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Before we start, just a note that there’s a new posting up on  It has some beautiful images from my friend William Farley.

[For information on the earthquake in Japan, see this.]


A few days ago I finished reading John McPhee’s massive 700+ page work, Annals of the Former World.  Once you get into the swing of its tsunami of geological terminology, which is layered over poetically in an echoing of the layering of geological history, it takes on a giddy power, thrusting the reader directly into the deep physical history it describes.  Naturally that physical history rings with psychic powers and spiritual qualities: you don’t think 4 billion years without a little buzz in your soul.  At least I don’t.

It wasn’t for me something new, only this was a far more expansive and informative look than I’d had back in 1969 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I did some research for one of the Hollywood blacklist folks – I think it was Lester Cole – a fellow who’d married a very rich socialite sort, and used the circumstances to further his notion of socialism.  In this case it was a film on the dubious real estate development of the area, with its earthquake realities, and so in my research I learned a bit about what at that time was just bursting onto the geological field, the theory of plate tectonics.   He was showing in his documentary how the cut and fill of the hillside terracing, as well as the Bay fill in places like Redwood City, would shake like a terraced pile of sand or liquify in the coming “big one.”   Houses in Redwood City were already the subject of suits as their concrete floors were cracking as they settled into the rushed landfill the developers had used.   So I’d had a taste, and then I lived in California a fair while more and had experienced a number of quakes (my girlfriend of the time had a family house which quite literally straddled the San Andreas fault in Woodside).   In McPhee’s book he takes a vast cross country roam with various geologists, from the aged and many times bent mountains of the east, across the Great Plains to the still rising Rockies and on to the seeming emptiness of Nevada into the Sierra and the fractured tectonic zones of California.   His is an exhilarating journey, not only laterally, but deep into the lithosphere, miles below the ground at your feet.  And he leaps far afield, to other active and inactive zones of geological upheaval around the world, and backwards and forwards in time.  If you have a taste for such things, I highly recommend (along with many before me).  Having myself traversed the USA many times, East to West, West to East, zig-zagging from the Canadian border down to Mexico, sticking to back roads (and sometimes much less than a backroad), I was familiar with many of the places McPhee describes, though should life allow – as is in our more distant plans – a long slow cross-country farewell trip, I will certainly see the landscape with far wiser eyes.

In the lower map the trace of red marks indicates where the tectonic plates which float on top of the earth’s magma meet up, latching, slipping by laterally, or subducting, digging trenches miles deep or tossing up mountains miles high, all in deep geological time.   What’s here now once wasn’t and will in future times no longer be.  The Great Plains were once seabed, the stuff in your gas tank was folded over, plunged into the earth, cooked, refined, and is now your fuel.  The dazzling beauty of a cut of marble on an altar-piece in Rome tells a billions of years old story of violence.

The lines above if you look closely go right by the island of Haiti, where the recent earthquake struck, announced as a tragedy, though from the larger cosmic viewpoint it was just a normal physical event, having nothing to do with people.  The tragedy is instead geo-political:  the collapsed ramshackle housing of Port-au-Prince is the by-product of deep poverty, and that poverty is the result of political-economic machinations, much of it emanating from the rich country to the North, the United States of America and its corporations, which have contrived to intervene when political events there took turns undesired for their interests.  It is an old story, the consequences of which are now written in the vast catastrophe which has taken 200,000 lives or probably many more when all is said and done.   Not to say that had the sordid US history in relation to Haiti and other Caribbean places not been so everything would be wonderful, there would be less dead, etc. but perhaps.  Under the thumb of a grinding poverty in part imposed from without, it was natural that buildings are flimsily made, and duly collapse.  They will collapse as well in San Francisco and Oakland and Los Angeles one of these days to come, as they have before – but not quite so easily and with such fearful cumulative consequences.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – devastation, desperation, moving out

For its “work” of the last year, as measured in profits, Wall Street is planning on rewarding itself with some 75 billion bonus bucks.  I think that’s on top of whatever their doubtless sizable “normal” pay is.  Imagine what just, say, 1/75th,  of that would do if well administered in Haiti.  Decent infra-structure, earthquake resistant buildings, some hospitals, housing – maybe an earthquake-surviving intelligent form of tent suitable to tropic climes, cheap but durable and able to withstand large movements; water and sewage treatment of some kind.  You know, basic things for life.  And imagine a slightly greater generosity!  Well, imagine away.  As John Lennon sang,

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

America will no doubt send in Marines, some water, food, tents and the usual rescue mission stuff, and it will duly pat itself on the back for its gesture of solidarity, humanity, and all.   And it will continue to do its best to erase its own sordid story in Haiti and elsewhere.  The duly and democratically elected President, Aristide, was toppled by US agencies because he had the audacity to think Haitians deserved a minimum wage.  Horrors!  That’s a tiny sliver of our real story.

Kabul, Afghanistan Jan 18 2010

In downtown Kabul, where the US is now invested in “nation building” (with drones, Marines, the CIA doing a lot of unbuilding as step one), verily on the steps of the Presidential Palace, as a follow-up to their penetration and bombing a few weeks ago of a major CIA operating base, in which 8 of America’s finest specialists in counterinsurgency were killed, the Taliban executed another major attack which apparently brought Kabul to a standstill as bombings and gunfights lasted a day.  Obama in the last days just asked for another 33 billion dollars to pursue this adventure, that on top of the 708 billion dollars for the “normal” military budget – a figure in excess of the combined military spending of the rest of the world, and a record for the United States.  Change you can believe in. This is the kind of tectonic political plate shifting that occurs as hyper-powers fall.   The external stresses have been quite readable in Iraq, in Afghanistan; the internal stresses will be read by tomorrow’s insta-pundits with the tea leaves of the Massachusetts special election, which, no matter which way it goes, will be interpreted with dire notions in every direction.

The world doesn’t feel topsy-turvy; it is topsy-turvy.


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