Saturday, August 30, 2008

Basin and Range

I just finished reading (actually, re-reading) John McPhee's Basin and Range. The book, first published in 1980, is basically a series of reprints of articles that had previously appeared in The New Yorker. As a geology undergraduate at the time, the articles were extremely gratifying, lending an aura of much-needed glamour to the science and an almost "rock-star" persona to the geologists working in the field. Those issues of The New Yorker were passed around geology departments across the country, including mine at Boston University. Later, when the articles that would later be collected into McPhee's next book, In Suspect Terrain, began appearing in The New Yorker, those issues were passed around among the staff of the Georgia Geologic Survey, where I was working at the time.

I ran across a used copy of Basin and Range earlier this year at Portland's outstanding Powell's Bookstore, along with several other volumes of McPhee's work. The copy I bought was inscribed, "For Jen - here's hoping you have fun with geology. Dan." I can't speak for Jen, but during the 28 years since the book was published, I've made my living as a geologist, specifically an environmental hydrogeologist, and been having a lot of fun.

It's terms like "environmental hydrogeologist" that apparently endeared geology to McPhee. When I saw McPhee speak five years or so ago at The New Yorker Festival, he read from a chapter of Basin and Range:
"I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive. It was a fountain of metaphors - of isostatic adjustments and degraded channels, of angular unconformities and shifting divides, of rootless mountains and bitter lakes."

Indeed, McPhee's prose is almost poetic - all one needs to do is add line breaks at the appropriate places:

Stream Capture

Steams erode headwards,
Digging from two sides into mountains or hill,
Avidly struggling toward each other until
The divide between them broke down,
And the two rivers that did the breaking
Now become confluent.
One yielding to the other,
Giving up its direction of flow
And going the opposite way.

That's almost Zen. Consider his catalog of geologic terms that caught his interest:
Fatigued rock and incompetent rock,
And inequigranular fabric in rock.
Thrust fault, reverse fault, normal fault -
Two sides active in every fault.
Roof pendants in discordant batholiths, and
Mosaic conglomerates in desert pavement.
Festooned crossbeds and limestone sinks,
Pillow lavas and petrified trees.
Incised meanders and defeated streams.
Dike swarms and slickensides,
Explosion pits and volcanic bombs,
Pulsating glaciers and hogbacks,
And radiolarian ooze.

And he didn't even mention my favorite - the armored mudballs.

1 comment:

GreenSmile said...

McPhee's treatment of Alaska wasn't bad reading either...too bad the Republicans see AK in such a poor way.