Geology

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Just before it started, the geology meeting at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Thursday looked like this from the front of the room (where I also tweeted the same pano):

Geologist Ed Keller

Our speakers were geology professor Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s Ed in the shot below.

As a geology freak, I know how easily terms like “debris flow,” “fanglomerate” and “alluvial fan” can clear a room. But this gig was SRO. That’s because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, debris flowed out of canyons and deposited fresh fanglomerate across the alluvial fan that comprises most of Montecito, destroying (by my count on the map below) 178 buildings, damaging more than twice that many, and killing 23 people. Two of those—a 2 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in the fresh fanglomerate and sought by cadaver dogs. The whole thing is beyond sad and awful.

The town was evacuated after the disaster so rescue and recovery work could proceed without interference, and infrastructure could be found and repaired: a job that required removing twenty thousand truckloads of mud and rocks. That work continues while evacuation orders are gradually lifted, allowing the town to repopulate itself to the very limited degree it can.

I talked today with a friend whose business is cleaning houses. Besides grieving the dead, some of whom were friends or customers, she reports that the cleaning work is some of the worst she has ever seen, even in homes that were spared the mud and rocks. Refrigerators and freezers, sitting closed and without electricity for weeks, reek of death and rot. Other customers won’t be back because their houses are gone.

Highway 101, one of just two freeways connecting Northern and Southern California, runs through town near the coast and more than two miles from the mountain front. Three debris flows converged on the highway and used it as a catch basin, filling its deep parts to the height of at least one bridge before spilling over its far side and continuing to the edge of the sea. It took two weeks of constant excavation and repair work before traffic could move again. Most exits remain closed. Coast Village Road, Montecito’s Main Street, is open for employees of stores there, but little is open for customers yet, since infrastructural graces such as water are not fully restored. (I saw the Honor Bar operating with its own water tank, and a water truck nearby.) Opening Upper Village will take longer. Some landmark institutions, such as San Ysidro Ranch and La Casa Santa Maria, will take years to restore. (From what I gather, San Ysidro Ranch, arguably the nicest hotel in the world, was nearly destroyed. Its website thank firefighters for salvation from the Thomas Fire. But nothing, I gather, could have save it from the huge debris flow wiped out nearly everything on the flanks of San Ysidro Creek. (All the top red dots along San Ysidro Creek in the map below mark lost buildings at the Ranch.)

Here is a map with final damage assessments. I’ve augmented it with labels for the canyons and creeks (with one exception: a parallel creek west of Toro Canyon Creek):

Click on the map for a closer view, or click here to view the original. On that one you can click on every dot and read details about it.

I should pause to note that Montecito is no ordinary town. Demographically, it’s Beverly Hills draped over a prettier landscape and attractive to people who would rather not live in Beverly Hills. (In fact the number of notable persons Wikipedia lists for Montecito outnumbers those it lists for Beverly Hills by a score of 77 to 71.) Culturally, it’s a village. Last Monday in The New Yorker, one of those notable villagers, T.Coraghessan Boyle, unpacked some other differences:

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.

Fire is a prerequisite for debris flows, our geologists explained. So is unusually heavy rain in a steep mountain watershed. There are five named canyons, each its own watershed, above Montecito, as we see on the map above. There are more to the east, above Summerland and Carpinteria, the next two towns down the coast. Those towns also took some damage, though less than Montecito.

Ed Keller put up this slide to explain conditions that trigger debris flows, and how they work:

Ed and Larry were emphatic about this: debris flows are not landslides, nor do many start that way (though one did in Rattlesnake Canyon 1100 years ago). They are also not mudslides, so we should stop calling them that. (Though we won’t.)

Debris flows require sloped soils left bare and hydrophobic—resistant to water—after a recent wildfire has burned off the chaparral that normally (as geologists say) “hairs over” the landscape. For a good look at what soil surfaces look like, and are likely to respond to rain, look at the smooth slopes on the uphill side of 101 east of La Conchita. Notice how the surface is not only a smooth brown or gray, but has a crust on it. In a way, the soil surface has turned to glass. That’s why water runs off of it so rapidly.

Wildfires are common, and chaparral is adapted to them, becoming fuel for the next fire as it regenerates and matures. But rainfalls as intense as this one are not common. In just five minutes alone, more than half an inch of rain fell in the steep and funnel-like watersheds above Montecito. This happens about once every few hundred years, or about as often as a tsunami.

It’s hard to generalize about the combination of factors required, but Ed has worked hard to do that, and this slide of his is one way of illustrating how debris flows happen eventually in places like Montecito and Santa Barbara:

From bottom to top, here’s what it says:

  1. Fires happen almost regularly, spreading most widely where chaparral has matured to become abundant fuel, as the firefighters like to call it.
  2. Flood events are more random, given the relative rarity of rain and even more rare rains of “biblical” volume. But they do happen.
  3. Stream beds in the floors of canyons accumulate rocks and boulders that roll down the gradually eroding slopes over time. The depth of these is expressed as basin instablity. Debris flows clear out the rocks and boulders when a big flood event comes right after a fire and basin becomes stable (relatively rock-free) again.
  4. The sediment yield in a flood (F) is maximum when a debris flow (DF) occurs.
  5. Debris flows tend to happen once every few hundred years. And you’re not going to get the big ones if you don’t have the canyon stream bed full of rocks and boulders.

About this set of debris flows in particular:

  1. Destruction down Oak Creek wasn’t as bad as on Montecito, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Creeks because the canyon feeding it is smaller.
  2. When debris flows hit an obstruction, such as a bridge, they seek out a new bed to flow on. This is one of the actions that creates an alluvial fan. From the map it appears something like that happened—
    1. Where the flow widened when it hit Olive Mill Road, fanning east of Olive Mill to destroy all three blocks between Olive Mill and Santa Elena Lane before taking the Olive Mill bridge across 101 and down to the Biltmore while also helping other flows fill 101 as well. (See Mac’s comment below, and his link to a top map.)
    2. In the area between Buena Vista Creek and its East Fork, which come off different watersheds
    3. Where a debris flow forked south of Mountain Drive after destroying San Ysidro Ranch, continuing down both Randall and El Bosque Roads.

