Saturday, October 22, 2005

Interview: Simon Winchester, The day the Earth didn't stand still

The day the Earth didn't stand still

Simon Winchester excavates the San Francisco earthquake of 1906


By Edward Nawotka


Sunday, October 23, 2005

The New York Times has called him the "Dean of Disaster," but that's not quite right. If anything, Simon Winchester should be called the "Don of Disaster" — he is an Oxford man, after all, and it wouldn't be right to get the nomenclature wrong. Then again, it wouldn't do to reduce Winchester to such a narrow profile. The geologist-turned-journalist-turned-author has written on subjects from the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (in "The Professor and the Madman") to the history of modern geology (in "The Map That Changed the World"). As a travel writer, he's covered the damming of the Yangtze River and written books on the Balkans and Mumbai, and just this year he took over as publisher and owner of Art AsiaPacific magazine.

Still, Winchester is the first to admit that he's familiar with the topic of disaster. His 2003 book, "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 17, 1883," looked at possibly the most devastating volcanic eruption in history. In his latest book, "A Crack in the Edge of the World," he retells the story of what some consider to be the most tragic natural disaster in American history: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which leveled the city, killed hundreds and left a quarter-million people homeless.

"Both events underline the point that there are spasms in the Earth's history," says Winchester, "and there are occasional years, such as 1906 or (2004-2005), that are very, very bad years." Winchester points out that 1906 was "one of the worst years of all time." In addition to the San Francisco earthquake, 20,00 people were killed by an earthquake in Valparaiso, Chile; 200 were killed by an earthquake on Formosa; and Italy's Mount Vesuvius erupted. The past year has been similarly awful: There have been devastating earthquakes in Iran and Pakistan, and a brutal tsunami struck Asia at the end of 2004.

In "A Crack in the Edge of the World," Winchester serves up a succinct lesson in the history of plate tectonics and how the Earth's shifting crust threatens us all. The long-term consequences of these disasters are sometimes surprising. "One result of the Krakatoa explosion was an upsurge in interest in fundamentalist Islam throughout the region," says Winchester. "Likewise, in San Francisco there was an upsurge in Pentecostalism. It was essentially born then and got its enthusiastic push off from (the earthquake)."

In his latest book, Winchester also travels across the North American continent, visiting the site of other earthquakes, offering insight into specific fault lines, such as the San Andreas. Which brings up the question: As an Englishman who spends most of his time living in New York, does Winchester worry about the safety of Californians who live in the shadow of "The Big One?"

Winchester's answer is circumspect. "I do question them," he says, "but I also understand that the reason people live in such risky places is that they offer extensive geological history and are very beautiful. If we live near a mountain, that mountain is itself evidence of geological violence. The likelihood is there will be more violence. In Kansas, nothing ever happens."

Nevertheless, Winchester predicts that it's not the crazy Californians who should worry most of all. Instead, those who should be looking to move are the residents of . . . Missouri. "A seismic event will likely take place sometime in our lives at a spot 150 miles south of St. Louis, and will affect the people of Cincinnati and Indianapolis," he says. "Wait for it. It will astonish people."

Edward Nawotka is the former programming director of the Texas Book Festival and a free-lance book critic.

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