Monday, December 6, 2010

John McPhee

Yesterday I picked up a dogeared paperback copy of A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee's first book, his classic 1965 study of Bill Bradley as a basketball player. Within seconds I was rapt in the prose of this master of "explanatory journalism," a weak and clumsy phrase for the magic he creates.

It reminded me that over the years I've reviewed several of his books, but the only such notice that seems to survive on the Web is this one of
Assembling California, a book in which he brilliantly brought the difficult subject of plate tectonics to life for the common reader:

By Henry Kisor
Chicago Sun-Times, February 7, 1993

By the second page of his newest book, John McPhee drops on the reader's foot the word "lithosphere." Not for 10 more pages does he apologize by way of explanation: the lithosphere is "crustal rock and mantle rock down to a zone in the mantle that is lubricious enough to allow the (Earth's) plates to move."

This is McPhee's way of warning readers that they won't be spoon-fed the science in Assembling California (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21). To understand it, you have to pay attention, to concentrate. I did, and found the rewards great.

Assembling California is the fourth and last volume of McPhee's paean to geology, Annals of the Modern World. The others are Basin and Range (1980), In Suspect Terrain (1982) and Rising from the Plains (1986). Most of the challenging text of all four appeared in the New Yorker and confounded many readers, this one included. It's easier to concentrate on a book than on an article in the narrow columns of a magazine, in which there are just too many distractions, like ads and cartoons.

These books - actually marvels of literary economy and clarity - are all about plate tectonics, or the collisions of vast chunks of Earth, in which continents, mountain ranges and valleys have been created in a never-ending rearrangement ever since the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea many eons ago. A dry subject? Not in McPhee's hands. He gives it all the liveliness of rock 'n roll, because that's exactly what the ground does under our feet when pieces of the lithosphere collide and grind past one another.

Not that the Terran Two-Step kicks up dust every day, at least in our limited appreciation of time. McPhee distinguishes between human time (measured in hundreds of years) and geologic time (measured in hundreds of millions of years). What interests him - and ultimately us - are the points where the two time scales intersect.

To help us understand those points, McPhee enlists a geologist. Geologists are like dermatologists, McPhee writes in one of his many happy metaphors; they "crawl around like fleas on the world's tough hide," trying to "figure out what makes the animal move."

Eldridge Moores is the son of a miner, an accomplished cellist, and a geologist at the University of California at Davis. In his car (which bears the bumpersticker "Stop Continental Drift"), Moores takes McPhee and the reader westward over outcrops and through roadcuts on Interstate 80 over the Sierra Nevada. In this way we learn how pieces of Earth fused over the eons to form California.

On Donner Pass we encounter a quadrillion-ton batholith, a 40-square-mile, bottomless chunk of granite vomited up from the ocean floor as molten magma some 80 to 200 million years ago. A few miles farther west geologic time encounters human time in Gold Rush country, where we learn how 19th century miners used hydraulic artillery - 120-m.p.h. jets of water - to carve away entire mountains and get at gold deposited eons ago.

We learn how the sea floor, spreading slowly up and out of deep fissures, shoved the irresistible Pacific Plate up against the immovable slab of North America, carrying with the flow smaller irregular pieces that jumbled up and became the Sierras, the Central Valley and the Coast Range. They're still grinding against one another along several seams, one of which is called the San Andreas Fault.

The faults are not clean breaks but complex and imperfectly mapped frontiers. Nature is nothing if not messy, and that's one reason why the theory of plate tectonics, which is only about 25 years old, is constantly being revised.

Why should we be so interested in plate tectonics? If you live in California, or anywhere else earthquakes are common, it'll help you understand what's going on under your feet even though there may not be much you can do about it, except go someplace else. The best chapter of Assembling California is the last one, McPhee's step-by-step retelling of the state's brief but violent disassembly along the San Andreas Fault in October, 1989. As the Pacific Plate took a seven-foot leap north, "21,000 homes and commercial buildings were cracked, crumpled, or destroyed, and nature's invoice for a few moments of shaking was six billion dollars."

And the Big One is yet to come. When and where? Hard to say. Within 20 years, maybe. In human terms, that's a long time, but in geologic time, it's a micromillisecond. McPhee's genius is to show us the difference and what it means. And that meaning? Why, nothing more than what happens when humans try to outguess the gods that live deep in the Earth.

In McPhee's hands, geology isn't something that happened millyuns and millyuns of years ago, as the TV popularizer Carl Sagan gushed. It's happening right now, even if your attention span is too short for you to grasp that fact quickly.


  1. Thanks for this! I'm a great McPhee fan, but missed this book when it came out. Going to fix that now.

  2. Sorry, Henry, McPhee's geology books were just too dusty for me. Like his other stuff, though.
    Joe M.