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Unshakeable memories

Why does the 1906 San Francisco earthquake still rattle Californians to their bones? Credit it to `our creation myth.'

April 16, 2006|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin, book editor of The Times, is the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith."

CALIFORNIANS HAVE long been cavalier about history. Does anyone remember the McNamara brothers, Caryl Chessman, the collapse of the San Francisquito Canyon dam? No. In the phrase of social theorist Norman M. Klein, ours is a "history of forgetting," where more often than not, the past gets disregarded, overlooked.

There is, however, a notable exception to the culture of erasure, one event we have never quite let slip away. This was the magnitude 7.9 earthquake that, at 5:12 on the morning of April 18, 1906 -- a century ago on Tuesday -- ruptured a nearly 300-mile stretch of the San Andreas fault from San Juan Bautista to Cape Mendocino, affecting much of Northern California and igniting a three-day firestorm that destroyed the city of San Francisco, at the time the most cosmopolitan metropolis in the American West.

Why does the San Francisco earthquake continue to resonate in a society in which forgetting can seem like an imperative? One reason, I'd suggest, is that it is, in fact, our "creation myth," the point of germination from which contemporary California grows.

Partly, this is a matter of science, because whatever else the earthquake means to us, it's where seismology begins. In its wake, then-Gov. George C. Pardee impaneled the State Earthquake Investigation Committee, a working group made up of the era's leading geologists. As part of their efforts, Harry Fielding Reid of Johns Hopkins University developed the "elastic rebound theory," which posits that earthquakes evolve out of a cyclical pattern of strain and release along a fault -- still the prevailing concept of how seismicity works.

That it would take nearly 60 years -- until the so-called plate tectonics revolution of the late 1960s -- for the full weight of Reid's insights to be understood seems oddly fitting, for California is a territory on the cutting edge, the final frontier, where, as Joan Didion once wrote, "we run out of continent."

Didion, of course, was referring to geography, but her idea has a certain metaphorical value as well. California, after all, has always been an elemental landscape, where we don't so much master nature as coexist uneasily with it, waiting for the next fire, flood or earthquake to destabilize our lives.

In that sense, the San Francisco earthquake is a mirror for our deepest trepidations -- the Big One, the nightmare at the center of the future, the catastrophe every Californian knows is coming. (Coming? Overdue.) Making it even more vivid is the sheer volume of documentary evidence, most significantly photographs, to emerge from the quake, framing it as the first truly modern disaster, the first one we can grasp.

These images are terrifying: burned-out husks of buildings, whole neighborhoods wiped away. They're so immediate, we almost feel we could step inside them, but history doesn't work that way. Rather, history offers its own process of erasure, in which the past is gradually subsumed by the present.

For proof, all you need do is look at the new book "After the Ruins: 1906 and 2006, Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire," in which photographer Mark Klett reshoots street scenes of the earthquake 100 years later, to reveal how different the city has become. Klett exposes not just a nearly physical erasure -- in which contemporary San Francisco has literally superimposed itself on the phantom city of 1906 -- but also the idea that the past itself is little more than an illusion.

Of all the efforts at erasure, none was more pervasive than the attempt to strip seismicity from the story of the city's devastation, to frame the fire as, well, just a fire. Such an idea came into play immediately, to redefine the disaster as less exotic, the kind of event that everyone might understand. In an editorial two days later, The Times argued that "all the earthquakes that had been experienced on the Pacific Coast, up to the time of the San Francisco disaster, caused less loss of life and property than an ordinary tornado or 'cyclone' causes in the Middle West."

A parallel narrative, meanwhile, presented San Francisco as a phoenix rising from the ashes -- the very symbol, coincidentally, on the city's seal.

From the perspective of history, it's easy to be cynical, and certainly these interpretations were managed manipulations, constructed by San Francisco's business and political leaders, who worried about investment, money, capital. At the same time, they suggest another set of connections, a way of thinking about California that gets at the essence of how we live. It's not quite denial but more a studied indifference, a posture of taking things as they come. "The particular story that San Francisco told itself about the earthquake and fire," David Wyatt writes in "Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California," "was of a city coolly eyeing its own destruction, a city acting 'casual.' "

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