Thursday, August 6, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth: John McPhee’s Rising From the Plains

I never became a geologist for the simple reason that my mother embarrassed the hell out of me in 10th grade. On one particular day, she shamed me so thoroughly that the mechanism that produces the blush reaction in my neurological system overheated to such a degree it broke. And it was all because I was failing Geology. To this day, you only have to say the word “rock” and I turn beet-red. This becomes particularly troublesome when people around me start talking about rock-and-roll.

At any rate, there I was back in 10th grade, blissfully minding my own business in Mr. Rudd’s fifth-period Geology class. He was mid-lecture when there came a sharp rap on the door and, without waiting for an invitation, my mother poked her head in the door. She looked at Mr. Rudd and said, “Can I speak to you for a moment?” At the time, she worked as a secretary in the Main Office and was always poking her head into my classrooms willy-nilly. [Psychological footnote: the trauma of having your parent work in your school during the Acne Years can cause some serious permanent damage that can only be antidoted with heavy drinking and the occasional Prozac prescription. Don’t ask me how I know.]

I sat there in Geology class, my blush mechanism already firing on all pistons. Necks craned, heads swiveled in my direction, silence filled the air. You could have heard a pebble drop.

The next head to pop back into the classroom belonged to Mr. Rudd. He had a head that could best be described as elfin—I always thought he looked like Yoda but with smaller ears, darker hair, and coffee-stained teeth. He crooked his finger at me and I rose from my seat to walk, jelly-legged, out to the hall. There, I joined the impromptu fifth-period Parent-Teacher conference already in progress. I knew what was going on: my mother had, in the course of her secretarial duties, seen my latest progress reports.

Out there in the hallway, my mother’s face was working through measurable stages of anger and disappointment. She was rendered speechless, so Mr. Rudd did all the talking. “Your mother is concerned,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“She’s worried about the grade you’re getting my class this quarter. Right now, it’s an F.”

“Yes, sir.”

“She feels you can do better. And so do I. You can do better, can’t you?”

I nodded. Words were beyond me, having lodged in the middle of my throat where they refused to budge. At that point, I wished, somewhat appropriately, for our town to be struck by an earthquake or, at the very least, be buried in a mudslide. I looked at my mother, putting as much sorrow and regret in my eyes as I could. How I wished I could lie to her and tell her I loved rocks.

Mr. Rudd cleared his throat and, in a very discreet, solemn Yoda-like manner, retreated to his classroom and picked up where he left off with his lecture: “Earthquakes Aren’t Anyone’s Fault.”

Head full of rocks
Despite her fury and anguish, my mother finally broke down and gave me a hug there in the middle of the hallway of my high school and, even though my blush-o-meter was completely broken at this point, it did feel good. Right there and then, I resolved to do better in Mr. Rudd’s class, and when the next report card was issued, damned if I didn’t do better. I got a D.

I tell you this story by way of a long introduction to John McPhee’s masterful Rising from the Plains to make a point: even the biggest dunderhead with an aversion to all things geologic can sit down to read a book with the words “feldspar,” “Eocene” and “upthrust” without feeling the urge to throw up.

In the moments after I returned to class, my mother went back to the Main Office, and the surface of my scalp started to cool, I would never ever have imagined I’d be sitting here, nearly four decades later, typing these words: Geology is fun. Or, if it’s not entirely “fun,” then it’s certainly a thing of beauty in the hands of Mr. McPhee.

Rising From the Plains, which renders the formation of the Wyoming landscape into something resembling poetry, was first published in 1986 and forms part of a series of books McPhee wrote about rocks ’n stuff: Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California. Each of those chapters of geologic history—in which McPhee tags along with geologists from Brooklyn to San Francisco—has been assembled into one volume (along with an extra chapter, “Crossing the Craton”) called Annals of the Former World. This 700-page book, heavy and beautiful as a chunk of quartz, justly won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1999. Rather than spend a lot of words on Annals of the Former World, I’ll just say this: if you are in the least bit interested in McPhee’s prose or if the very mention of the word “sediment” makes your mouth water, then by all means buy it. Money spent on McPhee is never wasted.

For now, let’s examine just one layer of that geologic timetable: Rising From the Plains

Here’s what we’re greeted with on the very first page:
This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West. She arrived in the autumn of 1905, when she was twenty-three. Her hair was so blond it looked white.

Reading those sentences, I was immediately hooked and pulled into the rest of the book. It’s like putting one tentative foot into the edge of a swift river and having the force of the current suck you into the middle of the stream before you can even catch your breath.

