I tend to be overly in awe of the grandeur of nature anytime, but having a once-per-hundred-plus year earthquake and a once-per-fifty-year straight-up-the-Atlantic-coastline hurricane track brush my home within a six day period has only amplified that tendency. Neither event was strong here in the sense that many of you have probably experienced a hurricane or an earthquake from far closer to the scenes of devastation — and that certainly changes the emotional response from awe to fear or, unfortunately, anger, loss, and suffering. Indeed, the storm in particular has its own grieving victims today, and there are many such events, both natural and man made, happening on all scales as I write this.

Earthquakes with epicenters in the rocks of Central Virginia have been happening for an unimaginably long time. The fault that ruptured in a 5.8 magnitude earthquake — stop snickering, you Westerners — was created hundreds of millions of years ago in a process that took about 100 million years and resulted in the creation of the Appalachian Mountains at the center of a super-continent, called Pangaea, made up of most of today’s continents.

The Appalachians and their earthquakes were nothing worthy of a snicker then. The range, being created by the same continental collision process that continues to raise the Himalayas today, was as lofty as its modern Asian equivalent.

Eventually, the collision crumpled the continental edges as much above and below — like an iceberg afloat in the ocean, there is far more mountain below the surface than above it — the surrounding crust as possible. The collision ground to a halt. But the unending need of the earth to convect its internal heat to the surface forced the continents to find a new, less resistant direction in which to move within, oh, a few tens of millions of years.

Like North Africa and Arabia are doing in modern times, North and South America began to rotate away from each other, and then ripped apart from Africa. The North American separation occurred in the thinner crust to the east of the old suture, and the North Atlantic Ocean was formed as upwelling magmas steadily pushed the continents apart — and pushed against the old mountain chain, compressing it.

From then until now, the Appalachians have been eroding down to their roots, which rise to and above sea level as the mass above them is removed. Magma flows within the mantle of the earth change locally to fill in the space below.

The rate of erosion is unsteady;  it is highest when the mountains are high, and is influenced dramatically by the comings and goings of ice sheets and other climate changes. But eon after eon, mass is shifted across those old faults;  indeed, the Atlantic Coastal Plain and continental shelf are characterized by sediments that increase eastward to columns thousands of feet thick.This places more weight on blocks to the east even as mass is removed from the mountains themselves. Every so often the mountains have to ride up along one of those old faults under the shift in mass. The earthquakes are “unusual” in the sense of being “rare”, but not “unusual” in the sense of being “strange”.

Just as the earth must continually transfer heat from the interior to the surface through geological processes, the earth must continually transfer heat from the equator to the poles through atmospheric and oceanic circulation processes — like hurricanes.  So hurricanes have been around since before those East Coast faults first formed. Indeed, the last time the earth had no hurricanes was the last time the earth had no tropical waters warm enough to drive hurricane formation, perhaps 630 million years ago. At that time, there was extensive glaciation even on equatorial continents.

But where hurricanes form and where they track varies with climate cycles that we are just beginning to understand. There is no way to know for sure, but the most recent pattern in the Atlantic may have persisted with only minor variation since the end of the last Ice Age. Hurricane landfalls on the United States now seem to regularly oscillate between periods when they strike the Gulf Coast and when they strike the East Coast. The target zones switch every 25-30 years. I’m now feeling I have a bullseye on my back until my daughter is old enough to retire.

So part of the human experience even in the most developed nation in the most modern of times is to still find yourself confronted by the knowledge that the forces of nature — let alone the forces of economics, or political upheavals, or the processes of disease, or of aging or of loss of loved ones — are not within our control. It doesn’t take a Japanese tsunami or an Arab Spring to overturn one’s world. It has always been so, and it won’t change any time soon, as much as we wish we could find a formula of politics or faith that would place us in control and make us safe. We share that human trait with ancestors from long ago who huddled in caves.

We keep discovering how much we share with those humans from tens of thousands of years ago.  In February, 2010,

Genevieve von Petzinger, a graduate student at the University of Victoria, published research in which she called attention to the commonality of symbols found on multiple continents over long periods of time from 30,000 to 13,000 years ago in association with clearly realistic cave paintings of such things as animals on which the artists preyed. The research has apparently held up; two months ago, she was named to be a prestigious international fellowship, which is a pretty strong academic endorsement for an MS thesis.

A summary notes that the persistence of the symbols, and their use as pairs (and occasionally doubled-pairs), even as the realistic elements of the art changed with culture and era, implies their special significance to the artists:

“At least 19 of the symbols were used frequently in far-flung caves over thousands of years, which suggests they represent abstract ideas such as life, love, higher power and death. It also suggests that Ice Age humans – who fall in the range of modern humans – agreed on some common meaning for the code.”

You can see how different the symbols are from the artwork in the gallery here.

I have written elsewhere of how it makes sense for those who believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon to accept its earliest portion, in the Book of Ether, as an oral tradition based on real events at the end of the last Ice Age.  (Chronological problems become Biblical chronology problems Mormons have unwittedly carried over, but are not intrinsic to the Book of Ether itself.) It is not my point to further discuss BofM historicity here, but simply to note how easily we can see our common humanity with Ice Age peoples when we see them in a sympathetic context. They sought meaning and struggled with life as we do.

How much more then should we see our common humanity with people scattered across the earth today, and not be distracted from compassion toward them.

Perhaps earthquakes and great storms are gifts from God – not because He causes them for some specific reason, and certainly not as some specific punishment, since they’ve been happening for hundreds of millions of years before there was anyone around to be chastised. Rather, they are gifts because they remind us of our common humanity and give us a chance to embrace it rather than be lost in our daily lives or in pursuing the next life. Perhaps when we respond, we are healed as persons and as a nation. Perhaps when we lose that capacity to be continually moved to compassion, we are ripening to destruction.

From Laura Story:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace.

Comfort for family, protection while we sleep,

We pray for healing, for prosperity.

We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering,

And all the while You hear each spoken need,

You love us way too much to give us lesser things.