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11/30/2005

Pay Attention to Those Tall Tales

The November 27 Sunday New York Times magazine section
had a very long article on the experiences of a number of the
survivors in Banda Aceh of the earthquake/tsunami that hit the
region on December 26 last year. One of the survivors was
Jaloe, a 46-year-old fisherman who no longer fished but would
go out in his boat and bring back to market the excess fish from
other fishing boats. On that terrible day, he was out in his boat
when the sea suddenly began to shake up and down as though it
were boiling. Jaloe thought it was a ghost and called to someone
on another boat. One of the men on the boat correctly guessed
that there was an earthquake. After about 10 minutes the
“boiling” stopped and the sea was calm. However, Jaloe saw a
huge wave coming toward them.

I was impressed that Jaloe remembered his father telling him that
in such a situation it was best to head directly into the wave.
Jaloe did just that and, though his boat was lifted up at a 45-
degree angle, it remained upright. Jaloe survived three more
monstrous waves in that manner. Back on shore, the water
suddenly was sucked away from the shore, leaving lots of
floundering fish. Some people ran out to pick up the fish, only to
die when the tsunami rolled in. The Times article reminded me
of an article by Kevin Krajick in the November 4 issue of
Science. The article, titled “Tracking Myth to Geological
Reality”, mentioned that almost all of the Moken people of
Thailand, when they saw the sea recede, ran away from the beach
and survived the tsunami.

The Moken had a tradition that a man-eating wave followed a far
and fast receding of the sea. This long held tradition or myth
served them well last year. Are there other myths or traditions
that contain valuable truths that we would do well to pay close
attention to them? There seems to be a budding field of
“geomythology” springing up. For example, residents of Seattle
might do well to pay attention to legends about the spirit “a
‘yahos”, which has the body of a serpent and the antlers and
forelegs of a deer and haunts a certain boulder. The legend
among the old Duwamish people is that if you look at “a ‘yahos”
the earth will shake and you may turn into stone.

Obviously, this is ridiculous. However, seismologist Ruth
Ludwin and an unlikely partner, used-record store owner James
Rasmussen, of Duwamish extraction, joined forces to look for
the boulder and other sites of local legends. While the boulder
appears to have been replaced by a chair in front of a beach
house, they found that and the other sites lie along a very large
hidden fault crossing Seattle. This fault was discovered only
recently, in the 1990s, and geological evidence shows it was
responsible for an earthquake 1100 years ago that would have
leveled the Seattle of today! Since discovery of the fault, efforts
have begun to strengthen Seattle’s infrastructure against a repeat
quake, which could happen at any time. When I was in Los
Angeles in October I saw a local TV program on which a quake
expert of some sort was saying that the Los Angeles, with
surrounding terrain similar to that in Pakistan, was a disaster
waiting to happen. It seems that Seattle is in the same boat.

Ludwin also has published her research on dozens of aboriginal
legends about battles between great whales and thunderbirds that
parallel the occurrences of tsunamis rolling in along the coasts of
British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. The tsunamis have
occurred at 200 to 1000 year intervals and have buried native
villages in their paths, presumably spawning the legends.

Sometimes native legends prove more accurate than scientists in
dating geological events. One example cited by geoscientist
Patrick Nunn of Fiji concerns a native legend about a volcano on
the Fijian island of Kadavu. The natives there have a legend
about a big mountain popping up one night and are concerned
about recent rumblings in that mountain. Nunn and others
looked at the volcano and decided the myth must have arisen on
some other island. Their preliminary findings indicated the
volcano hadn’t erupted for about 50,000 years; Kadavu had only
been inhabited for 3,000 years. Later, however, excavations for
a road in the vicinity revealed a layer of ash covering shards of
pottery. The mountain had indeed “popped” in the not-too-
distant past!

Gases have been a source of myths. I’ve written earlier about the
disaster that killed 1700 people when Nyos, a crater lake in
Cameroon in Africa, “blew up”. Actually, the “explosion” was
due to a huge buildup of carbon dioxide in the depths of the lake.
The carbon dioxide erupted from the lake, suffocating those
unfortunate people in the surrounding area. Native taboos
against living near lakes in various regions are well founded and
indicate that eruptions of deadly gas have happened in the past.
Scientists now know that other lakes in Africa have the same
life-threatening buildups of carbon dioxide and attempts are
underway to vent the gas so as to avoid future catastrophes.