McPhee’s style is sinuous, detailed and, yes, as irresistible as a river current. In this and other books (like his Alaska-adventure classic Coming into the Country), he is always just one inch shy of fiction (at least in terms of style). Sure, he’s discussing geology, but it’s never ever dry as dust (Mr. Rudd, are you listening?). And so, we get gorgeous, instructive sentences like these:
It was a shale so black it all but smelled of low tide. In it, like mica, were millions of fish scales. It was interlayered with bentonite, which is a rock so soft it is actually plastic—pliable and porous, color of cream, sometimes the color of chocolate.

Or these:
In the Bronco, we moved through the snow toward the mountains, crossing the last of the Great Plains, which had been shaped like ocean swells by eastbound streams. Now and again, a pump jack was visible near the road, sucking up oil from deep Cretaceous sand, bobbing solemnly at its task—a giant grasshopper absorbed in its devotions.

David Love
At the wheel of that Bronco is David Love, of the U.S. Geological Survey and then-supervisor of the Survey’s environmental branch in Laramie, Wyoming. Like any journalist worth his weight in ink, McPhee managed to track down the most interesting character to guide him through his geologic journey across Wyoming. Known as the “grand old man of Rocky Mountain geology” by his colleagues, Love was born “in the center of Wyoming in 1913” and knew every inch of the land like the back of his gnarled hand.

McPhee has a keen, observant eye and he has a remarkable ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. Here, for instance, is how he describes Love when we meet him on page 5:
The grand old man had a full thatch of white hair, and crow’s feet around pale-blue eyes. He wore old gray boots with broken laces, brown canvas trousers, and a jacket made of horsehide. Between his hips was a brass belt buckle of the sort that suggests a conveyor. Ambiguously, it was scrolled with the word “LOVE.” On his head was a two-gallon Stetson, with a braided-horsehair band. He wore trifocals. There was stratigraphy even in his glasses.

Notice how subtly McPhee turns man into landscape in that last sentence. Throughout the book, the author has the knack for sidling up to his subject, appearing to look at it from the corner of his eye. With a casual flick of his wrist, he turns geology into something profound.

Most of the book consists of McPhee’s days spent with Love as they bounce around Wyoming’s sage-covered bluffs in the Bronco. Every so often, McPhee includes passages from a diary, written by Love’s mother—as it turns out, the white-blond lady stepping off the train in 1905 Rawlins. (It also turns out that Love’s great-uncle was John Muir.) McPhee layers the two narratives—personal history and geologic history—like the overlapping plates of the earth’s crust. It is masterful, confident writing and it never once loses our rapt attention.

At this point, I must confess a personal bias toward Rising From the Plains: I am a child of Wyoming, having spent eleven years of my youth in the state. Deep affection for the state runs like granite strata through my body and so my eyes were already biased before they landed on these pages.

And yet, McPhee writes of Wyoming’s landscape in a way that makes it completely new and, incredibly, as thrilling as the latest Dennis Lehane bestseller (“incredibly,” since we are, after all, talking about a pile of rocks). For instance, I must have boated across Grand Teton National Park’s Jenny Lake at least four dozen times in my life. But then I read this paragraph and a shiver trickles down my spine:
In the Teton landscape are forms of motion that would not be apparent in a motion picture. Features of the valley are cryptic, paradoxical, and bizarre. In 1983, divers went down into Jenny Lake, at the base of the Grand Teton, and reported a pair of Engelmann spruce, rooted in the lake bottom, standing upright, enclosed in eighty feet of water.

You could have told me that my mother was Queen Victoria’s great-granddaughter and I would not have been more surprised by the revelation. This is just one small way in which McPhee—here and in all of his books—opens our eyes to the natural world around us, that fragile-crusted globe we take for granted and daily plow, pave and burden with our footsteps. Or, as Love himself says, “If there was one thing we learned, it was that you don’t fight nature. You live with it. And you make the accommodations—because nature does not accommodate.”

I tell you about my personal connection to Rising From the Plains because, wouldn’t you know, the geology of Wyoming was exactly what I was supposed to be studying in that fifth-period class 36 years ago. Back then, the landscape was nothing but a mind-numbing blur of stone and dust. I can only imagine what I might have become if I’d had Mr. McPhee as my guide. Perhaps today I would be out there somewhere walking along a riverbed and stopping, every now and then, to chip away at the hard beauty of the earth.


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