Reflections On Ruins

Kage Baker loved to explore ruins. But she hated disaster footage.

She was fascinated with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake all her life – part of her also life-long romance with The City, and one she would  weave firmly into her Company universe in the novella Son, Observe the Time. She researched it in obsessive detail; we drove many complex routes through San Francisco, tracing extinct streets and searching for the footprints of destroyed buildings, until Kage had a map of The City a hundred years ago clear in her head. But the first time she watched the 1936 movie San Francisco, she burst into hysterical tears.  There are several rare, invaluable films of the disaster in progress, or its aftermath – it took Kage years to work up the courage to watch them. Even the stills upset her.

On the other hand, she romped eagerly through the ruins of the Sutro Baths out at the ocean end of San Francisco, as well as the park that surrounds the ruins of Adolph Sutro’s own palatial house across the street. The Hollywood Hills, where we grew up, are full of shattered foundations and crumbling walls – Kage knew them all, they were her playground. Ruins appealed to both the pirate and the archeologist in her. It was the process of things becoming ruins that upset her so badly.

Kage had the native Californian’s sang froid about being in an earthquake. She’d roll over and sit up (they seem to occur disproportionatly pre-dawn) and state, “Maybe a 6. Maybe a high 5. Do we have power? Turn on the computer, let’s check it out.” Her guesses on magnitude were usually right – you get a feel for these things, you really do – and it was all accepted as just a part of life. We’re pretty used to the hills dancing, in California.

But she couldn’t bear watching the footage on the evening news of the same quake she’d just blithely shrugged off. Being in a shaking building was simply one of those things. Watching buildings come down around you – that was a violation of natural order. I don’t pretend to understand it, I just learned not to linger on earthquake or bomb footage while channel surfing.

When huge and appalling disasters happened in the world – like Aceh, like Japan – Kage would follow the news anxiously: but while she wanted information, graphs and charts and such, she didn’t like the live footage. She had to steel herself and work up to watching it; some things, she never did watch. I know that she could not have watched the Sendai footage as the tsunami rolled over the rice fields; had she seen, as I did, the cars that drove blindly into the waves’ path and vanished, she wouldn’t have slept for days. (And I must admit, my sleep has been troubled mightily by that image ever since.)

And … she’d be fretting something awful now. The Ring of Fire seems to be sputtering to life all around the Pacific Rim. California is part of that; but we haven’t had much to comfirm our membership lately. Is the San Andreas getting ready to boogie down through the Central Valley? Will the Bulge at Mammoth Lake pop? Mounts Shasta, Lassen, and Ranier could all decide to return to an active phase. And then there is Yosemite, under which sleeps uneasily a Sea of Fire.

Seismologists monitor the natural gas bubbles in the La Brea Tar Pits these days – the bubbles in the tar are taken as seismic precursors. That amused Kage no end; but then, growing up here, seeing the Mastadon Family perpetually having their day ruined at La Brea (“George! Throw me the keys!”), we children of the Basin have a tendency to giggle at gas jokes. Especially after that day the methane reservoirs under Wilshire sent a Ross Dress For Less to the moon and hundreds of blue flames rose up through the pavements of Fairfax like ghostly flowers.

So Kage would have done what she always did in these awful disasters: averted her eyes from the ghastly pictures from Japan, while demanding I describe them to her. Read the text accounts, studied the graphs, raged about the callous and self-righteous and fearmongers. Made donations and notes and a novena.

And maybe we’d have driven out to some of the hot springs and tar seeps that dot the hills around Pismo Beach (there are lots) and cast a few roses from our garden into the steaming water. It never hurts, Kage believed, to offer a little attention to the giants under the earth.

George, throw me the keys!

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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