John McPhee, Basin and Range

Earlier this year I remarked briefly on my surprise that I hadn't commented on John McPhee's wonderful book The Pine Barrens, even though I'd enjoyed it immensely. It's kind of a combination between environmental history, near-home anthropology, and memorial to an almost Cracker way of life in a forested region of New Jersey. It's well worth your time, for McPhee's engaging prose style (and personal style, for that matter), and it prompted me to read more of his catalogue.

Up next was Basin and Range, since I thought that at one-third the length, it'd be an easier read than his 700-page Annals of the Former World, even though I knew both of them were about geology, loosely organized around US highway I-80. Turns out that it's actually the first third of the longer book: complete in itself, but part of a larger whole. Obsessive as I am, I'll have to wade through the remaining 500 pages this summer, but I'm okay with that. It's a terrific read, almost enough to make me think I should have considered geology more seriously as a career!

And as it happens, that's part of McPhee's mission in the book. Well, no, actually it's the classroom mission of Kenneth Deffeyes, at that time a geology prof at Princeton, and now one of the leading prognosticators of the "peak oil" theory (to which I subscribe, so those aren't scare quotes, just regular quotation marks giving a phrase a hug). Much of the book recounts McPhee's journeys with Deffeyes, sometimes in search of silver, sometimes merely observing roadcuts and other access points to geology in the western US, basically from Great Salt Lake west. The book's goal is to give its readers an overview of geological theory, including a sense for how the theory developed over time, along with some place-specific descriptions of specific geological features to help make sense of it all.

The writing isn't for everyone, I should say. The paragraphs get long, as the book rolls on, sometimes lasting for two full pages. There are lengthy lists of specialized terminology that it'd be madness to pay close attention to. McPhee's persistent recursion to the marvellous concept of geological time is off-putting, if you think you're okay with the concept.

But it's written this way because McPhee wants to remind us just how new some of geology's thinking was in 1981, when Basin and Range came out. It was less than 200 years since serious people thought the planet was less than 6000 years old, for example; people born in the 1970s and after don't realize, either, that the whole theory of plate tectonics developed during the ten years between 1957 and 1967. The newness of plate tectonics as a theory is what I found shocking, not the sense of geological time, but I suppose that in 1981, a lot more of his readers would still have been far newer to plate tectonics and its associated effects than someone my age or younger.

(I wonder what McPhee would do if he wrote about evolution and/or intelligent design, speaking of theories about which people can go mad.)

For much of the book, McPhee explains how different locations earned their shape today as a result of successive, cataclysmic change. Tectonic plates crash into each other, blocks of the earth's crust turn slowly on end or upside down, seismic faults open up in the earth as visible cracks, the floor of the ocean is swept clean, and so on. New crust grows at the edges of plates that are crashing into their neighbours, on the opposite side from where they're being stretched thin. Low ground is raised up, and high ground is brought low. Everything changes, absolutely everything. A metaphor for geological time: look at the palm of your hand, from wrist to fingertips. Use a nail file briefly on the end of your longest finger. Well, you've just deleted the portion of the hand corresponding to the duration of human history.

It's a brilliant work of natural history, not unchallenging but remarkably clear and personable nonetheless. There's a sense throughout Basin and Range of John McPhee as just some guy trying to put words to ideas that he adores for their remarkable fitness to the material, non-imagined world, and he can turn a sentence beautifully. Read the book, if you have any interest at all in the remarkable western US landscape, or in geology more generally, or if you'd like to see how natural history is done by someone prepared also to write about the writing of natural history:
"If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone." (p.183)


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