Saturday, September 11, 2010

The aesthetics of earthquakes

I find it comparatively straightforward to write about nonsense, as will be evident to even the most cursory reader of my blog. My speciality is the art-inflected trivia that I stumble across in everyday life, which is a foil to the slightly bigger brain work that I do elsewhere. My subjects are multiple and various, and usually involve the moments of collision between two worlds—the high-minded and the low-brow—which I find particularly amusing or noteworthy. (The politics of aesthetics, you might call it, if you weren’t especially familiar with Jacques Ranciere.) The painting of the two dogs in Good Fellas; the social history of British TV’s Testcard pattern; the small guy’s foray into the western literary genre; the need to bring speculation on the Walters Prize under the TAB’s auspices; the problem with stairs at dealer galleries. Nothing is too small or too insignificant to be magnified and horribly distorted by my smeary blogging lens.

I find it much more difficult to write about serious things.

Manchester Street. Photograph by Christie Douglas

Like the massive 7.1 magnitude earthquake which struck the Canterbury region of New Zealand early last Saturday morning: definitely, A Serious Thing. The earthquake itself took apparently only 40 seconds, although each second was interminable. When I think back to it now—almost a week’s passed—I see that those 40 seconds represent a faultline between two different worlds: the time before the earthquake, and the time after it. The land itself has shifted more than four metres sideways, and things have changed.

We were woken at 4.35am by a loud bang, like an explosion, and the house violently shaking. It was the darkest part of the night, just before dawn, and we were deeply asleep, but snapped instantly awake, out of bed and running fast and low with some ancient atavistic part of the brain directing the body's response. We were asleep, and then we were on our feet, in motion. Wordless, we ran for the children. On the way to the toddler’s room, an old sun porch at the other side of the house, I could hardly stand: the floor was pitching and tossing like the deck of a ship in a storm. The noise of the quake was tremendous, a low, insistent, growling roar which mounted in intensity to an unbearable volume. There was the distinct sense of something dark, and massive, and indescribably violent, advancing on us at high speed.

We live in a two-storey weatherboard house built in the late 1920s, not far from the railway line. During nor’westers, we can hear the late-night freight trains hooting as they pass through the level crossing at the shops. Sometimes we go for a walk along the track the council has made alongside the railway line, down to Mona Vale to feed the ducks and back again. A few months ago a freight train came past when we were on the path, and the kids and I flattened ourselves against the bushes, overwhelmed by the noise and bulk and speed of the locomotive in such close proximity.

That’s what it felt like, a bit: a freight train attempting to drive itself at speed through the house. As I stood clinging to the doorframe, the toddler in my arms, every window in the house rattled in its frame simultaneously; I was dimly aware of the smashing of ceramics and glass downstairs; and bricks rained down on the roof directly overhead, as the first of our old tall late Arts and Crafts chimneys collapsed. The lights flickered once and died as the power went out. It was pitch black. The house was shaking so brutally that it appeared to be tearing itself apart. After a while, I understood that the back of the house might well disintegrate. It seemed impossible that it was still standing. That was the moment that I thought that our number may well be up. This is it, I thought.

But it wasn’t.

Afterwards, in the dumb silence that followed the earthquake, we all made our way downstairs, huddled together in the dark. The house creaked around us like a boat. Our feet were bare, of course, and the floor of the dining room was covered in shards of glass and smashed ceramics. We found a torch, which gave a pale gleam and lasted perhaps 40 seconds before going out. The big guy lit a candle. The power was off, and the phone and the water. We sat together on a couch, and waited for what would happen next. We didn't speak much. The big guy found a transistor radio and turned it on. "There's been a major earthquake in Christchurch," it said. When we went outside to check on our elderly neighbour, the stars gleamed cold and clear and distant. “Oh! The stars,” said the small guy. “I don’t usually see them.”

It was the big one, the one that every New Zealander expects; but strangely we had no notion of what would happen afterwards, in its aftermath. (I’ve read an opinion by a seismologist that says this wasn’t the big one, that at some point in the not-too-distant future New Zealand’s due for a quake of magnitude 8 or so: in which case I think that all bets are probably off, as anything much bigger than this may well have razed the entire city.)

Avonside Drive. Photograph by Christie Douglas

When I’ve read about earthquakes previously, like the one in Haiti in 2009 which was, they say, of a similar type, and size, to Christchurch 2010, I’ve imagined the horror of the quake itself, and then the heartbreaking recovery and clean up. But what really happens in the aftermath of a major earthquake is many, many more earthquakes, some almost as big as the initial quake itself. In the past week there have been more than 300 aftershocks, many of which have sent us scurrying into doorways or leaping from bed or diving under the reassuringly solid oak of our dining table. We’ve seen that an earthquake is not a singular event but a series of terrifying revisions of the initial shock, in which you relive that moment over and over again.

