Are We Listening to Mother Nature?

Andy Holmes on Unsplash

There’s looking back — — and then there’s looking wayyyy back.

Interesting factoid picked up in Pompeii, which this reporter was lucky to stroll with an archaeologist friend recently: Mt. Vesuvius’ giant eruption really shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Those early Romans, ever eager to escape the wrath of the gods, regularly predicted the future, were aware of the past (not infrequent earth tremors), and attuned to the present (a column of smoke “like an umbrella pine,” according to Pliny the younger.) But like countless others going about the business of life on that fateful day in 79 AD, uncle Pliny the Elder was caught unaware.

Before visiting Pompeii we spent another fascinating day in nearby Herculaneum. More is known of Pompeii, a much larger city that was discovered in the 16th century, than of Herculaneum, excavations of which began in 1738. Pompeii was buried under debris and volcanic ash but everyone knew there’d been a city there; Herculaneum succumbed to a landslide of lava while nobody noticed. Pliny the Elder and his friends (we know, thanks to writings left by his nephew) died of intense heat before the tsunami. None of these seem like great ways to leave the known world.

The above is offered partly as a confessional regret about how much history I never really learned, but also as a gentle reference to my own currently beloved City of San Francisco. Which happens to be built atop three seismic faults.

Photo by Romain Briaux on Unsplash

The eruption that sent burning ash, landslides of lava and, from the sea around, a tsunami didn’t just come out of the planetary blue. Zeus, or the gods and goddesses of old, or whoever you perceive as in charge of the universe, sent indications of events to come. Somewhat like little prayer flags embossed with messages like, “Hey folks! Bigger stuff ahead!” But the decision-makers of Herculaneum (for instance) just picked up the giant boulders whose weight had created sturdy walls for a time, and rebuilt sturdier walls with mortar. An early engineering genius move – but the lava didn’t notice.

In California we are clearing brush around homes and converting (slowly) to drought- and fire-resistant plants. Building codes are increasingly aimed at earthquake resistance. Higher seawalls and engineering measures incomprehensible to right-brained writers are daily being strengthened to protect civilization’s development from rising seas. So surely Whoever’s in charge of the planet should not think we’re a bunch of non-god-fearing sluggards. But still.

It’s hard not to imagine the day, some centuries hence, when future creatures inhabiting planet earth are digging around what we think of as San Francisco, and wondering what in the world kind of life existed in 21st century AD.

Which motivates me to go clean out the kitchen cabinets.