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A pioneer of narrative nonfiction takes on his biggest topic: the history of the ground we stand on

By Sabine Hrechdakian

AUGUST 17, 1998: 

ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD, by John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 660 pages, $35.

A staff writer at the New Yorker since 1965, John McPhee is renowned for his lyrical portraits of difficult and sometimes arcane subjects: nuclear fission, the making of bark canoes, the aerodynamics of a wingless flying machine. Some 20 years ago, he decided to go on a road trip across the country, in the company of a learned and amusing bunch of geologists, to uncover the history of our continent as written in rock. The result was a series of New Yorker essays, later published as four books, that document his adventures down various segments of Interstate 80, a continent-long window into the "world as it was in other times." Annals of the Former World brings these books together in one revised and updated volume that includes a new section on a chunk of the landscape his previous essays overlooked.

What possessed McPhee to take up geology? He admits that "like all writing, writing about geology is masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor -- a description that intensifies when the medium is rock." Yet as a writer he was clearly drawn to its uniquely evocative language, in which he sees "a fountain of metaphor." Over the course of his travels, McPhee absorbs the language of abyssoliths and orogenies, oolites and batholiths, conodonts and dolomite; he learns to imagine time lines spanning more than 4 billion years. His technique -- part travelogue, part memoir, part scientific treatise -- takes us smoothly from portraiture to theory and from one historical period to another.

In exhaustive essays that cover five distinct landscapes -- the western desert, the Appalachians, the Rockies, California, and the midcontinent -- McPhee introduces readers to plate tectonics, the theory that the earth's crust is made up of sections whose movements cause mountains to form when they collide, oceans to rise when they part, and continents to drift over the millennia. The implications, he points out, are dramatic: "The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone." We learn how oil is discovered in rocks and how glacial geology has dictated the placement of golf courses and cemeteries. And we pick up plenty of fascinating factoids. Did you know that 91 percent of the world's oil in 1871 came from Pennsylvania? That the earth, like the ocean, moves up and down in response to the moon's pull? That Brooklyn is a pitted outwash plain deposited by the last retreating glacier?

All McPhee's talk of deep time, crusted deformities, and tectonic upheaval can make for rough going, but the sheer repetition of terms and concepts begins to make a dent after a while. McPhee's geologist sidekicks help, too. Spunky Anita Harris, who got into geology to escape New York City, hesitates to accept plate tectonics on faith, preferring to "begin with what she can touch, then reason her way back through time as far as she can go." Wyoming native David Love, a brooding loner in boots and a two-gallon Stetson, is a fierce defender of the wild who seems plucked from a Cormac McCarthy novel. Then there's Princeton professor Ken Deffeyes, whose "hair flies behind him like Ludwig van Beethoven," and Eldridge Moors, an expert on ocean-crustal rock who riffs on the formation of California and its inevitable dissolution.

Geology was named for Gaea, daughter of Chaos, which seems fitting given that geologists extract meaning and order out of a tumult of stone. This science erases our cultural boundaries and offers a view of life nearly alien in its level of abstraction. To look at 2.6 billion years of the earth's history exposed in a column of rock in Rawlins, Wyoming, lends new meaning to the words human insignificance. "On the geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about," McPhee observes. "The mind blocks the information." So he imagines geologic events played back at high speed:

If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, sea levels would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away. Yucatan and Florida would be under the sun one moment and underwater the next, oceans would swing open like doors, mountains would grow like clouds and come down like melting sherbet, continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks down an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden of fireflies.

Even at his most rapturous, McPhee never seeks to moralize. He rarely intrudes into the narrative, instead letting events and people speak for themselves. The trouble is that his fondness for the poetics of science can make for occasionally impenetrable reading. As gifted as McPhee is in transforming opaque subjects into engaging, uncluttered prose, he sometimes assumes too much of his readers. More explanation, more diagrams, or at least a glossary of terms would be helpful. Particularly in the final section -- the dullest to read, even though it contains important new information -- the book starts to feel like a never-ending road trip.

Still, these lapses are forgivable given the byzantine complexity of the subject. This collection is an extraordinary achievement; by the end of the book you will, as geologists like to say, have "done geology." The next thing is to rent a convertible and take off cross-country down Route 80, book in tow, for a mind-bending trip into the past.

Sabine Hrechdakian is the former managing editor of Terra Nova, a literary journal of nature and culture.

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