Geology that reads like a thriller; Basin and Range, by John McPhee. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. $10.95 .
In 1945, art students were demonstrating outside Paris's Salon d'Automne, ordering Picasso to revert to an earlier style. If they could do that in the middle of a war, what's stopping us from parading outside the New Yorker offices , begging John McPhee to return to the style that sold us on oranges?
His 1967 book on the subject (with its no-nonsense title, "Oranges") is a lesson for any writer who hopes to get his readers excited over facts -- even boring facts. Thanks to that book, I recognize every orange I eat as a minor marvel. In fact McPhee is responsible for a respectable pile of books all dedicated to converting the ignorant into enthusiasts. And succeeding.
Now here he is offering us a book on geology, called "Basin and Range." That forbidding title is only Obstacle No. 1. Obstacle No. 2 (don't give up -- the meat in this book is worth struggling for) is the language. It doesn't take more than a few pages for excluding words (tectonics, crustal, plagioclase, paleoniscid, proxene, Triassic) to pop up.
He must be teasing us deliberately, for he gently mocks the use of jargon: "The enthusiasm geologists show for adding new words to their conversation is, if anything, exceeded by their affection for the old. They are not about to drop 'granite.' They say 'granodiorite' when they are in church and 'granite' the rest of the week."
Wise readers will plunge ahead, skip over the jargon, and search out the vintage McPhee, the McPhee who uses dramatic fact, poetry, and humor with such winning effect. That way they will not only be rewarded but pick up some understanding of the geologists' language as they go along.
To write this book McPhee, accompanied by one geologist or another, shuttled backwards and forwards across the country by way of route I-80, learning to read the autobiography of the earth written in the rocks.
Wherever roadbuilders have sliced through the rock, the reading becomes easy. ("Make a fresh roadcut almost anywhere at all and geologists will close in swiftly, like missionaries racing anthropologists to a tribe just discovered up the Xingu.")
Here is McPhee describing what he sees:
"At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire. The rock beside the road exposes one of two levels of the column of time and generally implies what went on immediately below and what occurred (or never occurred) below."
There is more of this magic in the sense he gives of the earth constantly moving under us, as if we were on a boat. "The sea," he says, "is not all that responds to the moon. Twice a day the solid earth bobs up and down, as much as a foot. That kind of force and that kind of distance are more than enough to break hard rock. Wells will flow faster during lunar high tides."
By then this reader is hooked, caught up in McPhee's excitement over explosions, turmoil, welding, outpourings, shovings that have been going on over millions of years. In one upheaval, a chunk of the earth, what is now the country of San Marino, was turned completely upside down.
And when McPhee wants us to grasp the concept of a million years, he quotes an unnamed geologist who promises that if you free yourself of the conventional notion of such a quantity "you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever."
The rocks write the story of whole oceans and continents in motion, of mountain ranges being built up, centimeter by centimeter, and eroded at the same gradual pace, or being "bent, mashed, thrust, and folded, squeezed up into the sky."
McPhee discusses life on earth millions of years ago and introduces us to the Alice-in-Wonderland-like first bird: "It had claws on its wings and teeth in its bill and a reptile's long tail sprouting feathers. Its complete performance. . . . as a flier was to climb a tree and jump." But perhaps the best way to suggest the reward reserved for readers who refuse to be discouraged is to quote a passage from the first half of the way through the book:
"Geologists, in their all but closed conversation, inhabit scenes that no one ever saw, scenes of global sweep, gone and gone again, including seas, mountains , rivers, forests and archipelagoes of aching beauty rising in volcanic violence to settle down quietly and then forever disappear -- almostm disappear. If some fragment has remained in the crust somewhere and something has lifted the fragment to view, the geologist in his tweed cap [McPhee has been comparing him to Sherlock Holmes] goes out with his hammer and his sandwich, his magnifying glass, and his imagination and rebuilds the archipelago."