For those who caught (or are about to catch) Ellen’s Facetime with Oprah visiting neighbors, that happened among the red dots at the bottom end of the upper destruction area along San Ysidro Creek, just south of East Valley Road. Oprah’s own place is in the green area beside it on the left, looking a bit like Versailles. (Credit where due, though: Oprah’s was a good and compassionate report.)

Big question: did these debris flows clear out the canyon floors? We (meaning our geologists, sedimentologists, hydrologists and other specialists) won’t know until they trek back into the canyons to see how it all looks. Meanwhile, we do have clues. For example, here are after-and-before photos of Montecito, shot from space. And here is my close-up of the latter, shot one day after the event, when everything was still bare streambeds in the mountains and fresh muck in town:

See the white lines fanning back into the mountains through the canyons (Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Romero, Toro) above Montecito? Ed explained that these appear to be the washed out beds of creeks feeding into those canyons. Here is his slide showing Cold Spring Creek before and after the event:

Looking back at Ed’s basin threshold graphic above, one might say that there isn’t much sediment left for stream beds to yield, and that those in the floors of the canyons have returned to stability, meaning there’s little debris left to flow.

But that photo was of just one spot. There are many miles of creek beds to examine back in those canyons.

Still, one might hope that Montecito has now had its required 200-year event, and a couple more centuries will pass before we have another one.

Ed and Larry caution against such conclusions, emphasizing that most of Montecito’s and Santa Barbara’s inhabited parts gain their existence, beauty or both by grace of debris flows. If your property features boulders, Ed said, a debris flow put them there, and did that not long ago in geologic time.

For an example of boulders as landscape features, here are some we quarried out of our yard more than a decade ago, when we were building a house dug into a hillside:

This is deep in the heart of Santa Barbara.

The matrix mud we now call soil here is likely a mix of Juncal and Cozy Dell shale, Ed explained. Both are poorly lithified silt and erode easily. The boulders are a mix of Matilija and Coldwater sandstone, which comprise the hardest and most vertical parts of the Santa Ynez mountains. The two are so similar that only a trained eye can tell them apart.

All four of those geological formations were established long after dinosaurs vanished. All also accumulated originally as sediments, mostly on ocean floors, probably not far from the equator.

To illustrate one chapter in the story of how those rocks and sediments got here, UCSB has a terrific animation of how the transverse (east-west) Santa Ynez Mountains came to be where they are. Here are three frames in that movie:

What it shows is how, when the Pacific Plate was grinding its way northwest about eighteen million years ago, a hunk of that plate about a hundred miles long and the shape of a bread loaf broke off. At the top end was the future Malibu hills and at the bottom end was the future Point Conception, then situated south of what’s now Tijuana. The future Santa Barbara was west of the future Newport Beach. Then, when the Malibu end of this loaf got jammed at the future Los Angeles, the bottom end of the loaf swept out, clockwise and intact. At the start it was pointing at 5 o’clock and at the end (which isn’t), it pointed at 9:00. This was, and remains, a sideshow off the main event: the continuing crash of the Pacific Plate and the North American one.

Here is an image that helps, from that same link:

Find more geology, with lots of links, in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. I put that post up on the 15th and have been updating it since then. It’s the most popular post in the history of this blog, which I started in 2007. There are also 58 comments, so far.

I’ll be adding more to this post after I visit as much as I can of Montecito (exclusion zones permitting). Meanwhile, I hope this proves useful. Again, corrections and improvements are invited.

30 January

 

Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it:

So far twenty dead have been removed. It will take much more time to remove twenty thousand dump truck loads of what geologists call “debris,” just to get down to where civic infrastructure (roads, water, electric, gas) can be fixed. It’s a huge thing.

The big questions:

  1. Did we know a catastrophe this huge was going to happen? (And if so, which among us were the “we” who knew?)
  2. Was there any way to prevent it?

Geologists had their expectations, expressed as degrees of likelihood and detailed on this map by the United States Geological Survey:

That was dated more than a month before huge rains revised to blood-red the colors in the mountains above town. Worries of County Supervisors and other officials were expressed in The Independent on January 3rd and 5th. Edhat also issued warnings on January 5th and 6th.

Edhat’s first report began, “Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a weather briefing of a potential significant winter storm for Santa Barbara County on January 9-10. With the burn scar created by the Thomas Fire, the threat of flash floods and debris/mud flows is now 10 times greater than before the fire.”

But among those at risk, who knew what a “debris/mud flow” was—especially when nobody had ever seen one of those anywhere around here, even after prior fires?

The first Independent story (on January 3rd) reported, “County water expert Tom Fayram said county workers began clearing the debris basins at San Ysidro and Gobernador canyons ‘as soon as the fire department would let us in.’ It is worth noting, Lewin said, that the Coast Village Road area flooded following the 1971 Romero Fire and the 1964 Coyote Fire. While touring the impact areas in recent days, (Office of Emergency Management Director Robert) Lewin said problems have already occurred. ‘We’re starting to see gravity rock fall, he said. ‘One rock could close a road.'”

The best report I’ve seen about what geologists knew, and expected, is The Independent‘s After the Mudslides, What Does the Next Rain Hold for Montecito?, published four days after the disaster. In that report, Kevin Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service said, “no one alive has probably ever seen one before.” [January 18 update: Nick Welch in The Independent reports, “Last week’s debris flow was hardly Santa Barbara’s first. Jim Stubchaer, then an engineer with County Flood Control, remembers the avalanche of mud that took 250 homes back in November 1964 when heavy rains followed quickly on the heels of the Coyote Fire. He was there in 1969 and 1971 when it happened again.” Here is a long 2009 report on the Coyote Fire in The Independent by Ray Ford, now with Noozhawk. No mention of the homes lost in there. Perhaps Ray can weigh in.]

