Danger-Maps, Belief and New Madrid

Schwedigon pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Schwedigon pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Most of the maps I’ve written about over the past year have been maps setting out the geographic formations of the world—regardless of how skewed the map-maker might have made the map in order to influence the beliefs of others. But some maps are made to represent truth and to save populations from dangers, so today we’re going to look at a specific type of map—those used to convey earthquake danger. I’ve been researching this because it relates specifically to the current novel I am writing called Aftershock.

Most of us are familiar with California’s San Andreas fault, the 800 mile long fault that stretches northwest-southeast in California and that brings Los Angeles (west of the fault) two inches closer to San Francisco (east of the fault) each year. This much-talked about fault line has been the subject of disaster movies and books, and also of reams of geological research. The damage caused by the fault’s quakes led the State of California to have the San Andreas and other surface faults mapped and to require disclosure of proximity to fault lines in any residential real estate dealings in the state. The trouble is, that even though these maps are available, most people – even those who have lived in proximity to a faults line seem uninformed about the dangers and new buyers of homes are positively unaware of their proximity to faults even though they sign disclosures in their ‘offer to purchase’ agreements. Why? Because maps and the language around them can either be used to convey danger or to minimize it. In the case of the California real estate disclosures they say that the house is in the San Andreas zone, but they don’t specifically use the language ‘earthquake fault zone’.

Cypress knees and trees, Orlando (2012) Photo (c) Karean Abrahamson

Another example or earthquake danger maps, and one dear to my heart (given I live on the south coast of British Columbia, Canada), are the ones that show the Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean basin. Nothing brings home the dangerousness of the place I live as seeing the numerous dots presenting quakes over 4.0 magnitude in recent history around the Pacific. You see, there are so many dots that a thick black line extends around virtually all of the Pacific except for the stretch bordering the Antarctic and a small section of North America – the part of the coast where I live. Okay, so there hasn’t been a moderately sized quake here in the past 20-30 years (yes, Seattle has had one, but not here, so far). In fact there hasn’t been a really big one here in a heck of a lot longer than that. But historical evidence and that ring of dots around the ocean says that there’s a very good chance one will happen one of these days. Around here we grow up being told to be earthquake prepared. Are we? Given the number of schools that haven’t been seismically upgraded, I’d say ‘no’, even though the maps are there to show us the danger.

So why do we refuse to listen to the maps? A likely answer lays in another part of America. Right in the heartland of the U.S., where Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky meet, in 1811/12 near the small community of New Madrid, a series of massive earthquakes (magnitude 7.5 and 8) wiped out entire fledgling towns, sent sand and water geysering into the air and lifted huge chunks of the landscape. The only thing that stopped huge loss of life was the fact that few people lived there.

Research into the quake says this type of quake will happen again. The trouble is the quake zone isn’t at the edge of a tectonic plate and there isn’t something like really a visible fault line to show where the quake will occur because these quakes occur far underground—that’s also why they are so devastating—and so life in the Midwest has mostly been focused on the danger of tornadoes, rather than the lurking danger right underfoot.

Sunrise over Porto, Portugal. (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.

The trouble with this type of deep earthquake is that shockwaves travel farther and wreak more damage. In fact, geologists predict that such a quake today would be felt from Colorado to Washington D.C. and could wipe out most of the country’s central infrastructure.

As a result when, in 1990 a prominent inventor named Iben Browning predicted a major quake would occur in the New Madrid fault zone between December 1 and 5th of that year, the media promulgation of maps showing concentric areas of damage seriously impacting cities like St. Louis, Nashville, Birmingham, Little Rock, Jackson and Chicago started to get people taking the danger seriously. Children were kept home from school during the danger days. T.V. crews descended on the area like flies on road kill and everyone held their breath.

When nothing happened, of course finally people began to listen to the scientists who had previously laid out why the big one wasn’t likely to happen at that exact place and time. But the maps had done their damage. They’d laid out a ‘cartography of danger’ that hadn’t arisen. As a result, even though the states of Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee try to prepare people for earthquakes because the risk of the big one still exists, they have an even more uphill battle than they do in California or here in the Pacific Northwest. You see, seeing a fault line on a map may not bring home the importance of believing, but when what you believe the danger presented on the map and then nothing happens, you’re less likely to believe in future danger.

So when the big one does hit, it will be Aftershock, indeed.

A pile of bricks is all that remains in earthquake-prone Peru. The ruins of Huaca Pucllana, Miraflores, Peru. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.


Ray Bradbury and Rewriting the Map of Canada

Woodland trail, Yukon, Canada (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ray Bradbury died this week and as a science fiction and fantasy writer, his was some of the writing that most inspired me. I will forever be haunted by his horrific short story “All Summer in a Day,” but some of Bradbury’s best work were his cautionary tales like Fahrenheit 451, a terrifying look at the death of freedom and the burning of books in a fictional future. You might wonder what this has to do with the map of Canada, but bear with me.