The South Pacific is loaded with myths and legends about the
fire god Pele and volcanic eruptions. Hawaii is especially useful
to geologists tracking legends because of the royal lineages there.
According to the Science article, the genealogies go back 95
generations. One myth about a more benign event is one that
deals with a human sacrifice (OK, that’s not so benign) during
the reign of a King Kakuhihewa. Legend has it that the sacrifice
was at dawn but was interrupted by giant owls flying across the
sun. Sure enough, when Bruce Masse of Los Alamos National
Lab looked into the number of generations and the NASA tables
of past events, there was a rare total eclipse of the sun over
Hawaii at sunrise on April 10, 1679. Those “owls” really did
fly! This legend illustrates how perfectly natural events can
become the source of myths, embellished by those unaware of
the true nature of the event.

Of course, not all myths are based on reality and over the
millennia there are probably many that originated with just a
good storyteller. The challenge is to separate out those myths
containing germs of truth from those based on fantasy. With the
coming of the Internet, we’ve seen myths appear before our very
eyes. How many of these “urban legends” have been debunked?
We even have Web sites devoted to the debunking of myths that
appear and get spread all over the world in minutes or hours.

I went online to find such a site and got directed to The History
Channel Web site and a couple articles that debunked some of
the myths about the first Thanksgiving. For example, the
Pilgrims did not wear black and white; those colors were
reserved for Sunday and not for festive occasions. The first
Thanksgiving was really part of a harvest festival. They did not
have buckled shoes – buckles came into fashion later in that
century. They also did not have turkey, cranberry sauce or
pumpkin pie. They had no forks but did use spoons and knives
and their hands. In those days, the food was typically just set out
on the table and the diners ate whatever items caught their fancy
or were closest to them – no courses.

My wife and I much prefer the modern version of Thanksgiving,
especially since Brian Trumbore took us and LT to his club for a
delightful meal in very pleasant surroundings. My wife didn’t
have to cook and I didn’t have to wash the dishes! Thank you,
Brian.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-11/30/2005-      
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Dr. Bortrum

11/30/2005

Pay Attention to Those Tall Tales

The November 27 Sunday New York Times magazine section
had a very long article on the experiences of a number of the
survivors in Banda Aceh of the earthquake/tsunami that hit the
region on December 26 last year. One of the survivors was
Jaloe, a 46-year-old fisherman who no longer fished but would
go out in his boat and bring back to market the excess fish from
other fishing boats. On that terrible day, he was out in his boat
when the sea suddenly began to shake up and down as though it
were boiling. Jaloe thought it was a ghost and called to someone
on another boat. One of the men on the boat correctly guessed
that there was an earthquake. After about 10 minutes the
“boiling” stopped and the sea was calm. However, Jaloe saw a
huge wave coming toward them.

I was impressed that Jaloe remembered his father telling him that
in such a situation it was best to head directly into the wave.
Jaloe did just that and, though his boat was lifted up at a 45-
degree angle, it remained upright. Jaloe survived three more
monstrous waves in that manner. Back on shore, the water
suddenly was sucked away from the shore, leaving lots of
floundering fish. Some people ran out to pick up the fish, only to
die when the tsunami rolled in. The Times article reminded me
of an article by Kevin Krajick in the November 4 issue of
Science. The article, titled “Tracking Myth to Geological
Reality”, mentioned that almost all of the Moken people of
Thailand, when they saw the sea recede, ran away from the beach
and survived the tsunami.

The Moken had a tradition that a man-eating wave followed a far
and fast receding of the sea. This long held tradition or myth
served them well last year. Are there other myths or traditions
that contain valuable truths that we would do well to pay close
attention to them? There seems to be a budding field of
“geomythology” springing up. For example, residents of Seattle
might do well to pay attention to legends about the spirit “a
‘yahos”, which has the body of a serpent and the antlers and
forelegs of a deer and haunts a certain boulder. The legend
among the old Duwamish people is that if you look at “a ‘yahos”
the earth will shake and you may turn into stone.

