All Shook Up

August 26, 2011

There was an earthquake near where I live. Well, sort of near. Needless to say I missed it, since it occurred two hundred years ago and was responsible for the formation of Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee. The fault which was at fault for the earthquake-well, technically it was a series of quakes over 1811 and 1812–was the New Madrid fault. And I may be wrong about this, as middle school history textbooks often contain erroneous information, but I remember reading that the only fatality of the quakes was a woman who panicked and didn’t stop running until she fell down dead. Luckily there hasn’t been another major quake along the New Madrid fault since then. Geologists say there’s a possibility of one happening any time, but then geologists also describe a couple of thousand years as "the blink of an eye". When I was in college there was serious talk of a major quake happening along the New Madrid fault, which passes through seven states and at least two dozen cities named Springfield. I was in college at the time in a town in Indiana which several people, most of whom I think got their geological information from a middle school textbook, insisted would be the epicenter of the quake. Not that it mattered. If the predicted quake hit we and areas in all seven states and beyond were bound to be affected. All this talk was generated by a guy who’d previously predicted, with surprising accuracy, two other earthquakes.

Even at the time I thought there was something fishy about it, though. For one thing both the earthquakes he’d predicted happened in California. Predicting an earthquake in California is like predicting a sunny day in the Sahara. Pardon me for being unimpressed. Predict a hurricane in Terre Haute and we’ll talk. And what predictions had this guy made that hadn’t panned out? We never heard about the thousands of times he predicted a magnitude 6 earthquake that barely made it to 2.8. The saying that even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while may have been applicable here. Also, I wish I could take credit for this, but a friend of mine pointed out there was something funny about the guy’s unusually specific prediction. This major earthquake was supposed to happen on the 12th of March-March being the 3rd month, at 4:56am. The predictor believed the magnitude would be 7.8, and the year, of course, was ’90. Needless to say it didn’t happen, possibly because earthquakes just aren’t that interested in numerology, but for weeks it was all everyone talked about. My roommate even planned to spend that night out on the school’s front lawn, far from where any buildings or trees might fall on him. And skeptical though I was I strongly encouraged him to do it. My roommate, a member of a medieval reenactment group, liked to sit up half the night turning bedsprings into chain mail, and I hoped the earthquake would provide me at least a few hours of peace and quiet. Earthquakes may be noisy, but at least they’re over quick, unlike the quiet repetitiveness of clicking metal shears punctuated by occasional shouts of "Forsooth, mine helmet is too long on the left," but that’s another story.

To get back to Reelfoot Lake, I’ve actually visited it. With its bald cypresses and an average depth of six inches it’s less of a lake and more Tennessee’s backyard bayou, but it’s still very pretty with a lot of amazing wildlife. I went there with my Boy Scout troop. I forget what time of year it was, but I think it was late fall since we were all dressed pretty warmly, and that morning, on our way to an educational tour of the lake, we were treated to an equally educational view of hunters firing their guns at ducks that were flying over our troop vehicle. One night three of us, for reasons I can’t remember, walked out on one of the long docks that extended from the visitor’s center far out into the water. We were all stunned into a reverent silence by the moon reflected off the lake and the profound peacefulness that, perhaps touching some deep ancestral memory, comes from being at the edge of a large body of water. And in that silence we heard something splashing around in the distance. Something big. Possibly something even bigger than one of the hunters we’d seen that morning who looked like he’d eaten half the state’s duck population by himself. And for all we knew it was just as well armed. In a blind panic we all screamed and turned and ran back the way we’d come. Fortunately we had the good sense to stop once we were inside the visitor’s center, so none of us became additional Reelfoot fatalities.

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