12 October 2008

Encounters with the Arch-essayist

John McPhee won the Pulitzer in 1999 for his compendium Annals of the Former World. In the 1980s, Mr. McPhee travelled across America along the I-80 corridor in the company of geologists. The result was a series of books: Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising From the Plains. I was a McPhee fan from my Berkeley days, having devoured his engaging Coming into the Country, a rough-hewn history of Alaska, and his quirky and provocative Encounters with the Archdruid, a character study of David Brower, at the time an icon of the environmental movement. McPhee always appealed to me as an American Rennaissance Man--outdoorsman, naturalist, historian, prose master, and amateur scientist. His essays in Table of Contents ranged from mini-hydroelectric generators to Senator Bill Bradley to a den of wintering bear cubs. Like me, he was interested in everything, and found delight in the stubborn irascibility and boundless optimism of his fellow Americans.

In 1987 I took a few field trips with a bunch of physical science teachers as part of a series of courses offered through UC Davis. We accompanied our geology professor, Eldridge Moores, on a bus ride through the Sierra foothills. He was energetic to the point of hyperactive, and enthusiastic to the point of fanaticism. We loved him. He warped our minds with a journey through time and space on his pet subject, "ophiolite suites." We got subduction zones, orogeny, ore deposits, and island arcs. We stood on sea-floor rocks a thousand feet and a hundred miles from the sea. It was great stuff. Geology is akin to picking up crumbs from a decades-old seven-course meal and re-creating the recipes. There is so little left of what went before that it strains credulity to create a picture of how it got there. Sherlock Holmes was the prince of deduction. Geologists are the kings of inductive logic--building theories with evolution's crustal remants that reach back to the beginning of time.

Dr. Moores went to Princeton, like McPhee. In 1993, McPhee's Assembling California was published. This was to be the final volume of the geologic cross-section that had started over a decade before. Who had McPhee selected as his mentor for the ultimate portion of his cross-country trek? Moores, naturally. I felt an immediate kinship for Assembling California, of course, and I knew that some day I would complete the series. Fortunately, a new but cheap hardcover copy of Annals dropped into my lap recently (thanks to Edward R. Hamilton). I just finished the first few hundred pages, covering the Basin and Terrain. This re-organization of the books includes a new preface, updates, corrections, and a fifth piece, Crossing the Craton. This is tough stuff--geology is a bewildering collection of vocabulary, and its vast scope sends "my head a-reeling." But McPhee's lyrical prose and narrative skill make it an enjoyable undertaking.

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