Between 1981 and 1993, John McPhee published four books describing how the world came to be shaped the way it is - Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California. Told in a vivid first-person travel-memoir format, interspersed with lyrical descriptions of the making of the very earth itself, the books found a larger audience than one might have predicted. McPhee rambled across the United States, roughly along the 40th parallel, visiting sites with geologists and others. And, because he is a fine writer, he makes the scientists - and even the passersby - come alive on the page.
One of the aspects that makes these books so interesting, besides McPhee's flair for language and analogy, is the way he illuminates the recent human drama played on this ancient stage we take for granted. By being, as his new collection is entitled, Annals of the Former World, they are simultaneously the annals of our current world. In the books gathered in this omnibus volume, McPhee tells Our Story So Far.
McPhee is a writer, not a scientist. He is rigorously precise with the science, but he is writing literature, not field reports. He points out that he was an English major: "Why would someone out of one culture try to make prose out of the other? Why would someone who majored in English choose to write about rocks?" But McPhee himself proves on every page that the old notion of two opposing cultures, the arts and the sciences, is a failure of taxonomy rather than a reflection of reality.
Annals of the Former World isn't merely a reunion. It also contains the final installment in the series, Crossing the Craton, for a total of 660 pages. It is a feast of excellent writing, a blend of science and, well, poetry - in the way that Rachel Carson could not resist the inherent poetry of the natural world.
But lest that sound precious, let's end with an example of McPhee's alloy of Olympian and human perspectives, in the opening of his first book in the series, Basin and Range:
The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude - a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea. Nevertheless, these coordinates will, for what is generally described as the foreseeable future, bring you with absolute precision to the west apron of the George Washington Bridge. Nine a.m. A weekday morning . . .
Who would not keep reading?
Reviewed by Michael Sims.