has a strong racist element to it, as cities (unlike the small towns of white America) are diverse racially and economically. 


I hope this gives a bit of an idea about the many fascinating stories and facts in this book. Winchester can’t resist drawing in a plethora of ideas and connections in all his books, which is one reason that they are so enjoyable. 

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