Thursday, August 25, 2011

When the earth moved

I was lying on my bed on Tuesday afternoon just before 2pm when my house distinctly shuddered. As I sat up in alarm, the shudder became a violent shaking, like sudden turbulence on a plane. I staggered along the upstairs hallway, wailing with fear and confusion. I couldn’t think straight but my mind reeled with visions of a massive gas explosion or a bomb blast. But the reverberations went on and on, and I clung to the banister while the house heaved and rattled and rumbled around me. It felt like the world was ending.  
It wasn’t till the movement finally subsided that I was able to uproot myself and run for the front door. My neighbor shot out of his house barefoot, looking as stunned as I must have looked to him. “What the f--- was that?” we called to each other, and he pointed to my windows which were still gently undulating. I hadn’t thought solid matter capable of moving like that. Still thinking it might have been an explosion, I dialed 911 with shaking hands but got a busy signal. But within five minutes every TV channel had switched to emergency coverage and was announcing that we’d just had the strongest earthquake on the east coast since 1897.  
It turns out that where I live in Maryland is part of an “active seismic zone” centered on a faultline that runs through central Virginia, south of Washington DC. And apparently there have been 200 earthquakes in this area just since 1977. I even remember feeling a couple of them - in one the house shuddered under me once as if a particularly heavy truck had just driven by and in another I was woken in the night by our window air conditioner unit seeming to move and settle in the window. So I’d come to think of earthquakes on the eastern seaboard as being a barely perceptible shiver in the earth.  
But this was a whole different ballgame. Because it was so utterly unfamiliar and unexpected, it felt supernatural, as if a great wizard had pointed his wand at the land and said: “Commoveo!” (That’s the Latin imperative for shaking something violently – I looked it up.) In fact, I remember wondering as I clung to the banister if this was what Judgment Day would feel like.   
In describing his experience of the 1835 ConcepciĆ³n earthquake in Chile, Charles Darwin, while remaining calmly scientific in his account, described exactly the “strange idea of insecurity” that being shaken like dice in nature’s palm produces.
“I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer… There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain FitzRoy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects.”
Perfect horror though it was while it lasted, I’m glad I went through it, especially as no one was killed or badly injured, because nothing is more valuable to a writer than first-hand experience. And I now know my imagination would never have done it justice.

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