My point is that debris flows over Montecito ae a sure bet in geologic time, but not in the human one. In the whole history of Montecito and Santa Barbara (of which Montecito is an unincorporated part), there are no recorded debris flows that started on mountain slopes and spread all the way to the sea. But on January 9th we had several debris flows on that scale, originating simultaneously in the canyons feeding Montecito, San Ysidro and Romero Creeks. Those creeks are dry most of the time, and beautiful areas in which to build homes: so beautiful, in fact, that Montecito is the other Beverly Hills. (That’s why all these famous people have called it home.)

One well-studied prehistoric debris flow in Santa Barbara emptied a natural lake that is now Skofield Park,dumping long-gone mud and lots of rocks in Rattlesnake Canyon, leaving its clearest evidence in a charming tree-shaded boulder field next to Mission Creek called Rocky Nook Park.

What geologists at UCSB learned from that flow is detailed in a 2001 report titled UCSB Scientists Study Ancient Debris Flows. It begins, “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood.” It also says that flood would “most likely occur every few thousand years.”

And we got one in Montecito last Tuesday.

I’ve read somewhere that studies of charcoal from campfires buried in Rocky Nook Park date that debris flow at around 500 years ago. This is a good example of how the geologic present fails to include present human memory. Still, you can get an idea of how big this flow was. Stand in Rattlesnake Canyon downstream from Skofield Park and look at the steep rocky slopes below houses on the south side of the canyon. It isn’t hard to imagine the violence that tore out the smooth hillside that had been there before.

To help a bit more with that exercise, here is a Google Streetview of Scofield Park, looking down at Santa Barbara through Rattlesnake Canyon:

I added the red line to show the approximate height of the natural dam that broke and released that debris flow.

I’ve also learned that the loaf-shaped Riviera landform in Santa Barbara is not a hunk of solid rock, but rather what remains of a giant landslide that slid off the south face of the Santa Ynez Mountains and became free-standing after creeks eroded out the valley behind. I’ve also read that Mission Creek flows westward around the Riviera and behind the Mission because the Riviera itself is also sliding the same direction on its own tectonic sled.

We only see these sleds moving, however, when geologic and human time converge. That happened last Tuesday when rains Kevin Cooper calls “biblical” hit in the darkest hours, saturating the mountain face creek beds that were burned by the Thomas Fire just last month. As a result, debris flows gooped down the canyons and stream valleys below, across Montecito to the sea, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there.

So in retrospect, those slopes in various colors in the top map above should have been dark red instead. But, to be fair, much of what geology knows is learned the hard way.

Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, is fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. One friend barely escaped. Some victims were friends of friends. Some of the stories are beyond awful.

We all process tragedies like this in the ways we know best, and mine is by reporting on stuff, hopefully in ways others are not, or at least not yet. So I’ll start with this map showing damaged and destroyed buildings along the creeks:

At this writing the map is 70% complete. [January 17 update: 95%.] I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses that pop up into the following outline, adding a few links.

Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
  1. 817 Ashley Road
  2. 817 Ashley Road (out building)
  3. 797 Ashley Road
  4. 780 Ashley Road. Amazing architectural treasure that last sold for $12.9 million in ’13.
  5. 809 Ashley Road
  6. 809 Ashley Road (there are two at one address)
  7. 747 Indian Lane
  8. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  9. 590 Meadowood Lane
  10. 830 Rockbridge Road
  11. 800 Rockbridge Road
  12. 790 Rockbridge Road
  13. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  14. 1261 East Valley Road
  15. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  16. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  17. 1254 East Valley Drive
  18. 1255 East Valley Road
  19. 1247 East Valley Road A
  20. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road A
  22. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  23. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  24. 1221 East Valley Road A
  25. 1221 East Valley Road B
  26. 369 Hot Springs Road
  27. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  28. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  29. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  30. 355 Hot Springs Road
  31. 335 Hot Springs Road A
  32. 335 Hot Springs Road B
  33. 333 Hot Springs Road (Not marked in final map)
  34. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  35. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  36. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  37. 340 Hot Springs Road
  38. 319 Hot Springs Road
  39. 325 Olive Mill Road
  40. 285 Olive Mill Road
  41. 275 Olive Mill Road
  42. 325 Olive Mill Road
  43. 220 Olive Mill Road
  44. 200 Olive Mill Road
  45. 275 Olive Mill Road
  46. 180 Olive Mill Road
  47. 170 Olive Mill Road
  48. 144 Olive Mill Road
  49. 137 Olive Mill Road
  50. 139 Olive Mill Road
  51. 127 Olive Mill Road
  52. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  53. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  54. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  55. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  56. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  57. 82 Olive Mill Road
  58. 1308 Danielson Road
  59. 81 Depot Road
  60. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek—
  1. 601 San Ysidro Road
  2. 560 San Ysidro Road B
Along San Ysidro Creek—
  1. 953 West Park Lane
  2. 941 West Park Lane
  3. 931 West park Lane
  4. 925 West park Lane
  5. 903 West park Lane
  6. 893 West park Lane
  7. 805 W Park Lane
  8. 881 West park Lane
  9. 881 West park Lane (separate building, same address)
  10. 1689 Mountain Drive
  11. 900 San Ysidro Lane C (all the Lane addresses appear to be in San Ysidro Ranch)
  12. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage B
  13. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage A
  14. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage D
  15. 900 San Ysidro Lane E
  16. 900 San Ysidro Lane F
  17. 900 San Ysidro Lane G
  18. 900 San Ysidro Lane H
  19. 900 San Ysidro Lane I
  20. 900 San Ysidro Lane J
  21. 900 San Ysidro Lane K
  22. 900 San Ysidro Lane L
  23. 900 San Ysidro Lane M
  24. 900 San Ysidro Lane N
  25. 900 San Ysidro Lane O
  26. 900 San Ysidro Lane R
  27. 900 San Ysidro Lane S
  28. 900 San Ysidro Lane T
  29. 888 San Ysidro Lane A
  30. 888 San Ysidro Lane B
  31. 888 San Ysidro Lane C
  32. 888 San Ysidro Lane D
  33. 888 San Ysidro Lane E
  34. 888 San Ysidro Lane F
  35. 805 West Park Lane B
  36. 799 East Mountain Drive
  37. 1801 East Mountain Lane
  38. 1807 East Mountain Drive
  39. 771 Via Manana Road
  40. 899 El Bosque Road
  41. 771 Via Manana Road
  42. 898 El Bosque Road
  43. 800 El Bosque Road A (Casa de Maria)
  44. 800 El Bosque Road B (Casa de Maria)
  45. 800 El Bosque Road C (Casa de Maria)
  46. 559 El Bosque Road (This is between Oak Creek and San Ysidro Creek)
  47. 680 Randall Road
  48. 670 Randall Road
  49. 660 Randall Road
  50. 650 Randall Road
  51. 640 Randall Road
  52. 630 Randall Road
  53. 619 Randall Road
  54. 1685 East Valley Road A
  55. 1685 East Valley Road B
  56. 1685 East Valley Road C
  57. 1696 East Valley Road
  58. 1760 Valley Road A
  59. 1725 Valley Road A
  60. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  61. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  62. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  63. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  64. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  65. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  66. 1705 East Valley Road A
  67. 1705 East Valley Road B
  68. 1705 East Valley Road C
  69. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  70. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  71. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  72. 1707 East Valley Road A
  73. 1685 East Valley Road C
  74. 1709 East Valley Road
  75. 1709 East Valley Road B
  76. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  77. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  78. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  79. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  80. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  81. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  82. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  83. 1715 East Valley Road A
  84. 1715 East Valley Road B
  85. 1719 East Valley Road
  86. 1721 East Valley Road A (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  87. 1721 East Valley Road B (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  88. 1721 East Valley Road C (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  89. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  90. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  91. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  92. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  93. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  94. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  95. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  96. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  97. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  98. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  99. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  100. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  101. 197 Tiburon Bay Lane A
Along Buena Vista Creek—
  1. 923 Buena Vista Avenue
  2. 1984 Tollis Avenue A
  3. 1984 Tollis Avenue B
  4. 1984 Tollis Avenue C
  5. 670 Lilac Drive
  6. 658 Lilac Drive
  7. 2075 Alisos Drive (marked earlier, but I don’t see it in the final map)
  8. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1000 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  4. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  7. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Below Toro Canyon—

