Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 18, 2006 |

Today is the one-hundredth anniversary of the great San Francisco quake and fire, which means that the newspapers and television crews trot out their stories about the NEXT BIG QUAKE and the city rolls out the dwindling number of centenarians who were here when the earth shook for 45-60 seconds in 1906, babies then and now fossils with persevering hearts. I have heard bagpipes and fire sirens all morning down by Lotta's fountain, the "ground zero" spot in the 1906 devastation where families looked for and, if lucky, found one another.

Sometimes I wonder if this city isn't a testament to humanity's ability to engage in collective denial. I shudder when they forecast the devastation that will take place when another big quake hits the city, but every day I manage to ride the elevator 27 stories above a peninsula straddling two tense, active faults. The newspapers describe what they call a "doomsday scenario." And yet I find myself thinking very little about earthquakes. You just can't live that way. But there are always little reminders. On every block of San Francisco there's an antique fire department callbox, the kind of precaution you only see in cities that have burned.

I just finished a book about the Oracle at Delphi in Greece. Scientists recently discovered faults that cross at Delphi, a chiasma under the Temple of Apollo that in ancient times allowed intoxicating vapors to rise from the earth to inspire the Pythia to foretell the future. It was thought to be the breath of Apollo, and her proclamations directly inspired the Greek constitutional democracy and saved the Athenians from the Persians at Salamis. Greece, it turns out, is the most seismically active place in Europe. It alone accounts for more than half of the continent's seismic release. I can only imagine what it feels like to experience a major earthquake outdoors, to see the ground tear itself apart. It must surely feel as though there are gods after all, and that they are angry. Poseidon, the earth shaker, presided at Delphi before Apollo. Some of the first references to him were found on the walls of Knossos, the great Cretan city of the Minoans, whose civilization was brought down by an earthquake.

I wonder if there isn't a strange attraction to living where the gods are angry. San Francisco is a city where there is incentive not to think too much about the future. Some of the most beautiful places on earth are the product of colossal violence. Like Delphi. I travelled there alone nine years ago during the Orthodox Easter. My bus got stuck in traffic in a little village called Arahova, six miles from Delphi, where there was a festival going on. In Greece, Easter is more important than Christmas. The day begins with the ceremony of the resurrection: at midnight, churches packed with devout worshippers descend into darkness for several minutes to symbolize Christ's journey into death, followed by a lighting of candles. The lit candles are the eyes of a dead god reawakening to the world, and they are carried out into the midnight streets in a procession of light. On Easter morning I watched as several men dragged a goat with its front hooves tied toward the precipice of the road that twisted along the rocky spur of Mount Parnassus. It was a temporary slaughterhouse, and animals in various stages of skinning and slaughter were hung about, their meat roasting over a fire. The goat resisted, terrified by the smell of blood and the sight of its buddies in various contortions of dissection. They dragged it shrieking towards a man with a a dagger. The man first slit the goat's throat, and its blood fell quickly into the dust. It kept shrieking as the man hacked at the windpipe until the neck collapsed into the body like a hinge. The front legs buckled. The men held it while it bled, lifting its thrashing hind legs high into the air, its heart pumping out more and more blood into the dust. When the kicking stopped the butcher slammed the knife into the spinal cord at the base of the skull which stimulated more kicking and thrashing.

While the men cut away joints of meat I felt like I had witnessed a sacrifice.

I know there is a scientific certainty that the earth will tear San Francisco apart in the future, and I can't help but marvel at the faith its citizens have that everything will be okay; it is a faith that allows so many to persevere and build lives here, even as earthquakes in Iran and Pakistan leave thousands dead. It may be denial, but I am proud of the beauty of this city and the people who live here, whose faith strikes me as almost absurdly religious in nature.

Despite the Cassandras with PhDs on the evening news telling us that they can see the future, there are still enough people who want to live here that I could never afford a goddamn house. I hope the scientists are wrong, and that the faithful remain safe. But I'm also hoping that when the big one hits my family will be on solid ground.