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losgFables were once told to Wel­ling­ton school­chil­dren about a myth­ic city of hub­rist­ic civic bun­glers in towers of glass. Our story bent these towers by seis­mic assault: frac­tured them into razor-sharp bul­lets, per­for­at­ing the Golden Mile’s MPs and god-squad pamph­let­eers alike. This nightmare’s earth would crack and swal­low hun­dreds, belch­ing flam­ing clouds of immol­a­tion; elec­tri­fied tentacles would scourge the streets, before mighty Whā­taitai rose from his har­bour-bound tor­por to drown the city under tsunami. The sur­viv­ors would envy the dead, as we real­ised that this city was our own; and that the tale took place not in the mists of myth, but in an over­due future for which Wel­ling­ton knew neither the day nor the hour.

This fanci­ful tale took on real-world grav­itas in 2011 — when nature, in its viol­ent and ruth­less aspect, reared up to remind the humans of Christ­ch­urch that their ideas of stone-sol­id sta­bil­ity meant noth­ing next to the arbit­rary caprice of tec­ton­ic inter­play. Res­id­ents clung to the Apol­lo­ni­an pro­clam­a­tions of author­ity, even when these proved no more prac­tic­ally use­ful in find­ing a safe time or place than the lun­at­ic mean­der­ings of met­eor­o­lo­gic­al-sooth­say­er Ken Ring. But for the grace of God, Wel­ling­to­ni­ans might have finally had to break into their Civil Defence kits.

Pro­lif­ic his­tor­i­an Mat­thew Wright’s Liv­ing on Shaky Ground attempts to reclaim ter­rit­ory for the ration­al foes of nature’s fury. Once the sub­ter­ranean stir­rings of imprisoned gods, earth­quakes now ‘are’ a set pat­tern of seis­mo­lo­gic­al dis­turb­ance. The dis­tinc­tion is drawn between ‘what they used to think’ and ‘what we now know’, a rigid delin­eation that — while mean­ing­less to many caught between geo­lo­gic­al vicis­situde and gov­ern­ment­al indif­fer­ence — will doubt­less com­fort those to whom this ulti­mate upheav­al of mean­ing remains an inter­est­ing consideration.

Wright’s sur­vey of New Zealand’s seis­mic life is exhaust­ive, syn­thes­ising a huge body of detail and know­ledge. His treat­ment of the Christ­ch­urch events deserves par­tic­u­lar praise for telling human stor­ies without mak­ing recourse to the dreaded ‘resi­li­ence’ — a term that, for today’s Can­tab­ri­ans, stings with back­han­ded nuance. Wright’s sens­ibly apolit­ic­al stance at times verges on myopia (the index con­tains not a single entry for ‘frack­ing’), but the depth of sci­entif­ic and human dis­cus­sion is a cred­it to its author.

More unashamedly per­son­al accounts are among those offered by Once in a Life­time, launched at the Christ­ch­urch Writers and Read­ers Fest­iv­al. An impress­ive roster of con­trib­ut­ors — Helen Clark, Rebecca Macfie, loc­al treas­ure Gio­vanni Tiso, Ilam hero James Dann — offer voices and visu­al essays on the city’s com­munity and future. The fall of Christ­ch­urch offered sober­ing glimpses of what a Wel­ling­to­ni­an cata­strophe might entail; but it also shook from slum­ber a richly cre­at­ive and com­mun­al spir­it, worthy of enter­tain­ing by any­one alive to the time­less truth of impermanence.

[info]Living on Shaky Ground: The sci­ence and story behind New Zealand’s earth­quakes, Mat­thew Wright, Ran­dom House

Once in a Life­time: City-build­ing after dis­aster in Christ­ch­urch, edit­ors Barn­aby Ben­nett, James Dann, Emma John­son and Ryan Reyn­olds, Freer­ange Press[/info]

Tom Goulter

Tom is FishHead's book columnist. A Master's degree in Creative Writing from Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters launched Goulter on the life of an itinerant man of letters, wandering the fractious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were after, probably. Instead of getting shot by rednecks (yet), he returned to Wellington, where he essays semi-regularly into popular culture, psycho-geography, underground film-making, and the uncanny in all its myriad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Manners Street still had Crystal city on it.

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