Google Earth helps me prepare for my own death
I live in a strange and shabby stretch of north Oakland. I’m not far from a BART station, an over-priced coffee shop with poor feng shui, a decent Peruvian restaurant and a bar that would be pretty okay if the proprietors would just turn down the lights and maybe get some new booths. But the neighborhood feature I’m most concerned about isn’t blight or gentrification or all the burnt out passive aggressive hippies, it’s an immense and ancient rift in the earth’s crust that’s slowly pulling this section of California in the general direction of Japan.
Westward across the bay, the San Andreas Fault gets all the press, but any self-respecting Cassandra knows that it’s the Hayward Fault, which runs north-south along the bottom of the Berkeley Hills, wherein the doom of the Bay Area lies. The last major quakes on the Hayward fault were in 1836 and 1868, as opposed to the San Andreas’ 1906 quake and the 1989 Loma Prieta shaker. In high school, we learn that the plates that make up the earth’s crust move about an inch a year. That may be true in some places, but here at the Hayward Fault we have what’s called strike/slip motion, meaning it builds up pressure and then “slips,” making up for the 150 odd years it’s been sitting put. Meaning that once the quake hits, local photographers will be pondering their Pulitzer acceptance speeches as they document the Worst Disaster in American History.
This has all been brought home to me of late by that greatest of time-wasters, Google Earth. The United States Geologic Survey, perhaps tired of being ignored by the eager beavers of this thriving NorCal economic sector, despite the fact that they’ve released figures predicting a 67% chance of a major quake along the Hayward fault before 2020, have put together a nifty little Google Earth helicopter tour of the fault. Now, East Bay residents can see how close their homesteads lie to this giant grinding crack in the world. This is kind of like if the citizens of Pompeii had vases graphically illustrating their eventual sudden mummification by boiling ash.
So why, oh why do I live here? In John McPhee’s excellent book, The Annals of the Former World, he quotes several geologists discussing a human emotional condition known as “the principle of least astonishment.” Here’s McPhee quoting Eldridge Moores: “People look upon the natural world as if all the motions of the past had set the stage for us and were now frozen. They look out on a scene like this and think, it was all made for us—even if the San Andreas Fault is at their feet. To imagine that the turmoil is in the past and somehow we are now in a more stable time seems to be a psychological need.”
So there. See you on the other side.