  1. 876 Toro Canyon Road
  2. 572 Toro Canyon Park Road

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the Toro Canyon—

  1. 2000 Cravens Lane

Ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.

When I add those up, I get 142 163* 178† among the destroyed alone.

[* This is on January 17, when the map says it is 95% complete. All the additions appear to be along San Ysidro Creek, especially on San Ysidro Lane, which I believe is mostly in San Ysidro Ranch. Apparently nearly the whole place has been destroyed. Adjectives such as “lovely” fail to describe what it was.]

[† This is on January 18, when the map is complete. I’ll need to go over it again, because there are subtractions as well as additions. Additional note: on March 22, the resident at 809 Ashley Road asked me to make sure that address was also added. There are two homes at that address, both gone.]

Now let’s go back and look more closely at this again from the geological perspective.

What we see is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up.

This same pattern accounts for much of California, including all of the South Coast and the Los Angeles basin.

To see what I mean, hover your mind above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Then dial history back five million years. What you see won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close. Or even there at all.

Five million years is about 1/1000th of Earth’s history. If that history were compressed to a day, California showed up in less than the last forty seconds. In that short time California has formed and re-formed constantly, and is among the most provisional landscapes in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among nature’s most casual methods for revising landscapes. (By the way, I am writing this in a San Marino house that sits atop the Raymond Fault scarp, which on the surface takes the form of a forty-foot hill. The stack of rock strata under the bottom of that hill is displaced 17,000 feet from the identical suite under the base at the top. Many earthquakes produced that displacement, while erosion has buffed 16,960 feet of rock and soil off the top.)

So we might start to look at the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara and Montecito not as a stable land form but rather as a volcano of mud and rock that’s sure to go off every few dozen or hundreds of years—and will possibly deliver a repeat performance if we get more heavy rains and there is plenty of debris left to flow out of mountain areas adjacent to those that flowed on January 9th. If there’s a lot of it, why even bother saving Montecito?

Here’s why:

One enters the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming under that stone plaque, which celebrates what may be our species’ greatest achievement and conceit: controlling nature. (It’s also why geology is starting to call our present epoch the anthropocene.)

This also forecasts exactly what we will do for Montecito. In the long run we’ll lose to nature. But meanwhile we strive on.

In our new strivings, it will help to look toward other places in California that are more experienced with debris flows, because they happen almost constantly there. The largest of these by far is Los Angeles, which has placed catch basins at the mouths of all the large canyons coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains. Most of these dwarf the ones above Montecito. All resemble empty reservoirs. Some are actually quarries for rocks and gravel that roll in constantly from the eroding creek beds above. None are pretty.

To understand the challenge involved, it helps to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature, which takes its title from the inscription above. Fortunately, you can start right now by reading the first essay in a pair that became the relevant chapter of that book. It’s free on the Web and called Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:

Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:

The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours of January 9th. (As of March 22, two of the 23 dead still haven’t been recovered, and probably never will be.)

As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks—and maybe much longer if officials declare the hills above town ready to flow again.

Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.

Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour or one like it on Thursday when we head home via Los Angeles after we fly there from New York, where I’m packing up now.

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:

 

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The original version of this ran as a comment under Francine Hardaway‘s Medium post titled Have we progressed at all in the last fifty years?

My short answer is “Yes, but not much, and not evenly.” This is my longer answer.


In your case and mine, it has taken the better part of a century to see how some revolutions take generations to play out. Not only won’t we live to see essential revolutions complete; our children and grandchildren may not either.

