Embracing Your Seismic Self: nurturing your inner bowl of Weetbix.

The iconic Edmonds Guide to Liquifaction

The iconic Edmonds Guide to Liquifaction

You can live without earthquakes. I say this as someone who has backed away from the angry edge of a tectonic plate and moved to Australia. Australia forgoes earthquakes for the merriment of periodically being burned alive in your bed.

I thought I’d miss the odd quake but I was surprised how quickly one adjusts to not sliding from side to side like an tidal whelk at a 90s dance party.

I’ve experienced my fair share of earthquakes. I’ve lived in Wellington, Greymouth and Christchurch. Residents of both Wellington and Greymouth are well accustomed to jiggling around with their fellow countrymen like meaty fleas on a tectonic dog.

Cantabrians, on the other hand, aren’t. Or they weren’t. Until all of a sudden they were.  And it came as a hell of a shock. You see, Cantabrians were heavily invested in a comforting fallacy – that Christchurch didn’t get earthquakes.

As a kid in Greymouth, this was just part of the city’s appeal. Christchurch was something of an Eldorado – a genteel city where the sun always shone, bubble gum didn’t taste like coal grit and people mowed their lawns without a goat. Serious lifestyle risks were limited to getting a nasty sunburn or an Exponents song stuck in your head. It went without saying that Christchurch was immune to tectonic outbursts.

You might think I’m being flippant, but this view about Christchurch was as firmly held as it was ubiquitous, (especially the part about the Exponents). People genuinely thought that Christchurch ‘didn’t get earthquakes’. After all, ‘There hadn’t been one in living memory’.

It didn’t take me long to get suspicious of this myth. Fresh off the boat from Greymouth, whose two main exports are coal and mercury poisoning, ‘living memory’ is a fungible concept. The ‘no earthquakes’ idea is also unfeasible. After all, New Zealand is little more than the scab of two fractious bits of planet. Why should Christchurch remain unaffected?

A spot of research revealed that parts of Christchurch were in fact reduced to rubble in 1881, 1869, 1888, when severe earthquakes, estimated at about FUCK FUCK and FUCK! respectively on the ChristAlmighty scale hit North Canterbury. Those earthquakes might not have been ‘in current living memory’ but neither was Parihaka, the Mt Tarawera eruption or Gallipoli and no-one seems to be ironing over them in a hurry.

It’s an interesting omission, especially given New Zealanders taste for ‘history making’, where any and all of the most unremarkable of daily occurrences are seized upon as part of the ‘nation’s rich tapestry’. As a ‘young’ colonial country everything from failed military campaigns to biscuit wrappers is venerated, and at times reinvented, in the service of a (somewhat confected) ‘Nationhood’. As anyone who has visited Te Papa lately will attest, the ‘Kiwi’ section looks like an abandoned cargo cult before the cleaners came through*.

Given all that, where’s the backlit display box housing three petrified squares of ginger crunch rescued from Mrs Wilson’s Sydenham kitchen following the 1888 Canterbury earthquake? Or perhaps a dusty chunk of chimney? Or even the top of the Christchurch cathedral? They could actually use that. (For those currently advocating the rebuild of the Christchurch cathedral as a repository of the city’s history and traditions, it’s worth noting that it’s been substantially rebuilt once already. Perhaps the most enduring historical tradition associated with the Christchurch cathedral is the desire to perpetually rebuild it after a massive fucking earthquake).

Why have these Christchurch earthquakes been ‘forgotten’? And, more importantly, did this ‘forgetting’ lead to Christchurch’s love of stone masonry where other New Zealand cities opted for safer timber?

Wellington was also shaken to its foundations at the end of the 19th century. Unlike Christchurch, however, its residents abandoned the glorious Empire-ey aesthetic of stone and built the city out of timber instead. Timber, you see, wobbles. Wellingtonians didn’t ‘forget’.

In Wellington earthquakes remain a quintessential part of the city’s idiom, no matter how infrequent. I think perhaps it’s their constant presence – Wellington has always had little shakes. No-one ‘likes’ them, but they’re part of life’s general unpleasantries, like spiders or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Conversations are halted at the first signs of shaking. All eyes turn to the house’s earthquake gauge, a lampshade, sturdy vase or jar of pickled onions. Is it…. wobbling?

In our freezing, dilapidated flat wedged into the slippery crack of a dark suburban valley we watched the contents of a half-empty bong lurch from side to side like a septic metronome. Earthquakes are an insidious, enervating and utterly unavoidable part of everyday life in Wellington, like southerlies or breakfast programming on ZM (also rated on the ChristAlmighty scale).

I wonder, if Wellingtonians had been granted a short reprieve from earthquakes, would they have been as quick to forget about them as Cantabrians?


*Many, many things about Te Papa are fabulous, especially the natural history exhibits that succeed in the challenge of engaging kids. But as a New Zealander I have to say that the new, white-people history part is depressing and not my cup of tea (there’s an entire wing for them). 


1 thought on “Embracing Your Seismic Self: nurturing your inner bowl of Weetbix.

  1. Pingback: Cautionary tale… | The Mutton Flap

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