Those of us who have lived through one or more big earthquake can relate to the feelings and insights of author and Los Angeles resident David L. Ulin. He sees quakes, and the quest to predict when and where they will strike, as more than just Mother Nature making a few necessary stretches to ease her aching bones (or plates, as may be the case). He sees quakes as something mythical and mystical, rooted in pure science yet surrounded by enigma and mystery and even a deep longing to understand our human place in the bigger cosmic picture.
Ulin takes us, the reader, on a journey through earthquake country in The Myth of Solid Ground, but his tour doesn’t focus so much on the numbers and measurements and statistics as it does the emotion and spiritual connection people feel with earthquakes. Even the scientists who seek clues in the motions of the earth’s plates agree that when it comes to living on solid ground, we live by illusion and faith. Ulin especially sheds some mystical light on quakes when he visits with men and women who have devoted their lives to trying to predict quakes, and these intriguing people actually make up a subset of research that even some of the most die-hard seismologists and geophysicists look upon with some semblance of awe.
The Myth of Solid Ground is both frustrating, because the author never really seems to find the answers he seeks, and enchanting, because the book travels where few other “earthquake” books have gone before – into the mind of those who study them, live with them, love them and predict them. The author’s frustration is our own, as we try to understand the science behind the scariness of shaking ground beneath our feet.
This book may not please anyone looking for a hard science approach to the data being gathered each day, although there are plenty of facts and figures to go around, as well as interviews with the top dogs in earthquake research, such as the famous Lucy Jones, who became quite a hero around our house after we survived the Northridge Quake while living in Burbank, just a few miles to the south.
The most exciting stuff, though, comes from the fringe researchers like Cloud Man, who insists certain shaped clouds appear before major quakes, or Charlotte King, the diva of quake prediction. These characters pepper the book with a New Agey feel, but truly show the power quakes have exerted on our collective psyche, as these characters are not alone and have plenty of avid fans on their websites. The author suggests these people, the fringe researchers, play just as critical a role to our understanding of quakes as do the seismologist and geophysicists, for they satisfy a part of us that even hard science cannot touch.
Our need to feel secure, to understand, to predict our future with some certainty – all these things are tested to the limit each time the ground rolls beneath our feel. The Myth of Solid Ground doesn’t give us the security or the understanding we seek, and as for prediction, we are still in the dark with no real guarantees, but it does comfort us by telling us that we are not alone in our need to control the earth we stand upon…even if that sense of control is based upon illusion.