Take a topic not on your list: racial equality—or moving past race altogether as a Big Issue. To begin to achieve racial equality in the U.S., we fought the Civil War. The result was various degrees of liberation for the people who had been slaves or already freed in Union states; but apartheid of both the de jure and de facto kind persisted. Jim Crow laws and practices emerged, and in still live on in culture if not in law.

The civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties caused positive social, political and other changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 especially helped. But the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 put civil rights almost back where it was before its revolution started. I participated in civil rights activism in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of both assassinations, and I can’t overstate how deep and defeating our despair felt after both events. And that feeling proved correct.

Small incremental improvements followed over the decades since, but no leaps forward like we had before those murders. (Even the election of Barack Obama failed to change a terribly durable status quo. Backlash against that election is at least partly responsible for Trump and the Republican Congress.)

We are still stuck with inequality for races, religions and so much else. Will we ever get over that? I think we will, inevitably; but only if our species survives.

One collateral victim of those assassinations in the Sixties was the near-end of non-violence as a strategy toward change. Martin Luther King Jr. used it very effectively, and kept the flame alive and well-proven until violence took him out. Martyred though he was, it was not to the cause of nonviolence or pacifism, both of which have been back-burnered for fifty years. We (in the largest sense that includes future generations) may never find out if non-violence can ever succeed—because violence is apparently too deeply ingrained as a human trait.

Back to tech.

I too was, and remain, a cyber-utopian. Or at least a cyber-optimist. But that’s because I see cyber—the digitization and networking of the world—as a fait accompli that offers at least as many opportunities for progress as it does for problems. As Clay Shirky says, a sure sign of a good technology is that one can easily imagine bad uses of it.

What I’m not writing at the moment are my thoughts about why some of those advantaged by power, even in small ways, abuse it so easily. I’m not writing it because I know whatever I say will be praised by some, rebuked by others, and either way will be reduced to simplicities that dismiss whatever subtle and complex points I am trying to make, or questions I am trying to ask. (Because my mind is neither sufficiently informed nor made up.) I also know that, within minutes for most of my piece’s readers, the points it makes will be gone like snow on the water, for such is the nature of writing on the vast sea of almost-nothing that “social” media comprises. And, as of today, all other media repose in the social ones.

Some perspective:

Compared to that, and its effects on the planet, all other concerns shrink to insignificance.

But, as The Onion said a few weeks after 9/11, A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.

Stupid bullshit is what the meteor of humanity hitting the planet cares most about. Always has. Wars have been fought over far less.

The only fully consequential question is how we end the Anthropocene. Or how it ends without us.

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bigbust

Emanuele Orazio Fenzi, better known as Francesco Franceschi (1843-1924), was an Italian horticulturist responsible for vastly increasing the botanical variety of Santa Barbara (introducing more than 900 species). He was also for awhile the primary landowner on the Riviera, a loaf-shaped hill overlooking the city’s downtown. Most of that hill is now covered with houses, but a large part that isn’t is what remains of the Franceschi estate: 18 acres called Franceschi Park, featuring a crumbling mansion and the bust above, carved into the top of a boulder on the property.

The city doesn’t have much to say about Franceschi, with a website devoted to the park that goes one paragraph deep. This makes sense, because the state of neglect in the park is extreme. I won’t go into details, because they’re well presented all these stories:

Wikipedia, at the top link above, goes deep too. So does this 2002 Pacific Horticulture story, which suggests with this photo—

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—that the bust above isn’t a bad likeness.

But that boulder and Franceschi’s head are going to be shards on the road soon if the city, or somebody, doesn’t save it. Simply put, the ground under it is giving way. Take a look. Here’s the bust, on its boulder, a few feet above the ground that has fallen down to Mission Ridge Road below:

fail1

And here you can see the failing slope, and the rubble that has fallen from within it onto the road:

fail2

I shot that a couple days ago, in a break between this winter’s record breaking rainstorms. And here’s a closer look at the slo-mo landslide happening immediately below the sculpture:

fail3Saving Franceschi’s bust is surely an easier job than saving his house. What I’m hoping here is that publishing this blog post will stir up some interest.

BluecutFireTo get away from the heat today—into a little less heat and an excuse to exercise, I drove up to Mt. Wilson, where I visited the Observatory and walked around the antenna farm there. As it happened, the Bluecut Fire was also visiting the same San Gabriel Mountains, a few miles to the east at Cajon Pass. Starting at 10:36 in the morning, it was past 10,000 acres with 0% containment by the time I observed it in the mid to late afternoon.

Here’s a photo set. If anybody wants to use any of them, any way they please, feel free.

The view here is to the east, along the spine of the range, across 10,064-foot (3068m) Mt. San Antonio, also known as Old Baldy. I like to ski there (at Mt. Baldy) in the winter. Nothing like skiing nearly two miles up, looking down on 20 million people enjoying subtropical weather. The lifts are open in the summer (for zip-lining), so you can get up there and watch the fire from a closer (but safe) vantage, I assume. Check first.

 

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I’ve been fascinated for years by what comes and goes at the Fort Irwin National Training Center

fortirwin

—in the Mojave Desert, amidst the dark and colorful Calico Mountains of California, situated in the forbidding nowhere that stretches between Barstow and Death Valley.

Here and there, amidst the webwork of trails in the dirt left by tanks, jeeps and other combat vehicles, fake towns and other structures go up and come down. So, for example, here is Etrebat Shar, a fake town in an “artificial Afghanistan” that I shot earlier this month, on June 2:

etrebat-shar1

And here is a broader view across the desert valley east of Fort Irwin itself:

etrebat-shar2

Look to the right of the “town.” See that area where it looks like something got erased? Well, it did. I took the two shots above earlier this month, on June 2. Here’s a shot of the same scene on June 25, 2013:

etrebat-shar3

Not only is the “town” a bit bigger, but there’s this whole other collection of walls and buildings, covering a far larger area, to the right, or east.

I also see in this shot that it was gone on December 8, 2014.

