Verner: Some quakes start from within

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 28, 2011

As a native Southerner, I have certain expectations about life on this planet:
Summers will be hot and humid.
People will argue endlessly about religion, politics and college basketball.
Barbecue is not simply smoked meat but, for some, an article of faith.
The earth will not suddenly start moving under my feet.
Or so I believed until Tuesday, when the earthquake struck.
I was sitting in front of the computer, here at the office where Iím now typing this, when things went a bit wobbly. Initially, I thought the queasy sensation that the building was moving was either a sign of advanced dehydration or a warning that I really need to cut back on the caffeine. Either that, or an editorial had finally provoked a full-out frontal assault on the Post building, complete with grenades and mortars. I was searching for a white flag when the trembling ceased.
As we all soon learned, buildings here in the heart of North Carolina and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast really were shaking. On the street, cars were rocking. Waves rippled across swimming pools. Dishes rattled in cupboards.
Deep beneath the bucolic countryside in Virginia, the earth had become overstressed, and the necessary geologic adjustments sent shock waves rippling out for thousands of miles. The earth shrugged, and we all felt a shudder.
It was a singular experience in some ways, like missing a step on a high stairway. But thinking about it afterward, I recalled other times when, sitting here, Iíve felt that same sense of disorientation and disbelief ó the this-isnít-really-happening reaction that accompanies any shock.
I felt it 11 years ago when my wife unexpectedly appeared, gently closed the office door and told me my father was dead.
I felt it again eight months after that, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the first reports arrived that two jetliners had crashed into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon and a fourth into a Pennsylvania field.
The earth moved again the morning I came into the office, saw the blinking message light on my phone and listened as my manic-depressive mother told me she was going to kill herself with a ěsuicide pill.î (On her ěupî days, she could make birds sing and flowers bloom; on her ědownî days, she was a walking hailstorm wearing too much perfume).
The world shifted once more on the day I learned a wrong-way drunken driver had smashed head-on into a car on a highway north of Atlanta, killing my sister-in-lawís youngest brother and his teenage son.
The earth whirls merrily along, as smoothly as a child’s top; then comes a moment when it heaves and lurches, and we find ourselves clawing for a handhold. The doctorís office calls with the test results. The boss beckons you into the office and shuts the door. A spouse or lover says, ěThereís something I have to tell you.î Someone knocks at the door, and you open it to find a somber officer, hat in hand. The phone rings, and a moment later, all the air is suddenly sucked out of the room.
We think of the earth as a fixed sphere, a sturdy, reliable presence of densely compacted dirt and stone. Mother Earth, itís often called in native mythologies, evoking the comforting image of matriarchal nurturance and stability. Look more deeply, however, and itís a different story. Beneath the planetís cold, thin crust, we find violent motion and a seething, molten core. We find chaotic regions of drifting stone plates and steamy fissures. We live atop an inferno.
On any given day, geologists tell us, hundreds of earthquakes occur around the world. Most of them are mere blips on the seismological chart, distant vibrations that never reach us. We go about our lives assuming weíre on solid ground, that today will be pretty much the same as yesterday, the next minute of our lives similar to the one that came before.
When floors shake and cups rattle, weíre momentarily jolted into another realm of awareness. Yet the earth is always shifting under our feet.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.