Dorothy and the Oklahoma Earthquakes

John R. Neill, illus. from "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz"

John R. Neill, illus. from “Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz”


Headlines we thought we would never see include this one from Wednesday’s on-line New York Magazine: 

Oklahoma Now No. 1 in Earthquakes.

Only for me, the news seemed vaguely familiar. That’s because, as a child, I read L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the fourth book in the Oz series.

To be sure, when I returned to the book I discovered that Dorothy must contend with earthquakes that are occurring in California, not in Kansas, so it’s not quite as appropriate as I thought. Still, watching a Midwesterner contending with earthquakes for the first time in her life must be what it was like for Oklahomans up until recently.

Of course, in Oklahoma the earthquakes are caused by humans. Here’s what’s happening and what’s causing them:

A spokesperson for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission — a regulatory body tasked with ensuring the safety of oil and gas exploration in the state — told the Enid Rotary Club that Oklahoma now experiences more earthquakes than anywhere else on planet Earth.

“We have had 15 [earthquakes] in Medford since 5 o’clock Saturday morning,” spokesman Matt Skinner said Monday, according to the EnidNews. “We’ve got an earthquake issue.”

That won’t be news to most Okies. Before the fracking boom kicked off in 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher per year. In 2014, the state was rattled by 585. As Rivka Galchen noted in The New Yorker in April, man-made earthquakes have become so common in the state, local weathermen often report the day’s seismic events along with the temperature.

The largest earthquakes are predominately caused by disposal wells, where the brackish water brought to the surface by oil and gas drilling is injected back into the earth, often by the billions of gallons.

In Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Dorothy and her Uncle Henry are returning to Kansas from Australia, which he has visited for health reasons. They stop over in California to visit with cousins, who regard earthquakes as routine:

“We had a lot of earthquakes,” said Dorothy. “Didn’t you feel the ground shake?”

“Yes; but we’re used to such things in California,” he replied. “They don’t scare us much.”

This particular set of earthquakes, however, sends Dorothy and Zeb into a underground world filled with vegetable people living in a glass city, invisible bears, dragons, and wooden gargoyles with detachable wings. The first quake they witness gives them a premonition of what’s to come:

The boy flicked the big, boney horse with his whip and looked thoughtful. Then he started to say something to his little companion, but before he could speak the buggy began to sway dangerously from side to side and the earth seemed to rise up before them. Next minute there was a roar and a sharp crash, and at her side Dorothy saw the ground open in a wide crack and then come together again.

“Goodness!” she cried, grasping the iron rail of the seat. “What was that?”

“That was an awful big quake,” replied Zeb, with a white face. “It almost got us that time, Dorothy.”

The next quake gets them:

Suddenly there was a rending, tearing sound, and the earth split into another great crack just beneath the spot where the horse was standing. With a wild neigh of terror the animal fell bodily into the pit, drawing the buggy and its occupants after him.

Dorothy grabbed fast hold of the buggy top and the boy did the same. The sudden rush into space confused them so that they could not think.

Blackness engulfed them on every side, and in breathless silence they waited for the fall to end and crush them against jagged rocks or for the earth to close in on them again and bury them forever in its dreadful depths.

For years I thought this is what an earthquake is like.

In a scene reminiscent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Dorothy and company drift slowly through thick air and find themselves in a glass city—whereupon they are held responsible for the damage wrought by falling stones.

They of course plead their innocence. For a while, fracking companies did the same:

“Tell me, intruder, was it you who caused the Rain of Stones?”

For a moment the boy did not know what he meant by this question. Then, remembering the stones that had fallen with them and passed them long before they had reached this place, he answered:

“No, sir; we didn’t cause anything. It was the earthquake.”

The man with the star stood for a time quietly thinking over this speech. Then he asked:

“What is an earthquake?”

“I don’t know,” said Zeb, who was still confused. But Dorothy, seeing his perplexity, answered:

“It’s a shaking of the earth. In this quake a big crack opened and we fell through—horse and buggy, and all—and the stones got loose and came down with us.”

The man with the star regarded her with his calm, expressionless eyes.

“The Rain of Stones has done much damage to our city,” he said; “and we shall hold you responsible for it unless you can prove your innocence.”

There’s no longer any doubt who’s responsible for Oklahoma’s “rain of stones.”

Oklahoma house hit by successive earthquakes this past weekend

Oklahoma house hit by successive earthquakes this past weekend

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