Now I’m fascinated by this town and the erased something-or-other nearby, which I also shot on June 2:

othertown

It appears to be “Medina Wasl,” which Wikipedia says is one of twelve towns built for desert warfare training:

One of the features of the base is the presence of 12 mock “villages” which are used to train troops in Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) prior to their deployment. The villages mimic real villages and have variety of buildings such as religious sites, hotels, traffic circles, etc. filled with foreign language speaking actors portraying government officials, local police, local military, villagers, street vendors, and insurgents. The largest two are known as Razish and Ujen, the closest located about 30 minutes from the main part of the post. Most of the buildings are created using intermodal containers, stacked to create larger structures, the largest village consists of 585 buildings that can engage an entire brigade combat team into a fight.

Now I’m slowly going through my other shots over the years to see if I can find Razish and Ujen… if they haven’t been erased.

It would be cool to hear from military folk familiar with Fort Irwin, or veterans who have worked or fought mock battles in those towns.

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil in the water is one of the strange graces of life on Califonia’s South Coast.

What we see here is a long slick of oil in the Pacific, drifting across Platform Holly, which taps into the Elwood Oil Field, which is of a piece with the Coal Oil Point Seep Field, all a stone’s throw off Coal Oil Point, better known as UC Santa Barbara.

Wikipedia (at the momentsays this:

The Coal Oil Point seep field offshore from Santa Barbara, California isa petroleum seep area of about three square kilometres, adjacent to the Ellwood Oil Field, and releases about 40 tons of methane per day and about 19 tons of reactive organic gas (ethane, propane, butane and higher hydrocarbons), about twice the hydrocarbon air pollution released by all the cars and trucks in Santa Barbara County in 1990.[1]The liquid petroleum produces a slick that is many kilometres long and when degraded by evaporationand weathering, produces tar balls which wash up on the beaches for miles around.[2]

This seep also releases on the order of 100 to 150 barrels (16 to 24 m3) of liquid petroleum per day.[3] The field produces about 9 cubic meters of natural gas per barrel of petroleum.[2]

Leakage from the natural seeps near Platform Holly, the production platform for the South Ellwood Offshore oilfield, has decreased substantially, probably from the decrease in reservoir pressure due to the oil and gas produced at the platform.[2]

On the day I shot this (February 10), from a plane departing from Santa Barbara for Los Angeles, the quantity of oil in the water looked unusually high to me. But I suppose it varies from day to day.

Interesting fact:

  • Chumash canoes were made planks carved from redwood or pine logs washed ashore after storms, and sealed with asphalt tar from the seeps. There are no redwoods on the South Coast, by the way. The nearest are far up the coast at Big Sur, a couple hundred miles to the northwest. (It is likely that most of the redwood floating into the South Coast came from much farther north, where the Mendicino and Humboldt coastlines are heavily forested with redwood.)
  • National Geographic says that using the tar had the effect of shrinking the size of Chumash heads over many generations.
  • There are also few rocks hard enough to craft into a knife or an ax anywhere near Santa Barbara, or even in the Santa Ynez mountains behind it. All the local rocks are of relatively soft sedimentary kinds. Stones used for tools were mostly obtained by trade with tribes from other regions.

Here’s the whole album of oil seep shots.

trainor-biz-cardThis is about visiting my great-great grandfather, Thomas Trainor, dead since 1876 and reposing in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York. Thomas and a friend bought the Trainor family plot, two graves wide, in 1852. It now lies roughly in the center of what’s called “Old Calvary,” the oldest section of the largest cemetery in the country. More than three people are buried there.

Calvary is familiar as the vast forest of monuments and headstones flanking the intersection of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (I-278) and the Long Island (I-495) Expressway. Also as the place where the Godfather got planted in the movie.

Thomas was himself one of seven children. His parents were Thomas (or John) and Hanna (née Hockey) Trainor, said to be of Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland. He was born in 1804 and sailed to Boston at the height of the 1819 typhus epidemic at age 15, accompanied by his uncle, also a Trainor. By one account the uncle died soon after arriving, but by another he lived long enough to marry and widow the old aunt Thomas buried first in the family plot.

There is a gap in the record between the time Thomas arrived as a teen and when he came to own land in New York (around Poughkeepsie), meet Mary Ann McLaughlin, and established the saddle and carriage-building business described on his business card above. The family home, we know, was at 228 East 122nd Street in Harlem, at a time when most of the city’s roads were still dirt. (Here’s the Streetview today.) His business, at 124 West Broadway, was at the corner of Duane on the east edge of what is now Tribeca. Mary Ann did the carriage interiors when she not also producing children. Family lore also has it that Thomas trained first as a servant indentured to Mary Ann’s dad. Also that this is false.

What I found at Calgary, after a long search (having been given bad instructions at first by an otherwise helpful guy at the cemetery office), was this headstone:

trainor-headstoneClearly this is the Trainor plot: Section 1W, Range 6, Plot U. (Nice of some stones to have that engraving. Most don’t.) And I know Margaret Mayer was Thomas’s youngest daughter, known to us kids growing up as Grandma Searls’ “Aunt Mag.” Here she is:

auntmagGrandma Searls was the third of five children, all daughters, of Henry Roman Englert and Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, the fourth of Thomas and Mary Ann’s seven kids. Henry was the head of New York’s Steel and Copperplate Engravers Union, and the family home was in the South Bronx at 742 East 142nd Street. When Kitty died at age 39, Aunt Mag became a second mom to Kitty’s four surviving daughters.

But who was Grace F. Adams? And why are there no dates, or names other than those two, neither of whom died with the Trainor surname?

Some answers came when I got home and looked through the typed records of Catherine Burns, daughter of Florence, Grandma Searls’ younger sister. These were scanned by Catherine’s son Martin (my second cousin), and shared along with many other pictures I’ve put up on the Web.

