Basin and Range

Basin and Range

From a tennis match and headmaster to bark canoes and oranges, I revel in reading John McPhee. Eight books into his opus and I’ve yet to be disappointed. This is partly because my selections have been somewhat determined by topic avoidance. McPhee’s books on geology, for instance. What subject could possibly be drier than geology?

Enter Dan Crofts’ high praise for McPhee’s eighteenth book Basin and Range. His summer heckling moved this book about geology to the top of my McPhee stack.

I was hesitant.

I was skeptical.  

I am now convinced.

Basin and Range is a book beyond rock. It’s a treaty on impermanence and change. The earth’s magnetic field has reversed itself on 20 occasions. Mountains, the picture of fixture, are in constant flux. People who are wrong live lifetimes where they are perceived to be right and those who are actually right die being thought wrong.

In 1912, a meteorologist named Alfred Wegener suggested that the continents moved and was mocked for it more than 30 years after his death in 1930. Today he’s remembered as the originator of continental drift. While a few believed Wegener was onto something, most did not. People flocked to Lucius P. Aenigmatite’s annual lecture that ridiculed the idea of continental movement. Aenigmatite, Regius Professor of Historical Geology, probably died thinking he was correct but it’s hard to say because I don’t know when he died. There’s nothing about him online save McPhee’s reference in this book.  

Basin and Range highlights that some ideas arrive before their time and others last for ages:  

Two sides are active in every fault. (p25)

Wherever landscape is eroded away, what remains will rise in adjustment. (p53)

Stretch your arms wide to represent all time on earth from fingertip to fingertip and a single stroke of a medium-grained nail file would eradicate human history. (p126)

There are always many ideas in various stages of acceptance. (p199)

It takes a long time for the terrain to erase a road. (p158) 

Geology summarizes the present by framing the past. McPhee does no different in this book. He concludes this section of work that would eventually be compiled into his Annals of the Former World, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1999, with a line that says it all:  

It is just a matter of time.

From the archives (February 16, 2018)

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