This post will probably be as close to getting political as I will ever get, but events here in Canada have pushed me to the place where I finally have been forced out of the silent majority. You see the map of Canada is about to change. Not the physical map, perhaps, but the environmental map and the map of our hearts and our place in the world, and our children’s future is under attack so badly that I have to speak out. It feels very strange for a business person and writer who has always focused on fiction. For those of you who don’t live in Canada, here’s what’s at issue.

Small fishing lake in the B.C. Interior. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.

1. Our federal government is currently introducing legislation, Bill C 38, that will abolish most of our environmental protection legislation. They claim that they are trying to clean up the legislation in order to make it ‘make sense’ for municipalities and farmers, but in reality, while they might cut some red tape, they are getting rid of any legislation that might block the immediate implementation of major corporate initiatives, like the Enbridge Pipeline that will cross some of the most rugged and pristine landscape in Canada, from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean. This pipeline will cross hundreds of miles of wilderness and thousands of salmon-spawning streams to bring the dirtiest type of oil to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, this same legislation erases much of the laws in place to protect the pristine waters of British Columbia. It will allow oil tankers to ply the delicate environmental areas of the inland passage to take this dirty oil to China—one of the worst polluting countries in the world. Think Exxon Valdez. The legislation also removes the safeguards in place for many endangered species, because, the new legislation says, these species aren’t really important.

Kayaking the coast of British Columbia (1996) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

2. At the same time this government is systematically silencing any opposition. Along with this salvo against the environment which shortens any environmental assessments and limits who can even participate in the discussions, the government has also launched an attack against non-profit societies and charities, by imposing restrictions that stop these charities from any sort of advocacy against government actions. This attack has specifically been leveled at environmental organizations because they receive donations from other countries and this government is threatened by the groundswell of reaction from around the world about what they plan to do. They are changing the rules to hamstring any opposition against the huge oil corporations.

At the same time, they either stop funding scientific research, or they place gag orders on all remaining government scientists who might provide a voice of reason or evidence that government actions are wrong. But then I shouldn’t be surprised. This government doesn’t believe in science.

Even Members of Parliament who try to express what their constituents want are silenced. And when members of the United Nations commented recently on the impoverished state of our First Nations population, this government told them to go away and focus on third world countries. It seems Canada, in this government’s eyes, is beyond criticism.

All of this paints a picture that should terrify anyone concerned for our future. For someone who has always been a proud Canadian these actions are only the tip of a blood-chilling iceberg. It leaves me to think that, instead of the great white north that has stood proudly for freedom, integrity and honour both here and abroad for 145 years, we are being transformed into a country I only read about as in Ray Bradbury’s writing.

Welcome to totalitarian Canada – next comes the book burning.



Free Fiction

Brambles and Black Horses

By Karen L. Abrahamson

Gayle lost everything in the long ago accident that killed her family’s champion race horse and left her a ruined wreck of flesh and broken bones. Now, as bulldozers destroy the old farm where her love of racing was born, the appearance of a strange barefoot boy threatens to bring ruin upon her again.


To read the story, click here.

Myth, Magic and the Transformation of Machu Picchu

At the start of the trek (2011)

At the start of the trek (2011)

Hiking the Camino Inca to Machu Picchu should be a transformative experience. After all, I was treading the same stone steps that Inca kings and nobility had trod before the Spanish arrived. Think breath-taking heights (literally), panoramic views of the mountain tops, and struggling up steep grades through jungle and rain forest to get to the ‘Sun gate’ and finally peer down upon the fabled city of Machu Picchu. How can one not be transformed after an experience like that?

Farmstead gate, Sacred Valley, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Farmstead gate, Sacred Valley, Peru (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

There were five of us – a thirty-something New Zealand/Irish couple and a twenty-something British couple – and me at almost twice their age. We started our trip at 4:30 in the morning, joining the small bus that took us to the small town of Ollantaytambo northwest of Cuzco, and then beyond to kilometer 82 on the railroad tracks between Cuzco and Aguas Calientes, the modern town that lies just below Machu Picchu. From there we took to the trail and entered the backcountry of the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River. We hiked up a gently sloping trail past people bringing horses and burros down to the river, and to fields to pack out the recent potato crop. We were passed on the path by our red-clad porters who literally ran up the path ahead of us like the ‘Flash’, to get to our lunch time stop ahead of us and prepare a massive meal of trout and vegetables and potatoes and pasta. With that break we kept hiking, stopping at lookouts to see terraced remains of ancient Inca communities and the small farmsteads that exist today.

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The ground started up and we aimed at our first pass – 4,200 meters, but stopped to camp for the night at Ayapata, about half way up the mountain flank. So we had a quiet evening listening to the frogs that sang into the night and looking at the southern cross and Orion’s belt hanging over the glaciers, both of which were important to the Incas. The Southern Cross apparently helped predict the growing seasons, as well as major events such as the destruction of the Inca Empire. Orion’s belt represented the three layers of the world that the Incas believed in.

Day 2 began with a great breakfast of fruit and pancakes, but it couldn’t allay the torture to come. This was the day we had to cross the 4,200 meter, appropriately named, ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. They say the pass earned its name because from a distance the rock formations look like a woman’s breast and nipple and face. Okay, I could see that, but as I began the climb I could also see other possibilities.

