So in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that David Ulin was my mentor in my MFA program at Antioch University. So I have a little bias toward him – okay, a lot of bias, but as I’m quickly learning – bias is what makes the writing world go round.
David’s book The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith is proof positive that you can readably combine research and reflection. His books studies earthquake myths and the people who create them, including Cloud Man, who believes that certain kinds of clouds are released from the earth’s crust just before an earthquake. But Ulin also delves into the science behind earthquakes and the way that trained scientists, particularly those at the U.S. Geological Survey try to predict and prepare for earthquakes.
Here’s one of my favorite passages:
“James Dean died in Parkfield. Or not in Parkfield, exactly, but fifteen miles south, at the intersection of California Highways 46 and 41 in Cholame, about twenty-five yards east of the Parkfield turnoff, which is Cholame Valley Road. In this spot, just before six o’clock on the evening of September 30, 1955, Dean slammed his Porsche Spyder into a Ford sedan driven by college student Donald Turnupseed, who was making a left from the eastbound lane of 46 onto 41. As the last minute of his life unfolded, writes David Dalton, in James Dean, the Mutant King, Dean watched Turnupseed start to slip across the center line, then turned to his traveling companion, a mechanic named Rolf Wutherich, and said, “That guy up there’s gotta stop; he’ll see us.” In the gloaming, however, Dean’s low-slung silver sports car blended with the horizon, leaving Turnupseed oblivious to the forces propagating towards him until it was too late. “I didn’t see him,” the twenty-three-year-old cried at the science of the accident. “I swear I didn’t see him.” Ultimately, then – as, in some odd way, seems only appropriate – the story of Dean’s death begins and ends with a trick of the light.
Here is something else, though: at that same intersection – or more accurately, ten to fifteen kilometers beneath it – seismologists now believe the Fort Tejon earthquake began its rupture, nearly a hundred years before Dean embarked upon his final ride. This is my absolute favorite earthquake fact ever, that James Dean died at the Fort Tejon epicenter, as if the location itself, the very crossroads, might be a kind of vortex, a magnet for our most enduring myths.” (Ulin 216)
There’s a beauty in David’s sentences – as my friend Sarajane pointed out, when she reads the LA Times Book Review, of which David is not editor, she thinks, “That’s a lovely sentence,” and then sees that David wrote it. But there’s also an ability to combine fact and storytelling in a way that I rarely see, except for in other writer’s I love like Oliver Sacks or Joann Beard.
So get a copy of David’s book, especially in you live in California, where as someone said to me just yesterday, you might soon live on an island. (I lived in San Francisco for a number of years, so I know the feeling of expecting “the big one” at any time) And enjoy it, just as we all enjoy the thrill of the unknown. It’s a treasure.
Myth of Solid Ground by David Ulin