Basin and Range

I’ve just read John McPhee’s Basin and Range for my book club. It’s not an easy book to summarize. Part itinerant tour of America’s geology, part history of geological theories, part dreamlike, hypnotic reflection on the formation of the world, it’s a mixture of nonfiction and beautiful prose that’s reminiscent of Carl Sagan.

First, the style. McPhee’s vocabulary is staggering, and he employs geological and paleontological terms without reticence (the pages are littered with words like paleoniscid, diabase, riparian, epicratonic, morainal). Yet this does not detract from the effect of the prose, rather imbuing the language with a mysterious power. I found it best to note down the most curious incantations for later study, and was duly rewarded by a sea of blue wikipedia links in which to lose myself.

His progression through ideas is so discursive that it sometimes verges on free association (or even drug logic), but this only intensifies the trance state which is so conducive to his evocation of imagery. Dramatic scenes rise suddenly from his pages, much like the bursting mountains he describes: the Donner party, the boom and bust of silver mining in 19th century Nevada, ghost towns, salt flats, primitive creatures, ocean trawlers, all surface like temporary geological features and are gone. The poetry of his prose is reminiscent of Nabakov’s, possessed of an utter vivacity, which makes for a lively journey even as it brings the living earth to life.

“If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”

And in McPhee, the earth is painfully alive. “Geologically active” does not do his earth justice. He presents visions of the Sierras’ gradually looming over and choking off Nevada’s water, of the cycle continuing in the next millions of years to make Nevada an ocean and California an island, of land thrust to the heavens, plunged into trenches, stretched to breaking point. Of mountain ranges being smashed into other mountains, millions of years younger, and flipped on their sides in a petrified embrace. Of the ocean floor recording its age like the rings of a tree; of the continent of India smashing with furious momentum into Tibet, thrusting the Himalayas ever skyward. He makes geology thrilling, breathtaking, transcendental; more importantly, he makes you feel that it always was so, and it’s only a matter of perspective. Evangelism for the relative eternity of earth.

When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had formed into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. 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.

He, and the geologists who enter the text (both from history and from his life), have a completely different perception of the fixity of reality, of the fluidity of time. They distinguish millions of years between outwardly identical rock based on the age of the bizarre, extinct creatures embedded in them. More than once McPhee resurrects whole ecosystems killed off in a Permian or Cretaceous extinction, in vivid images, to explain how geological features were dated.

But he also presents a comprehensive and compelling history of the science itself. He’s able to dramatize the shift from Neptunism (Werner’s theory that continents are formed of crystallizing minerals from diluvian oceans) to Plutonism (Hutton’s theory that land forms from volcanic activity). To the heretofore geologically disinclined, it would be an academic debate, but here it is presented as high drama, a scientific coup de grâce, a Copernican revolution: as Catholics imprisoned Galileo for questioning geocentric theory, Protestants ostracised Hutton for asserting that we are adrift in time. To their homo-centric minds, which had imagined a palatable six thousand years, Hutton gave the chilling and killing riposte: “The result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

McPhee does justice to an incomprehensible amount of data by keeping it imposing, colossal, monstrous even. I look forward to reading more of his geological writing in the collection (which I’m excited to see is on Audible) Annals of the Former World. ★★★★★

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