McPhee on geology: again at his peak

February 08, 1993|By William Robertson | William Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service

This is the final volume in John McPhee's four-book series on the geology of America, which he began in 1981. So you might say, figuratively at least, that "Assembling California," an account of how the outermost reaches of the country arrived at their present form, is The Big One for Mr. McPhee.

In more than 10 years of looking at rocks and talking to scientists, Mr. McPhee, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has probably learned enough to earn a doctorate in geology; indeed, his work commands the respect of working geologists. While this may be good news in their specialized world, his closeness to his subject is not always a boon for the general reader.

Mr. McPhee writes in the crystalline, concise prose that has become his hallmark. Occasionally, however, he makes the mistake of assuming that his readers know as much as he does.

Take, for instance, his description of Mussel Rock near San Francisco, the spot where the San Andreas Fault -- that crack in the Earth that could one day send parts of California out to sea -- meets the Pacific Ocean:

"Mussel Rock is a horse. As any geologist will tell you, a horse is a displaced rock mass that has been caught between the walls of a fault."

That is not enough information -- for me, at any rate -- to get the picture.

Fortunately, you don't have to depend on a complete understanding of geology to enjoy this tour through the rocks of ages.

Mr. McPhee covers most of the state with his friend, geologist Eldrige Moores. You could say they go at it hammer and tongue, stopping, amid their river of talk, to chip away rocks and learn their story.

Along the way, Mr. McPhee brings us up to date on the state of plate tectonics -- the rearrangement of the Earth's surface through the breakup of a prehistoric supercontinent -- and other scientific curiosities and controversies.

Mr. McPhee's strategy has always been to provide a human dimension to any story, and he does it here through historical anecdote and the biography of Mr. Moores.

For Mr. McPhee to understand why Mr. Moores became what he is, the two go to Arizona, where the geologist worked as a youth in his family's gold mine. To understand California, they go as far afield as Greece to find out how rock rises from the ocean floor to create continents.

How California was formed is extraordinarily complex, but Mr. McPhee manages to reduce it to its essence. If I understand him correctly, chunks of rock from many parts of the world slid under a huge sea, bumped up against what is now the North American continent and stuck. Earthquakes added their handiwork to the shaping of the place.

"The dynamics that have pieced together the whole of California have consisted of tens of thousands of earthquakes . . . tens of thousands of examples of what people like to singularize as 'the big one' -- and many millions of earthquakes of lesser magnitude."

There is no guarantee -- in fact, little likelihood -- that the assembled parts of California are going to stay put, Mr. McPhee says. Baja almost certainly will slide away. It's only a matter of when.

Perhaps his most perceptive observation is to put, through Mr. Moores, the seismic upheavals that created California into TC perspective of human arrogance. Says the geologist:

" '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 on a scene like this and think, it was 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. As we have seen this fall [1989, the year of the San Francisco earthquake], 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.' "

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Assembling California."

Author: John McPhee.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Length, price: 304 pages, $21.

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