October 13, 2019

Not on Solid Ground

“On the morning of July 4, my wife and I were sitting at the breakfast table when the effects of a 6.4-magnitude earthquake outside Ridgecrest, Calif., hit our home. A sensation of dizziness, then nausea, rolled over me as the back wall of our dining room appeared to lean away, our tabletop somehow pushing closer toward me. They then reversed course over a span of several seconds, as if the space around us had begun to bulge and pulsate. Only when I noticed the lights mounted above our table swaying back and forth did I realize what was happening.

The experience of an earthquake can be destabilizing, not just physically but also philosophically. The idea that the ground is solid, dependable — that we can build on it, that we can trust it to support us — undergirds nearly all human terrestrial activity, not the least of which is designing and constructing architecture. That morning, however, it was as if our home had been lifted up by an invisible sea; in an instant, what had been a house had become a raft, bobbing at anchor. Inside, we rocked and rolled, as if hit by a passing wake.

Earthquakes mock the very idea of solid ground, of trustworthy geology. The writer David Ulin has called this “the myth of solid ground,” and it is fundamental to how we have come to define and police civilization. Those who live at sea are considered nomads, migrants, even pirates; they build ships, not cities; they roam rather than inhabit.”

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