The foundations that dig into the steep hillside and the pipes that weave underground passages merely scratch the surface of the faulted landscape underlying the University of Utah. The campus is a façade. Here, a short history of colonial time stretching back less than 200 Christian years lies atop the ancient geologic strata of Basin and Range’s easternmost crack. Not even the descendants of the first Mormon pioneers who crested the mountains with Brigham Young have roots deep enough to remember the last time the Wasatch Fault slipped, circa 900 AD. Who walked here then? Perhaps the ancestors of Utes and Shoshones recall such a tremble. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the memory of the last earthquake that tore across the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch Fault disappeared with the Fremont people who left shards of broken pottery in Utah’s desert caves.
In the aftermath of the San Fernando Valley earthquake of 1994, Los Angeles hospitals saw a surge of people with shards of broken glass lodged into their bare feet. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck at night. Jolted from their beds, shoeless Angelenos stumbling in the darkness had no defense against the shatters left in the wake of the earthquake.
The Utah Seismic Safety Commission reminds us that “the infrastructure we rely upon can be fragile in ways we may not understand until after it is damaged or disabled in an earthquake.” It is very difficult to know what will happen to a building or a city when an earthquake occurs, especially in a place like Salt Lake City where none of the buildings have ever been tested by a major earthquake. While California has seen over and over what happens to buildings, bridges, and freeways when earthquakes strike, Utah doesn’t have that infrastructural memory. In the absence of an earthquake’s instruction, we rely on models and probabilities.
It wasn’t until 1996 that paleoseismologists published reports projecting the likelihood of a magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake along the Wasatch Fault, highlighting the likelihood that an earthquake of this scale will soon tear through the University of Utah campus. The seismic codes governing the design and construction of the LNCO (Language & Communication) building are dated a decade prior to these findings and do not reflect such information.
No amount of city, emergency, or household planning can possibly anticipate the disaster scenarios that will mushroom out of a major earthquake. The weather, the exact size and location of the earthquake, the moisture in the soil, and the amount of people in the city can all change the circumstances of a seismic catastrophe for better or worse. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, hit the Bay Area during the World Series—a life-saving coincidence. The game had shifted rush hour earlier in the afternoon, so by the time the magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit, traffic on the fragile freeways was much lighter than normal. Imagine how different an earthquake scenario would play out in Salt Lake City when school is in session versus when it isn’t, during a winter storm, heatwave, or inversion, or during the Sundance Film Festival. What coincidences will define our earthquake?
Writers, artists, and builders have long struggled to transcend the ephemeral march of time. To extend our experience and knowledge beyond our mortal lives, we have carved, crafted, excavated, erected, buried, built, sung, spoken, and written. By doing so, we send messages and metaphors forth into the vast and inscrutable future in hopes our experiences will be remembered, repeated, and celebrated by our progeny.
The words “memory,” “remember,” “commemorate,” “memorial,” “mnemonic,” and “memento” are all Latinate derivatives relating to recollection and preservation of the dead, and stem from etymological constructions of “mind.” “Memento” connects us to the word “moment,” meaning a period of time with a distinct beginning and end: discrete time. “Moment” is the basis for “momentum,” which denotes movement, revolution, and continual force. The language of time and mind are intertwined.
Human time exists alongside seismic time like clock hands which haven’t crossed for centuries. These days, the hour of their intersection ticks ever closer. Time’s arrow might see the Utah desert bloom under Mormon rule, but time’s cycle continues to pull the Wasatch and Oquirrh Ranges apart, earthquake after earthquake. How can we braid the march of time together with its revolution?
Perched on the dangerous juncture of human and tectonic systems, LNCO sits among the tensions and nonconformities that arise when, as Rob Nixon writes, “we all inhabit multiple temporal orders that often coexist in frictional states, shifting and sliding like tectonic plates.”
The languages, architectures, and landscapes we each encounter in our short lives tie us to eras, generations, and moments past. Language accumulates fragments of meaning throughout its oscillating journey from tongue to text. The scaffolding of our language resembles the structure of our seismic earth. Our words contain many layers of cultural strata just as the foundation of LNCO’s architecture unites a passage through a stairwell with the ancient sediments of Lake Bonneville and etched scars of earthquakes long ago. The Wasatch Fault earthquake, coiled like a mythic rattlesnake underfoot, is poised to strike anytime now. When it lurches forth, it will be something utterly new and entirely ancient. Never before has this city seen such force released from the bedrock upon which the holy temple of the Latter-day Saints rests. Yet the bedrock itself is rehearsing old patterns, retracing ancient tracts. It has shaken before. It will shake again.
How will the twisting halls and hidden stairwells of LNCO look after the earthquake? Maybe the earthquake will set the labyrinth of hallways straight.
As the Wasatch Mountains rise ever higher, we are tasked with dismantling our labyrinths, forging clearer pathways, and learning to dwell among such intermingled and irrevocable passages of time. We must prepare to walk among the rubble. Put on your shoes.
Hannah Smay is a writer, environmental advocate, and earthquake scholar. Hannah earned a BA from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and went on to receive her MS in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah. She lives and works in central Idaho. b. 1994