In college I took a course called “Geology and the Environment.” The class was part of a brief flirtation I had with minoring in geology, a feat that seemed likely until I discovered that the requirements for a geology minor included courses in chemistry. Which as everyone knows is just math disguised by Bunsen burners. And, as you may remember, math and I don’t get along. I gave up the idea of minoring in geology, though I secretly coveted one of those bumper stickers that say “Geologists rock!”
I took what non-number-oriented courses were available, in which I learned names of various rocks and minerals and studied how plates shifted on the earth’s crust. I liked the classes, I think, more than the actual information. We packed into vans and drove around to various creekbeds and rock formations to look for evidence of the glaciers that had flattened the Midwestern landscape around us some millions of years ago.
If the field trips were better than sitting in a lecture hall, geology textbooks left something to be desired. With chapter titles such as “Lava: A Peek Inside Our Earth,” and “Water: Shaping Our Landscape,” I was often reduced to Nap: Head Down and Drooling in the Library.
My “Geology and the Environment” textbook included an entire chapter about California (California: Living With Geologic Forces), and we devoted several class periods to the state. Since I had lived my entire life on the East Coast, I knew only vaguely that California suffered from periodic earthquakes. I had seen footage of wildfires raging there on TV, but I had never really given the state’s dangers much thought. As I read my geology textbook, however, I understood this: California wasn’t a safe place to live. If the shifting tectonic plates didn’t get you, the mudslides would bury you alive. If your house wasn’t built on a seismic fault or cliff full of slippery shale that could shear off after a rainstorm, well, by god, the wildfires would sweep through and take everything you owned. I had seen the geologic forces, and I did not want to live with them.
“Why on earth would anyone choose to live in California?” I asked my mom the next time I called home.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe Californians wonder why anyone would want to live in Maryland,” which might have been her way of pointing out that I couldn’t possibly see into the mysterious minds of Californians, and since I’d only been there once, on a family vacation when I was seven, I probably shouldn’t be mouthing off on the topic.
When I declared to my mother that California was a dangerous and unlivable place, I did not foresee the following: Six years later, I would choose to live in California. The why had absolutely nothing to do with California and everything to do with the boyfriend (who later became the husband), who’d left the East Coast to take a new job in San Francisco.
It’s hard to imagine anyone more ill-prepared for a move to California than I was in the year 2000. What I mean is: I did not know what I was getting into. I had long since forgotten (mostly) about the state’s geologic dangers and had, on one or two weekend visits, learned that California makes good wine, a discovery that I now see may have clouded my judgment. This is, I suspect, how many of California’s transplants end up here. A suspicious number of us have stories about being taken to Wine Country by “friends” on our first visits, and “falling in the love with the place.”
Despite the wine buzz, however, I couldn’t deny that no matter what the weather was on the East Coast when I left, the sun shone when I arrived in San Francisco. Palm trees swayed in the breeze. I got to eat myself into a sushi coma. Friends kept proffering bottles of Pinot Noir. What wasn’t to love?
Turns out, earthquakes, fires and landslides, for starters. But that’s just geology.