Simon Winchester, once a geologist, has written books about the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. His most recent book is “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World.”
A memorable scene in the sublime 1947 movie “I Know Where I’m Going” takes place beside a telephone box — a real bright-red British one; it still exists; tourists go there — on the Isle of Mull. The user is trying to make a call while a gigantic waterfall next to the box thunders down, nearly drowning both the caller and the conversation. “They built it in the summer,” he yells in explanation to his bewildered companion, “when the stream was just a trickle.”
As with this famous Western Highlands phone box, so, too, we now realize, with many of the world’s most famous cities. They built New Orleans before anyone properly knew what hurricanes were. They hoisted up San Francisco blissfully unaware that a gigantic crack in the Earth scythed right beneath it. Cathedrals by the spire-load went up around the Tagus, only to be taken down like cornfield chaff when the Lisbon earthquake struck in 1755.
And long before all of that, the plucky Minoans built an entire civilization having not a clue that an almighty volcano named Thera — or Santorini, to today’s cruise-line passengers — was only a few centuries away from erupting and blasting their entire Linear A-writing population into smithereens.
So beware, warns Lucy Jones, of starting civil societies, or building great cities, or even siting telephone boxes, in places where you really shouldn’t. Ruin often results.
Yet we wanderers of today positively adore ruins.
We like them small — Stonehenge, Thebes, Fountains Abbey, the cave dwellings of the Canyon de Chelly. And we really love them big, those confections of streets and houses, of parks and palaces scattered around the globe where great urban centers and city-states once stood, proud and haughty in their bearing. Long since buried by sands or jungles, their excavated remains, now hauntingly forlorn, serve as moving memorials to myriad glorious pasts. Monied tourists troop the world to gaze and gawp and photograph — to Pompeii and Herculaneum, to Persepolis and Mesa Verde, to Petra, to Mohenjo Daro, to the fantastic African brickworks of Great Zimbabwe.
Yet in our visits, how often do we spy a common thread, a reason for their broken state, even if it is a state so beloved of those who are drawn to their pillars and pediments and worn granite setts in miles of long-abandoned streets?
To be sure, some were ruined by the hand of man — the cities sacked in war or set ablaze (as in the case of Persepolis), or capriciously shunned in religious abandonments. But many of the most spectacular fell victim to what Jones blames in her title, “The Big Ones,” the great natural disasters to which our planet is prey.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, for example, were wrecked by the eruption of Vesuvius, their inhabitants suffocated or burned by the gases and buried and preserved by the ash that belched from its craters. (Right now, as a reminder of volcanic powers, houses and cars are being inundated by Hawaiian lava flows.) The people of Mesa Verde in today’s Colorado were parched by drought, the rivers and wells of their rain-shadow desert homeland depleted by the vagaries of a predictable climate — predictable today to us, that is, though never imagined by the ancestral Puebloans whose brief existence there ended so catastrophically seven centuries ago.
Likewise Petra, the rose-red city half as old as time still so beloved by travelers in the Levant and still Jordan’s star attraction: It was done in by an unanticipated earthquake in the 6th century. Mohenjo Daro, a stunning architectural gem that offers the best reason to make a pilgrimage to Pakistan, was flooded into extinction by the Indus, the river whose name was given to the early civilization of India and yet whose powers to inundate were never forecast by the builders of the greatest of all its early cities.
And Great Zimbabwe — high in the thorny desert above the East African Rift Valley, a spectacular architectural relic to rival the Pyramids 2,000 miles north — that, too, was spoiled by unforeseen famine and duststorm and locusts and a chronic want of water.
Nature has a way of humbling even the most noble of our creations. “Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit” (Man proposes, but God disposes) was how a 15th-century Latin scholar put it. The authors Will and Ariel Durant more recently offered a similar thought dressed up as science: Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.
In her book, and after a lifetime studying the seismicity of Southern California, Jones appears to take much the same view, stoically. She reminds us, in sober terms, that the forces that bring us earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis and cyclones (and that also help form dramatic scenery and climate, of kinds among which we generally like to live) are also capable of bringing down more wrath and destruction than can ever be withstood.
Cities we think of as permanent — here in America, places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland — are in planetary terms as fragile as gossamer, ready to be blown to kingdom come by way of no more than a few seconds’ worth of a seismic shrug.
If humankind were sensible, we would promptly abandon all these all-too-briefly-inhabited places, and many more. And why not? Both Los Angeles and San Francisco are certain to be devastated before too much longer, with thousands gone and billions in vanished treasure. New Orleans, sited so ill-advisedly, will one day be drowned in more mud and water than a thousand heck-of-a-job Michael Browns can ever manage. And once Missouri’s New Madrid fault convulses — when it last did, in 1811, it was so powerful it set steeple bells far away in Boston to ringing until their churchly brickwork cracked — you might as well say goodbye to great chunks of St. Louis, Cincinnati and Memphis.
Meanwhile, less dramatically, consider the fates of Tucson and Phoenix, which sprawl unlovely and unmemorable with such wanton thoughtlessness in the Arizona desert. I feel the need to capitalize the next sentence, since few seem to know or care. LOOK, YOU CHUMPS: THERE IS NO WATER THERE. Consequently, unless a cosmic conjuring trick mates with a miracle, the same fate that befell Mesa Verde and Great Zimbabwe will inevitably one day cause the abandonment of these cities, too.
In decades to come the curious will visit and find among the dunes the wrecks of Walmart stores and parking garages. Our civilization can’t even leave decent ruins behind: There will be no Corinthian columns or mosaic floors for the archaeologists of the post-American world. Except maybe some factory-pressed in Styrofoam.
It is a little disappointing to read that Jones has only the most anodyne and predictable of suggestions for dealing with all this impending doom — we must educate ourselves, build better and more resilient buildings, ape the Japanese, get our kids to drill, engage with local leaders, don’t assume the government will be much help (As if. See Michael Brown).
No: The only real answers come from history — and by that I mean planetary history, not short-term American history — and a sober consideration of what nature can do when it sets its mind to it. We build unwisely; we should realize this and imagine the consequences — and if sensible, we should go and live elsewhere. Somewhere boring and stable, like Nebraska. Or Kansas. Or Maine. Or eastern Canada.
And so, a word to the wise: Get going, and get on the phone to tell the folks that you’re bailing out. Although if you want to be heard, don’t do so from a phone box that was once built next to a waterfall, back when the stream was only a trickle. They won’t hear a thing.
By Lucy Jones
Doubleday. 242 pp. $26.95