There I discovered that Grace Adams is the granddaughter of Aunt Mag, who was born in 1855, two years before her mother died, and lived for another 89 years. She married Joseph Mayer in 1881, the year before Grandma Searls (née Ethel F. Englert) was born. (Joseph, who died in 1927, is buried elsewhere at Calgary.) Mag and Joseph’s daughter Frances, born in 1888, married George Shannon. (After Geroge died in 1923, she married John Heslin, who also predeceased her without fathering more children.) Frances and George produced Gertrude Doris Shannon and Grace Shannon. Gertrude, born in 1918, married Thomas Doonan in 1937, and had four kids: Thomas Jr., Margaret, Rosemary and John. They and their descendants are third, fourth and fifth cousins of mine.

But the connection to the headstone is Grace Shannon, born in 1919. She married an Adams (first name unknown), and produced two daughters, Candice and Denise, born respectively in 1953 and 1957. They are third cousins of mine (sharing great-great grandparents). Candice married Joseph Flasch and produced two known children, Joseph and Shannon Marie.

So Grace Shannon is the Grace F. Adams on the headstone. Since died in 1966 at just 45 years old, and the headstone (or monument, in the parlance of the cemetery business) is clearly of relatively recent vintage, I am guessing it was was placed by one or both of Grace F. Adams’ daughters. I am also guessing that they knew this was a Trainor plot, with lots of Trainors in it, but didn’t want to go into the details, especially since some of them are hazy. Hence the names of the two ancestors they knew and cared most about, under the Trainor heading.

I’m saying all this in hope that one or more of them will find this post and fill us in.

What the only headstone at the Trainor plot understates is that bodies of nine family members (and perhaps one other) are stacked in just two graves:

all-the-trainor-deadTheir order of burial also recalls a series of tragedies. First in the ground was an elderly aunt, apparently the widow of the uncle who came over with Thomas from Ireland. Next was Thomas’s wife, Mary Ann, age 36. Then went three of their seven children: 1 year old Thomas Jr., 16 year old Charles, and then 31 year old Hannah Crowley. Not included is an infant daughter, Ella, buried elsewhere.

The story of Charles is family legend, but accounts differ. They agree that he ran away at 16, twice, to fight in the Civil War. One report says he was killed carrying a flag. Another says he was wounded and died in an army hospital. By that story he was visited by his father after a search made long and difficult by Charles’s decision to register under an assumed name that only he and the Union Army knew. When Thomas found Charles, the boy was almost unrecognizable behind a full red beard. According to that story (the one in which Charles wasn’t killed in battle), the doctors promised Thomas that his boy would be home by Christmas. There seems to be agreement that Charles died on Thanksgiving Day, and arrived home in a box. Grandma Searls (a niece of Charles through his sister Catherine) said Charles arrived home on Christmas Day.

All family accounts agree that Charles was planted in the Trainor plot at Calvary. The Cemetery records do not agree. Instead it lists Hannah Kennedy as an occupant of the Trainor plot. According to that listing, she was Charles’ age when she died the same year. So there are three possibilities here. The first is that Hannah was a family acquaintance who just happened to die at the same age as Charles and in the same year. The second is that the cemetery made a mistake in recording the burial. The third is that both are buried there, and only Hannah’s burial is recorded. I favor the second possibility because it’s the most plausible. Today we’d call it a data entry error.

When I asked the guy at the Calvary office how burying stacked bodies in a single grave worked in an age when they didn’t use vaults, he said something like, “They just dig down until they find the top of the coffin below. Or they stop when they find remains or what they suspect are remains, and set the next coffin on top.”

What they find, if a coffin is absent, would depend on the soil. In the red-dirt South, where there is a lot of acid in the soil, I am told there tends to be nothing left after a few years but buttons and shoelace grommets. But in other soils, such as in France, where they relocated all the remains in all of Paris’s cemeteries into quarries under the city (now called the catacombs) from the late 1700s to mid 1800s, all the bones stay in perfect shape. (I visited there in ’10. Amazing place.)

When I was in Letterkenny a few years ago, I thought I would try to find some trace of the Trainors who stayed behind. Turns out Trainor is a fairly common name that roughly means laborer, or strong man, in the original Gaelic Thréinfhir. There are also many variants, including Armstrong. So I took my curiosity to the Parochial House across from St. Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny, and was rebuked by one of the priests there. Didn’t I know the Irish Catholic Church was underground in the early 1800s, while all of Ireland was under England’s thumb and enduring one famine and plague after another? In other words, “Don’t bother askin’.”

He did at least point me to a graveyard near Old Town, across the River Swilly. It was in use two centuries ago, when Great-great Grandpa Thomas was growing up there, and might contain some Trainors or Hockeys, he said. When we went by, however, it was raining heavily, and there was a funeral underway — one of the first there in a long time, we were told by one of those attending. So we gave up.

For what it’s worth, I’ve looked a bit into Donegal genealogy records for evidence of Trainors, or Thréinfirs, and found nothing. But the Trainors may not have been from Letterkenny, or Donegal. I’ve heard variously that they were from County Monaghan, or Cork. A search here brings up 85,651 birth records for Thomas Trainor in Monaghan. Seems mighty high, but maybe I’m doing it wrong.

Last year I took my wife on what she called “a really bad idea for a date” (as was the Letterkenny side trip): visiting the graves of other relatives on Grandma’s father’s side:

    1. Christian Englert (my great-great grandfather, same generation as Thomas Trainor), his wife Jacobina (née Rung) Englert, and five others in the next generation, including four who died young (aged 33, 29, 1 and 10 months). Only three of those are marked on the headstone. Here they are in roughly 1869.
    2. Christian’s son, Henry Roman Englert, his wife Kitty Trainor (one of the sibs not buried in Calvary), Henry’s second wife (Teresa Antonelli), and three from the next generation, all of whom died young and are stacked into three graves in one plot below a small wedge-shaped headstone that identifies Henry alone.

I couldn’t find a third grave site, possibly not marked, containing Henry’s brother Andrew and (stacked atop him) a daughter or niece, Annie Englert. This one may not be marked.

