Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Part 1)

annals“The world which we inhabit is composed of materials not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present but of the earth which. . .had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea while our present land was yet beneath the water of the ocean. Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration. . .the result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
– James Hutton, 1726-1797

I like to think of the world in other eras. The alien sweep of Pangaea. The frigid silence of glaciers blanketing the earth. Dinosaurs trudging through the the mud. Deserts that were swamps, mountains that were oceans. The incomprehensibility of deep time and the eons where no life stirred on earth. Or the sheer cataclysm of the great extinctions that wiped out most of cambrian life and later, the dinosaurs and their ilk. It evokes a sense of crushing awe. There’s a comfort in human insignificance, a giddiness to the unbelievably small time we’ve existed in earth’s history.

And, as John McPhee elucidates in this behemoth, there’s a poetry in geology absent in other sciences, save perhaps astrology. Metaphor is absolutely required.

Annals of the Former World is not just one book — it’s a collection of five books. Each book selects a different part of the US to focus on, generally tied to Interstate-80. I’m only about halfway through. I plan to expound upon the first two and a half books and write of the remainder at a later date.

 

Basin and Range

Basin and Range takes place in Nevada — the contiguous mountain ranges and intermediate basins that make up most of the state. At one point, western Nevada was the coastline of America, and it’s the prime suspect for where the country will tear in half in the distant future, first creating a facsimile of the Red Sea and later becoming an ocean in its own right. This is the future of the Red Sea and the past of the Atlantic Ocean, which began as a rent between conjoined North America and Africa.

McPhee’s journey takes him along I-80 through towns like Battle Mountain and Lovelock and Winnemucca. I’ve driven this road myself, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and it was fascinating to see the history, both human and geological, detailed for this region, which I mostly found to be dusty towns whose primary feature was impoverishment. Having a real-life experience of the land is extremely helpful, but even then I can typically only grasp the macro-level of the geology that McPhee is describing. The book is written for any audience and the history, the big picture descriptions of past and future oceans and mountains, the basins and ranges thrust up and down throughout the earth are clear. The smaller scale descriptions of sandstone and quartz and which era they came from are a bit muddy for me. I can start glazing over when there is too much discussion of the finer points of sediment deposits.

In between descriptions of the journey, the text is peppered with history lessons on how geology grew as a science — the great revolutions of geologists rejecting the notion of biblical time (4-6 thousand year old earth) and the Great Flood, which people took as outright fact through much of western history. Later, the theory of plate tectonics. Or the many missteps in between. In addition, McPhee works as a biographer to the geologists he invites on his journeys. Basin and Range features a man named Deffeyes, who is characterized a bit like an obsessed mad scientist, with poofy hair protruding from the sides of his hat. Deffeyes is outfitted with a deep understanding of the actual basin and range and a plan to strike rich by excavating old silver mines that birthed small towns in Nevada and later ruined them when the silver ran out… but only for their 18-19th century technology, not for today’s.

 

In Suspect Terrain

The subsequent book is significantly weaker, at least from the perspective that I value. It takes place in Pennsylvania and parts of New York or New Jersey — states I’ve spent very little time in and thus areas that I can’t visualize from my own memories. There’s a lot of minutia and not a lot of history. McPhee’s companion for this portion of the trip just isn’t as interesting or eccentric as the ones in the preceding or following texts. Her big thing is that she is a skeptic — the theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the science, but geologists start using it as the answer to everything, which clearly cannot be the case.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve already forgotten large swathes of In Suspect Terrain.

 

Rising from the Plains

I am only halfway through book three and it’s already my favorite thus far. It chronicles Wyoming, a place I’ve never visited but would like to. The Rocky Mountains used to be submerged in earth (sand, dirt, mud, rock), and before that they were at the bottom of the sea. There’s marine life buried in the rock, as well as tiny jaws and teeth to three toed horses, the first tiny predecessors to our modern day mounts. McPhee builds on the descriptive prose of the first two books and I can follow the lay of the land and its intricacies with far greater acuity. Or maybe I just got better at reading.

Interspersed with the geology is the history of a family. McPhee’s companion for this trip is David Love. His mother was a Wellesley graduate who became a school teacher in distant Wyoming in 1905, still the wild west, with students who had to travel sixty miles through devastating cold to reach the schoolhouse. She was an excellent writer and her captivating journals are excerpted throughout. Her husband and David’s father was a Wyoming cowboy, who spend at least one seven year stretch sleeping without a roof over his head, and was a miraculously successful homesteader in turn-of-the-century Wyoming, a land which is very cold much of year, reaches fifty below zero in winter, and has winds so powerful and unrelenting that houses with closed doors and windows fill with snow through cracks in the walls and keyholes.

The local and family history and how it entwines with the geology is masterful and I look forward to charging onward, both through millions of years of geological time and the infant history of inhospitable Wyoming.

 

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.

Part II continues here.

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