Early Morning Mountains, Inca Trail (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Early Morning Mountains, Inca Trail (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

You see 4,200 meters makes it hard to breathe. You sweat and you climb uneven stairs and rocky paths and wind up through rough terrain, past old women driving llamas up the slope. Up and I was gasping and thanking god for the two walking sticks I had which, when I wasn’t climbing, I could lean on while I tried to find the oxygen to breath.

From the heights of Dead Woman's Pass (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson From the heights of Dead Woman's Pass (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

From the heights of Dead Woman’s Pass (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Finally, I made it to the top and the freezing wind cut through me and made me pull on all my layers of clothing before starting the difficult journey down.

Think steps and more steps, presumably created by people with a twisted, carnival-funhouse sense of evil. Treacherous and steep and uneven, but we made our way down into a lovely valley with waterfalls and rivers cascading alongside the path through thickening vegetation that became cloud forest thick with the scent of moisture and growing. We had lunch there and it was a matter of throwing ourselves on the ground in exhaustion, having lunch, and then having thirty minutes to rest before the rest of the day’s trek.

You see, we still had another pass to climb.

Upward, and the forest grew up around us, moist and filled with exotic species like bromeliads and orchids, and the trees were covered with moss and old lichen and birds flashed yellow and blue through the branches. The air was heavy and gradually clouds rolled in as we stopped at an old, round ruin, where our guide drew the Cuzco cross for us and told us how the shape represented much of the Inca universe, and how the Urubamba river valley ruins match many of the sacred constellations that the Inca saw in the sky; over-world and this world in harmony.

The rain started then. It washed away the guide’s drawing as we started for the next pass of 4,000 meters. Wearing slickers against the rain, we struggled up – or I did – did I mention that I’ve had knee surgery twice? But I kept slogging as the rain became hail and the guide finally sent the others on towards the next camp while he and I – finally made the top and took shelter in a cave while the downpour continued. That was the first magical moment of the hike. Sitting in semi-darkness while the rain ran down the rock steps and dripped from moss on the rocks and the frogs sang in happiness at the moisture.

And then there was more down. More steps, water-slicked this time, but after what seemed like forever we made camp and I literally just sagged to the ground. It was over. The worst of it was. I had made it over Dead Woman’s Pass and only felt like I was dead.

Phuyupatamarka, the Town above the Clouds (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Phuyupatamarka, the Town above the Clouds (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The next day involved crossing the third pass. It was much lower than the others and I could breathe as we started down the long string of stairs and rough paths through rain forest. As we went, we learned the names of the orchids, and saw how the elephant ear leaves are smaller near the peak and get larger as you go lower because the oxygen increases – which sort of explains why a coastal woman like me is sooo much taller than the people of the sacred valley.

At about 12:30 we had to choose: go to camp or go to nearby ruins. We chose the ruins of Huinay Huayna. Think a great arc of terraces built into a hillside so steep it would be hard to stand. Think jungle rainforest on all sides and we sat on the steps beside a trickling, ancient irrigation channel and looked out over the mountainside and the Urubamba far below. Butterflies, some black, some iridescent turquoise and yellow and translucent fragile, fluttered up around us dancing on the slight breeze. With the sun on our faces and the water music, that was the second magical moment of the trip.

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubumba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Huinay Huayna, Forever Young, hung above the Urubumba River (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Frogs and cicadas welcomed our 3 am wakeup call the last morning. You see there is a race to get to the Intipunku – the Sun gate and we wanted to be the first out the checkpoint. We were, racing like ghosts by flashlight through pre-dawn darkness to the music of the frogs and cicadas, calling out treacherous footing to each other, struggling up fifty stairs that were almost perpendicular and then reaching the gate to be confronted by — cloud.

The myth is that on solstice days the sun comes through this gate and shines directly through one of the temple windows at Machu Picchu. The myth is that at Machu Picchu there are sacred stones that will fill you with energy if you touch them — but today these stones are cordoned off. The myth is that Machu Picchu exists as one of the few power places in the world, but standing there in the cloud it was easier to believe that Machu Picchu was like Xanadu and never really existed except in our hearts and our wishes. Magic.

Going down to cloud-shrouded Machu Picchu was the anticlimax. No longer is the ancient city a place seen by the very few who dare the ridges and passes of the Canimo Inca. Now busses bring the tourists up from Anguas Calientes every five minutes. Hordes of them, laughing, blabbing, yelling, irreverent, fat, sweaty and swearing tourists of every accent and nationality. There is no place you can go and feel the quiet of the place. There’s barely a place you can hear the birds sing. So I sat in Machu Picchu nursing sore legs and watched the clouds and mists roll over the mountains. I almost wished I had never left the sungate, or had had the chance to keep running the mountain passes seeking a city that never existed.

Unfortunately, the other transformation was the realization that, though my heart may be willing, physically, I’ve outrun my days of running ridges.

Machu Picchu in the mist (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Machu Picchu in the mist (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson