Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Plain Talking

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

One of the general ed requirements for a bachelor of arts degree from George Mason University—and probably at all universities that offer liberal arts degrees, for that matter—is six units of science. When I was an undergraduate at GMU, I chose geology for my science credits. Mostly I chose it because I was in my senior year and everyone I asked said, of all the sciences, it and astronomy were the “easiest.” I confess: I chose easy over whoppingly difficult because I was in the midst of applying to graduate schools and I didn’t want to mess around with my GPA by bombing quantam physics and chaos theory. So, geology it was.

Despite my less-than-noble reasons for my choice, I fell in love with this field of science pretty quickly. Another confession, though: In my rush to graduate, I only gave it cursory time and attention. Still, it fascinated me then and I remain so today.

As a result, reading about geology—the building blocks of our planet—and Earth’s constantly changing heights and depths continues to hold my interest. I love me a good piece of folded and tilted rock or a lovely piece of schist. I marvel at marble and gravitate to granite. I thrill at finding outcrops and love to look at the sedimentary layers, as well as the water and wind erosion patterns, in sandstone. Diamonds may be most girls’ best friend, but I’m just as happy with the exoskeleton of some coral-based sea creature.

This is why when my friends, The Legislative Fellow and The MIG, recommended the writings of John McPhee, I ran right out to Amazon and bought McPhee’s Rising from the Plains (as well as a half dozen of his other books. Stay tuned to this spot for reviews of his writings on the Swiss Army, the U.S. Interstate System, U.S. commerce and its methods of transportation, Alaska, and California.)

My interest in this particular McPhee was twofold. First, it is about Wyoming, which is where my mother was born and raised and where my late grandparents lived for 60 years. It is where I spent a good chunk of my youth, including two weeks during the summer when I was 12. Second, Rising from the Plains is about geology.

Published in 1986 (the year I graduated from high school)—Rising from the Plains chronicles essayist John McPhee’s journey across the Equality State as he pairs up with preeminent geologist David Love. Dr. Love, the grandnephew of conservationist John Muir, was the last of a dying breed of geologic scientists. Simply put, Love was a field geologist. While many geologists today rely on high tech gadgetry to identify seismic instabilities, plumb oil beds, or locate stable bedrock, Love actually went out in the field and dug around—often sleeping under the stars without a tent or other standard provisions.
In the western outskirts of Rawlins, David Love pulled over onto the shoulder of the interstate, the better to fix the scene, although his purpose in doing so was not at all apparent…. So why was…Love, who had the geologic map of Wyoming in his head, stopping here?

The rock that outcropped around Rawlins, said Love, contained a greater spread of time than any other suite of exposed rocks along Interstate 80 between New York and San Francisco. We were looking at many moments in well over half the existence of the earth, and we were seeing—as it happened—a good deal more than one sees in the walls of the Grand Canyon. (p. 21)
If you’ve ever been to Rawlins, Wyoming—and I have—it looks like one more dust-bitten, sandstone-landscaped, sagebrush-infested, dead desert. But McPhee challenges us to wipe the dust from our shallow eyes and look deeper. What we are looking at, though hard to believe, are the beginnings of the North American continents. Realizing this, suddenly Rawlins doesn’t look as dumpy and godforsaken after all. Here, perhaps, is the primordial Eden before Eden was Eden and before Adam and his progenitors started pounding sand and digging up the land for railroad rights-of-way, oil and natural gas exploration, coal mining, and trona (the stuff from which baking soda is made.)

Love is, as McPhee portrays him, a simple man with more than an ounce of Wyoming horse sense running through his veins. He knows Wyoming like the back of his hand and McPhee mines his knowledge in a manner that brings this science down to earth for readers, pun intended. At the same time, mirroring the sandstone and granite layers that cover Wyoming, McPhee beautifully spins and layers the history of Love and his ancestors, who came to Wyoming when it was being settled by only the hardiest of souls, including his father, John Love, the son of Scottish emigrants and a rancher, and his mother, Ethel Waxman, a graduate of Bryn Mawr and a school teacher.

If you enjoy geology or if you’ve brushed off southern Wyoming as uninteresting, McPhee’s Rising from the Plains will change your perspective entirely. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot about geologists and what makes these erudite rockhounds tick.
Geologists tend to have been strongly influenced by the rocks among which they grew up…. Structural geology…has traditionally been dominated by the Swiss, …wizards of sedimentology tend to be Dutch, …Cincinnati has produced an amazingly long list of American paleontologists…[and] Houston—the capital city of the oil geologists—is a hundred and fifty miles from the first place you can hit a hammer on a rock. Houston geologists come from somewhere else… (pp. 24-25)
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and came away with a new appreciation for Wyoming and its place in the geologic life of our earth and this continent. It made me want to get in my car, drive to Wyoming, seek out Love's son—a geologist and professor at Western Wyoming Community College—and spend a week seeing the real Wyoming.

Out of five stars, I give Rising from the Plains four and a half.

McPhee, John, Rising from the Plains, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1986,

More information about David Love:

High Country News
Geotimes (Feature Article)
Geotimes (In Memoriam)

Photos: Devil's Tower National Monument (top), dustcover for Rising from the Plains (center), David Love (1914-2002; bottom.)

Photo copyrights: TerraGalleria, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, Geotimes.


CreoleInDC said...

I go away for a few days and come back and you've torn down and rebuilt. ROFL! Love the new look Chica and I enjoyed this post immensely. Hey baaaaaaaby!

JMK said...

Thanks! It felt like time to redecorate. I've been checking in over on your blog. Looks like you had a fabulous time in Louisiana! And you were, to use your word, the HotNESS!