In the Right Place at the Right Time

This Overpass on SR 14 Collapsed in Both 1971 and 1994

Assembling California is the fourth volume of John McPhee’s geology tetralogy, the other volumes of which are Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising from the Plains. I delayed finishing the quartet because, as a California resident, I relished the enjoyment I would get from reading Assembling California. My only disappointment is that, being an Easterner, McPhee was mostly enthralled by Northern California, especially the area around I-80. Oh, well, it happens.

Assembling California is all about a fact that the geology, in its own way, replicates how the people of California came together from everywhere. So, too, did the pieces of rock that form the state migrate from all over the world and stick together—a process which will continue over millions of years to take the start apart just as it put it all together. Geologist Eldridge Moores writes:

People look upon the natural world as if all motions of the past had set the stage for us and were now frozen. They look out at a scene like this and think, It was all made for us—even if the San Andreas Fault is at their feet. To imagine that turmoil is in the past and somehow we are now in a more stable time seems to be a psychological need. Leonardo Seebler, of Lamont-Doherty, referred to it as the principle of least astonishment. As we have seen this fall, the time we’re in is just as active as the past. The time between events is long only with respect to a human lifetime.

I, for one, have been through two major quakes—the Sylmar Quake of 1971 and the North Hills Quake of 1994.

There are times when I stop and listen, waiting for the earth to rise up again and send me into paroxysms of terror. Whether I live or die will depend if “I am in the right place at the right time.” I can pretend that I will never experience another earthquake, but the chances are good that I will.

From Point A to Point B

UPS Freight Jets

There is a growing branch of literature which consists of nonfiction. How is that possible? The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus for her work, which consists primarily of interviews of people affected by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl or the Soviet War in Afghanistan. As for Americans, we have John McPhee, who has written a series of nonfiction works of high literary quality.

I have just finished reading his Uncommon Carriers, which deals, in turn, with long-haul truckers; a place in France where ships’ pilots are trained; boats that tow barges on American rivers; the parcel sorting services of UPS; and mile-and-a-half-long coal trains. In between, there is a delightful essay by the author about retracing the route of Henry David Thoreau and his brother John described in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers—which I had read when it was first published in the New Yorker.

McPhee likes to take what looks like a boring subject that nobody would write about and turn it into a gem. For instance, there is that tetralogy he wrote about American geology beginning with Basin and Range and ending with Assembling California. One would think that McPhee’s books might be a tad boring, but they never are.

To date, I have read—in the order of publication—the following ten McPhee titles:

  • The Crofter and the Laird
  • Pieces of the Frame
  • Giving Good Weight
  • Basin and Range
  • In Suspect Terrain
  • La Place de la Concorde Suisse
  • Rising from the Plains
  • The Control of Nature
  • Looking for a Ship
  • Uncommon Carriers

There’s not a single boring read in the bunch. Each McPhee I read whets my appetite for more.

Not Just About Rocks

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Geology is one of those subjects I would like to know much more about. Although I took the subject in college during late Ordovician times, it was all dictated by synclines, geosynclines, and anticlines, which I never quite understood—nor did the geologists who promulgated the notion.

Living as I do in the American Southwest, where the rocks are not covered by all that dirt, geology is something that seems more immediate. All the more so when the earth shakes as the tectonic plates are slowly marching on their pre-ordained paths to their next destination.

Geology is the history of what lies under our feet. It’s not just the study of rocks—though I can see where that could be interesting—but the study of long, slow processes that are changing the face of the earth. I saw some of those processes in action at Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland, which has retreated hundreds of meters since the 1930s, when a road around the whole of the country was a laughable ides. Even now, the road across the black sands drained by the glacier is only a temporary expedient.

But then we are all temporary. If we want to see how small we are, we could make a study of the stars. But why go that far? The earth under our feet can be just as bizarre and alien. We talk about global warming as if it had never occurred before. It is just as likely that the currents of the oceans will reverse, bringing cold weather southward; and the glaciers may just start to re-form. We just don’t know.

I just finished reading John McPhee’s book In Suspect Terrain, about the forces that formed the eastern part of the United States, mostly the Appalachian Mountains. Plate tectonics explains some things, but as one geologist remarked, “While geologists argue, the rocks just sit there. And sometimes they seem to smile.”

This and the other titles in McPhee’s geological tetralogy, are good books to read if you want to puncture a few misconceptions.