A notice the small guy made for our dining table

For a couple of days, our legs were rubbery, our knees wobbling. The floor rose to meet us. We weren't sure at times if the shakes were real or imagined. After some of the real aftershocks, ones in which the house banged and rattled and mortar rained down the roof, my hands were trembling so much it was difficult to hold my mobile phone, which didn't leave my hand or my pocket for five days straight. When we lost coverage for an hour or so on the first day when the emergency batteries ran down in the cellphone towers, I knew to expect it—and that it would be temporary—through what I'd read on Twitter. Twitter was an immediate source of necessary information, reassurance, companionship. Critically, my phone felt like a lifeline to the outside world, to places where the lawn wasn't covered in bricks and entire shop-fronts hadn't fallen into the street and the river hadn't changed its course and cracks so big a man could stand waist deep in them hadn't appeared in the roadway. A line to the old real life.

But here’s the strangest thing: after a while we stopped noticing the aftershocks. I was following them on Geonet, and on Twitter where a new sport of #earthquake poker quickly sprang up; but often there would be reports of fairly big ones that seemed to have bypassed our house entirely. It was as if we'd got our sealegs, as if we'd acclimatised to the moving ground underneath our feet. In the end, we were sleeping through major shocks.

The power came back on late on Saturday afternoon, but the water was off for three days in our neighbourhood. We drank lemonade and milk, purchased from a dark dairy teeming with people. We used baby wipes to wash the kids. When the water came on again, the pipes initially gave a great belch and dribbled a little: it was some hours later when the council workers down the road finally pulled themselves out of the huge hole they'd dug and pushed the earth back over the mains pipes that the water began to flow again. For some days after that, we had stockpots of water—the palest shade of light brown—boiling on the stove. There were news reports of people in welfare shelters coming down with dysentry.

The army rolled into town, to assist the police in cordoning off the ruin of the central city. One morning after a particularly wakeful night peppered with quakes, we lay in bed and listened as an Iroquois flew low over the house. There were Unimogs in Victoria Square, troop carriers stationed behind hurricane fencing on St Asaph Street. Bored young soldiers stood in front of the barricades. It looked like a military coup.

Manchester Street. Photograph by Christie Douglas.

Gradually reports and images of the ruined city began to come in to focus. The main architectural casualties seemed to be old brick commercial buildings—corner shops, and two- and three-storey late 19th century commercial buildings in the central city—and new rendered houses in the low-lying, swampy or sandy eastern suburbs. Parts of the city were flooded; other parts lay under six inches of a slimy grey silt, which had risen from the waterlogged ground in a process of liquefaction. Houses were cracked in two, or had been moved several inches from their foundations, or were leaning at crazy angles. When I finally ventured out of the house to take the children to the park, it was obvious that there hardly a chimney left standing in our suburb. There were piles of bricks in gardens and driveways and on grass berms.

The second of our chimneys hung on through all those days of major quakes by a single corner of a single brick, threatening to come down at any moment. It was a distinct relief when an extremely intrepid builder arrived to demolish it, roping himself through a window like an alpine climber.

Up on our roof, 6 September 2010

It's classic Maslow's hierarchy of needs stuff: after the power came on, and the water came on, and it seemed that perhaps the aftershocks were finally slackening off a little, our minds turned to the rebuilding of the city, and what it might look like. And critically: who might profit from it. There are many, many hard questions to be asked of politicians and planners and developers in the days ahead. There is also an extraordinary opportunity to reimagine the city all over again as an inspiring place to live: the truth is that it was damaged by pecuniary private interests and inadequate planning regulation long before the earthquake hit. A week after the earthquake, it strikes me that it would be a fine legacy for the next Mayor to make the City Beautiful beautiful again.

Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there’s little concern for the politics of aesthetics during an earthquake. That comes afterwards.

A crane driver plucks a chandelier from the wreckage of Robertson's Bakery on Victoria Street, to the cheering of the crowd. Photographs by Donna Robertson


Unknown said...

Wonderful post to recieve. Thank you so much.

Maximus said...

Fascinating to read a personal account of the Quake - glad that you / your city are all alright - and an absolute miracle no one died. It's all really making us look at our surroundings up here in Wellington, home of lots of Known faultlines, not just 16,000 year old supposedly 'dormant' ones....

I'd been looking for some intelligent commentary from down in ChCh - thought that the Christchurch Modern site might have sprung back into action on the subject, but no luck. Meanwhile, our conversation continues on:
Feel free to join in....

Laurie Duggan said...

Cheryl, good to hear you're all ok. The news here in Kent didn't sound great. I've been in an earthquake myself (L.A. 1987) but since I didn't live there I didn't have to live with the consequences. All the best,

HInemoana Baker said...

Kia ora for this - a wonderful and harrowing read. RT'ing from Pittsburgh, PA xxx Hinemoana