Martin tells me that the four Englert sisters and others of their generation would often visit the graves of their mother and siblings, even before their father, Henry, died in 1943. I am sure that none of those graves would have been marked. It also seems strange to me that they (or somebody) only marked Henry’s after he died, without mention of the five others below.

Anyway, I’ve shared documents and pictures of Trainors here, Englerts here, and Dwyers (Martin’s family) here.

All of this inquiry also has me thinking about what cemeteries are for. Clearly the idea of organizing the dead under plaques, stones and monuments is to honor and host those who miss them, or who wish at least to respect them, as I did for all those piled-up Trainors last Saturday.

I suppose the original purpose of burial was to hold the stink down, or to recycle nutrients where the process can’t be seen. (Beats watching vultures and less grand creatures do the job.) Whatever it was, it seems kind of wasteful and obsolete at this point.

Over dinner a few years ago, Kevin Kelly told me that nobody we know, including ourselves, will be remembered in a thousand years — or even a hundred or two. Each of us at most is an Ozymandias, or a Shelley, who wrote his famous sonnet before drowning at 29. Here it is:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I was the traveler on Saturday. New York was, for that day, my antique land. Around the Trainor graves Calvary seemed boundless, though hardly bare, covered by ranks of headstones, statues and thick granite houses for the above-ground dead: lifeless things, all. Lone it also seemed, since I saw not one other pedestrian (and just one other car) during the hours I wandered there, on a day that could hardly have been more sunny, mild and welcoming.

All of it seemed to certify, as does the hand of Ozymandias’ sculptor, the full depth of departure: that all will be forgotten, and only stone pedestals for absent memories will remain.

The job of the living, I believe, is to leave the world better than we found it. That’s all. Whether we do that job or not, we are still obliged to leave. That’s a lesson I learned from my mother, after she died:

So many times I think about something I’d love to share with Mom or Pop, then remember they’re gone. Often I hear Mom’s voice: firm, instructive and loving as ever. Give to the living, she says. That’s what love is for. Her lesson: Death makes us give love to the living. She was a teacher. Still is.

And so are they all, even if now we know next to nothing about them.

 

ice-floes-off-greenland(Cross posted from this at Facebook)

In Snow on the Water I wrote about the ‘low threshold of death” for what media folks call “content” — which always seemed to me like another word for packing material. But its common parlance now.

For example, a couple days ago I heard a guy on WEEI, my fave sports station in Boston, yell “Coming up! Twenty-five straight minutes of content!”

Still, it’s all gone like snow on the water, melting at the speed of short term memory decay. Unless it’s in a podcast. And then, even if it’s saved, it’ll still get flushed or 404’d in the fullness of time.

So I think about content death a lot.

Back around the turn of the millennium, John Perry Barlow said “I didn’t start hearing the word ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” Same here. But the container business now looks more like plumbing than freight forwarding. Everything flows. But to where?

My Facebook timeline, standing in the vertical, looks like a core sample of glacier ice, drilled back to 1947, the year I showed up. Memory, while it lasts, is of old stuff which in the physical world would rot, dry, disintegrate, vanish or lithify from the bottom up.

But here we are on the Web, which was designed as a way to share documents, not to save them. It presumed a directory structure, inherited from Unix (e.g. domain.something/folder/folder/file.html). Amazingly, it’s still there. Whatever longevity “content” enjoys on the Web is largely owed to that structure, I believe.

But in practice most of what we pile onto the top of the Web is packed into silos such as Facebook. What happens to everything we put there if Facebook goes away? Bear in mind that Facebook isn’t even yet a decade old. It may be huge, but it’s no more permanent than a sand dune. Nothing on the Web is.

Everything on the Web, silo’d or not, flows outward from its sources like icebergs from glaciers, melting at rates of their own.

The one exception to that rule is the Internet Archive, which catches as much as it can of all that flow. Huge thanks to Brewster Kahle and friends for giving us that.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts on digital mortality this morning.

As you were. Or weren’t. Or will be. Or not.

Bonus link: Locking the Web open.

The Giant ZeroMany years ago, Craig Burton shared the best metaphor for the Internet that I have ever heard, or seen in my head. He called it hollow sphere: a giant three-dimensional zero. He called it that because a sphere’s geometry best illustrates a system in which every end, regardless of its physical location, is functionally zero distance away from every other end. Across the nothing in the Net’s hollow sphere, every point can “see” every other point, and connect to it, as if distance were not there. And at no cost.

It doesn’t matter that the Net’s base protocol, TCP/IP, is not perfect, that there are costs and latencies involved in the operation of connections and routers between end points — and that many people in the world still do not enjoy the Net’s graces. What matters is that our species’ experience of the Net, and of the world it creates, is of zero distance and cost. You and I can publish posts like this one, or send emails to each other, or even have live video conference calls, with little if any regard for distance and cost.

Our experience of this is as essential to our future as the discovery of language and fire was to our ancestors. The Net has already become as essential to human agency — the capacity to act with effect in the world — as the wheel and movable type. We are not going to un-discover it.

Yes, companies and governments can control or access to the Net, and sphincter what passes through it; but it’s too late for anybody or anything to keep our species from knowing what it’s like to be zero distance apart at zero cost. We now have that experience, and we will use it to change life on Earth. Hopefully for the better.

The Giant Zero of the Net has an analogue with the physical world, whose gravity pulls us all toward an invisible center we can’t see but know is there. As with the Net’s zero, we live on Earth’s surface. The difference is that, on the Earth’s zero, distance matters. So does the inverse square law. Sound, sight and radio waves fade across distances. We need to be close to hear and see each other. Not so on the Net.

The Giant Zero is also the title of my next book. Until then, if you dig the metaphor, you might also source World of Ends or NewClues, both of which are co-written by David Weinberger. For now I just want to post this so I can source something simple about The Giant Zero in one link.

HT to @dweinberger: every hyperlink travels across the zero. And thanks to Hugh McLeod for the image above. Way back in 2004, I asked him to draw me the Internet, and that’s what he did. I haven’t seen anything better since.

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