Obviously, this is ridiculous. However, seismologist Ruth
Ludwin and an unlikely partner, used-record store owner James
Rasmussen, of Duwamish extraction, joined forces to look for
the boulder and other sites of local legends. While the boulder
appears to have been replaced by a chair in front of a beach
house, they found that and the other sites lie along a very large
hidden fault crossing Seattle. This fault was discovered only
recently, in the 1990s, and geological evidence shows it was
responsible for an earthquake 1100 years ago that would have
leveled the Seattle of today! Since discovery of the fault, efforts
have begun to strengthen Seattle’s infrastructure against a repeat
quake, which could happen at any time. When I was in Los
Angeles in October I saw a local TV program on which a quake
expert of some sort was saying that the Los Angeles, with
surrounding terrain similar to that in Pakistan, was a disaster
waiting to happen. It seems that Seattle is in the same boat.

Ludwin also has published her research on dozens of aboriginal
legends about battles between great whales and thunderbirds that
parallel the occurrences of tsunamis rolling in along the coasts of
British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. The tsunamis have
occurred at 200 to 1000 year intervals and have buried native
villages in their paths, presumably spawning the legends.

Sometimes native legends prove more accurate than scientists in
dating geological events. One example cited by geoscientist
Patrick Nunn of Fiji concerns a native legend about a volcano on
the Fijian island of Kadavu. The natives there have a legend
about a big mountain popping up one night and are concerned
about recent rumblings in that mountain. Nunn and others
looked at the volcano and decided the myth must have arisen on
some other island. Their preliminary findings indicated the
volcano hadn’t erupted for about 50,000 years; Kadavu had only
been inhabited for 3,000 years. Later, however, excavations for
a road in the vicinity revealed a layer of ash covering shards of
pottery. The mountain had indeed “popped” in the not-too-
distant past!

Gases have been a source of myths. I’ve written earlier about the
disaster that killed 1700 people when Nyos, a crater lake in
Cameroon in Africa, “blew up”. Actually, the “explosion” was
due to a huge buildup of carbon dioxide in the depths of the lake.
The carbon dioxide erupted from the lake, suffocating those
unfortunate people in the surrounding area. Native taboos
against living near lakes in various regions are well founded and
indicate that eruptions of deadly gas have happened in the past.
Scientists now know that other lakes in Africa have the same
life-threatening buildups of carbon dioxide and attempts are
underway to vent the gas so as to avoid future catastrophes.

The South Pacific is loaded with myths and legends about the
fire god Pele and volcanic eruptions. Hawaii is especially useful
to geologists tracking legends because of the royal lineages there.
According to the Science article, the genealogies go back 95
generations. One myth about a more benign event is one that
deals with a human sacrifice (OK, that’s not so benign) during
the reign of a King Kakuhihewa. Legend has it that the sacrifice
was at dawn but was interrupted by giant owls flying across the
sun. Sure enough, when Bruce Masse of Los Alamos National
Lab looked into the number of generations and the NASA tables
of past events, there was a rare total eclipse of the sun over
Hawaii at sunrise on April 10, 1679. Those “owls” really did
fly! This legend illustrates how perfectly natural events can
become the source of myths, embellished by those unaware of
the true nature of the event.

Of course, not all myths are based on reality and over the
millennia there are probably many that originated with just a
good storyteller. The challenge is to separate out those myths
containing germs of truth from those based on fantasy. With the
coming of the Internet, we’ve seen myths appear before our very
eyes. How many of these “urban legends” have been debunked?
We even have Web sites devoted to the debunking of myths that
appear and get spread all over the world in minutes or hours.

I went online to find such a site and got directed to The History
Channel Web site and a couple articles that debunked some of
the myths about the first Thanksgiving. For example, the
Pilgrims did not wear black and white; those colors were
reserved for Sunday and not for festive occasions. The first
Thanksgiving was really part of a harvest festival. They did not
have buckled shoes – buckles came into fashion later in that
century. They also did not have turkey, cranberry sauce or
pumpkin pie. They had no forks but did use spoons and knives
and their hands. In those days, the food was typically just set out
on the table and the diners ate whatever items caught their fancy
or were closest to them – no courses.

My wife and I much prefer the modern version of Thanksgiving,
especially since Brian Trumbore took us and LT to his club for a
delightful meal in very pleasant surroundings. My wife didn’t
have to cook and I didn’t have to wash the dishes! Thank you,
Brian.

Allen F. Bortrum