I wish I could recall the exact moment when I first got plate tectonics – it seems to me now that understanding the unfixed nature of things is the basis of so much human knowledge about this planet we live on, &, our undeniably miniscule role in the Big Picture. I’m guessing though that it was way back in 1969, in Gary Griggs’ oceanography class during my second year at UCSC.
I barely knew anything about colliding continents then – most of us didn’t. & it’s no wonder – check out this quote from my friend Pat’s 1960 Geology text book (principal authors, University of Minnesota, my parents’ alma mater): “Most geologists and geophysicists have long concluded that the continental masses and the deep ocean basin have remained in the same general locations throughout recorded geologic time. In other words, the two have not exchanged places because of warping or folding of the earths crust.”
As a southern CA Valley Girl of solid Lutheran heritage, my choice to attend UCSC – at that time the newly-opened, popular, & experimental ‘no-grades’ public university – was, I’m sure, early warning that I’d already decided the SoCal church-based/suburban mindset wasn’t for me.
The next few years were full of clashing values & shifting mythologies. I’d love to say I loved it at UCSC, but in reality, it was pretty painful. Failing the last quarter of my sophomore year (well, you couldn’t really fail at UCSC then – you just didn’t pass), I was relieved to be able to leave school & join my family for a year in Europe thanks to my father’s teaching post at US military airbases in Germany & Spain (the Berlin Wall was still standing in those days). I ended up living with a German boyfriend in Munich, a block away from where central European geology was being exposed as subways were built for the 1972 Olympics. In addition to surviving the longest European winter on record (well, it seemed that way to me), I (parenthetically) learned a key lesson in capitalism…that even if one has the ideas & the skill & the craft, in the end it’s the people with the cash who benefit (monetarily speaking). How little has changed.
I eventually returned to Santa Cruz & took courses toward a degree in anthropology. Via my friend Karan, who I’d hitchhiked with in Europe (it was cheap & possible in those days), I got a job washing dishes at the Whole Earth Restaurant. Later in the 70’s, Whole Earth friend & local author James Houston published the novel Continental Drift, deepening my & others’ understanding of our location on the Pacific Plate – the largest tectonic plate in the world – rapidly (geologically speaking) and uncontrollably (by human primates) moving northward.
Fiction was nothing compared to the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, a true experience of groundlessness. I was the local transportation director by then, & being able to get around in our ubiquitous disaster area was everyone’s stress-point, nevermind our now-enhanced understanding of plate tectonics. We on the central cost still live with the consequences of having our homes on this boundary of plates – in our case, the Pacific & the North American. There’s not doubt that these, & other, geologic stress-points will cause more life-changing events in the future.
Last year, I had a chance to go to Tibet & China with that 1960’s oceanography professor & friends. It seems to me that Tibet represents something paramount for many humans…beyond the Dalai Lama. I’m sure it has something to do with the Indian Plate still actively colliding with the Eurasian Plate, & the energy the earth releases as those Himalayas are pushed ever higher. In the end, I didn’t go on the trip – primate needs overshadowed geologic dreams, & all of that….
Nevertheless, similar to my grandson’s thrill of crashing toy cars & trains, I find it strangely soothing to visualize the Indian continent careening into Asia. Embracing these earthly forces-beyond-our-control can sometimes draw us out of our everyday existence for a few moments (when we’re not overwhelmed by the tragedy & suffering these earthly events can cause).
This is one reason I love science…these tiny moments of grasping the larger forces at work in the natural universe, &, randomly, little by little, being able to get it.