Seismic Potential Energy

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

I got to hike with my friend Wayne last week through a place called the Devil’s Punchbowl, initially by way of a trail out and back from a very Caspar David Friedrich-ian overlook called the Devil’s Chair.

[Image: Wayne, Rückenfigur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Punchbowl more or less lies astride the San Andreas Fault, and the Devil’s Chair, in particular, surveils this violently serrated landscape, like gazing out across exposed rows of jagged teeth—terra dentata—or perhaps the angled waves of a frozen Hokusai painting. The entire place seems charged with the seismic potential energy of an impending earthquake.

[Image: It is difficult to get a sense of scale from this image, but this geological feature alone is at least 100 feet in height, and it is only one of hundreds; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The rocks themselves are enormous, splintered and looming sometimes hundreds of feet over your head, and in the heat-haze they almost seem buoyant, subtly bobbing up and down with your footsteps like the tips of drifting icebergs.

[Image: Looking out at the Devil’s Chair; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, we spent the better part of an hour wondering aloud how geologists could someday cause massive underground rock formations such as these to rise to the surface of the Earth, like shipwrecks pulled from the bottom of the sea. Rather than go to the minerals, in other words, geologists could simply bring the minerals to them.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

Because of the angles of the rocks, however, it’s remarkably easy to hike out amidst them, into open, valley-like groins that have been produced by tens of thousands of years’ worth of rainfall and erosion; once there, you can just scramble up the sides, skirting past serpentine pores and small caves that seem like perfect resting spaces for snakes, till you reach sheer drop-offs at the top.

There, views open up of more and more—and more—of these same tilted rocks, leading on along the fault, marking the dividing line between continental plates and tempting even the most exhausted hiker further into the landscape. The problem with these sorts of cresting views is that they become addictive.

[Image: Wayne, panoramically doubled; photo by BLDGBLOG].

At the end of the day, we swung by the monastic community at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which is located essentially in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. Those of you who have read David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground will recall the strange relationship Ulin explores connecting superstition, faith, folk science, and popular seismology amongst people living in an earthquake zone.

Even more specifically, you might recall a man Ulin mentions who once claimed that, hidden “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

This is scientifically cringeworthy, to be sure, but it is nonetheless interesting in revealing how contemporary infrastructure can become wrapped up in emergent mythologies of how the world (supposedly) works.

The idea, then, of a rogue seismic abbey quietly established in a remote mountainous region of California “to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas Fault’”—which, to be clear, is not the professed purpose of St. Andrew’s Abbey—is an idea worth exploring in more detail, in another medium. Imagine monks, praying every night to keep the rocks below them still, titanic geological forces lulled into a state of quiescent slumber.

[Image: Vasquez Rocks at sunset; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, I lied: at the actual end of the day, Wayne and I split up and I drove back to Los Angeles alone by way of a sunset hike at Vasquez Rocks, a place familiar to Star Trek fans, where rock formations nearly identical to—but also less impressive than—the Devil’s Punchbowl breach the surface of the Earth like dorsal fins. The views, as you’d expect, were spectacular.

Both parks—not to mention St. Andrew’s Abbey—are within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, and both are worth a visit.

7 thoughts on “Seismic Potential Energy”

  1. I love your reading of the St. Andrew’s Abbey as a spiritual bastion that keeps the chthonic forces at bay. Not unlike its medieval forebears in Europe – abbeys, monasteries, cathedrals – aligned over lay lines, to keep the world in balance.

    Actually I wonder if we could stretch the ley simile – leys are themselves constructs of our pattern-crazed brains – and draw a map of spiritual architecture built on crucial spots over fault lines…

      1. If proven, this speculation could go deeper than “Foucault’s Pendulum”; it could turn into a Greek “Satanic Verses”, when a couplet by Homer or Hesiod is discovered mentioning the “Seismographic Sibylla”, whose oracles are really oscillations of a spiritual seismometric needle.

        Jokes apart though, if there’s any truth in Stewart’s insight, it could reshape much of what we understand about actual Greek religion, and their view of the underworld (and it would easily transfer to your assessment of St. Andrew’s Abbey as well, regardless of what they themselves say.)

        Or it might just be bollocks.

        1. The complex of the Cumaen Sibyl was badly damaged by seismic activity associated with the emergence of Europe’s newest mountain, imaginatively named Monte Nuovo, over eight days in the 16th Century on the shore of Lake Avernus (one of the classical portals to hell). I’d like to map not just where Sibylline outposts intersect fault zones, but also the whole volumetric structure of the faults themselves. My hypothesis: the chapels of the Sibyls were fruiting bodies of a massive seismic rhizome.

          There’s an intriguing tension between the wellsprings of classical prophecy — Apollonian and Dionysian — solar and chthonic — that’s also worth noodling about in this context, I think.

  2. I wonder if you could heat a small cabin by “bottling” the anelastic attenuation of S-waves throughout a major quake in a thermal battery? Or cook an omelette with an earthquake.
    Hydraulically fracture a landscape, pump zeolites into the fissures, induce a quake, flush with water to harvest the absorbed heat, repeat. Flushing the heat out with water would be extremely lossy, but I wouldn’t want to have to vacuum out all the zeolites and then rinse them. I’d rather have a less efficient thermal extraction method and just induce more earthquakes.

      1. You know, if earthquake waves can jack a sewer pipe up in liquefacted soil, could an ore body be deliberately lifted from an unconsolidated matrix with induced seismicity? Could induced liquefaction be used as an archaeological technique to raise buried structures? Could hydraulic injection + induced seismicity shake diamonds loose from clay and float them surfaceward, like upside-down Neptunian rains?

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