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Basin and Range

John McPhee (1980)


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. (3)

The sea 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. (7)

John McPhee Basin & Range

Triassic rock is not exclusively red, but much of it is red all over the world—red in the shales of New Jersey, red in the sandstones of Yunan, red in the banks of the Volga, red by the Solway Firth. Triassic redbeds, as they are called, are in the dry valleys of Antarctica, the red marls of Worcestershire, the hills of Alsace-Lorraine. The Petrified Forest. The Painted Desert. The South African red-beds of the Great Karroa. Triassic red rock is red through and through, and not merely weathered red on the surface, like the great Redwall Limestone of the Grand Canyon, which is actually gray. There may have been a superabundance of oxygen in the atmosphere from late Pennsylvanian through Permian and Triassic time. (21)

The East had once been radical—had been unstable, reformist, revolutionary, in the Paleozoic pulses of three or four orogenies. Now, for the last hundred and fifty million years, the East had been stable and conservative. The far-out stuff was in the Far West of the country—wild, weirdsma, a leather-jacket geology in mirrored shades, with its welded tuffs and Franciscan melange (internally deformed, complex beyond analysis), its strike-slip faults and falling buildings, its boiling springs and fresh volcanics, its extensional disassembling of the earth. (26)

Each range here is like a warship standing on its own, and the Great Basin is an ocean of loose sediment with these mountain ranges standing in it as if they were members of a fleet without precedent, assembled at Guam to assault Japan. Some of the ranges are forty miles long, others a hundred, a hundred and fifty. They point generally north. The basins that separate them—ten and fifteen miles wide—will run on for fifty, a hundred, two hundred and fifty miles with lone, daisy-petalled windmills standing over sage and wild rye. Animals tend to be content with their home ranges and not to venture out across the big dry valleys. "Imagine a chipmunk hiking across one of these basins," Deffeyes remarks. "The faunas in the high ranges here are quite distinct from one to another. Animals are isolated like Darwin's finches in the Galapagos. These ranges are truly islands." (45-6)

Geologists mention at times something they call the Picture. In an absolutely unidiomatic way, they have often said to me, "You don't get the Picture." The oolites and dolomite—tuff and granite, the Pequop siltstones and shales—are pieces of the Picture. The stories that go with them—the creatures and the chemistry, the motions of the crust, the paleoenvironmental scenes—may well, as stories, stand on their own, but all are fragments of the Picture.
The foremost problem with the Picture is that ninety-nine per cent of it is missing—melted or dissolved, torn down, washed away, broken to bits, to become something else in the Picture. The geologist discovers lingering remains, and connects them with dotted lines. (78-9)

It was an angular unconformity in Scotland—exposed in a riverbank at Jedburgh, near the border, exposed as well in a wave-scoured headland where the Lammermuir Hills intersect the North Sea—that helped to bring the history of the earth, as people had understood it, out of theological metaphor and into the perspectives of actual time. This happened at the end of the eighteenth century, signalling a revolution that would be quieter, slower, and of another order than the ones that were contemporary in America and France. (91)

A century after Hutton, a historian would note that "the direct antagonism between science and theology which appeared in Catholicism at the time of the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo was not seriously felt in Protestantism till geologists began to impugn the Mosaic account of the creation." (100)

The opossum may be Cretaceous, certain clams Devonian, and oysters Triassic, but for each and every oyster in the sea, it seems, there is a species gone forever. Be a possum is the message, and you may outlive God. (120)

The human consciousness may have begun to leap and boil some sunny day in the Pleistocene, but the race by and large has retained the essence of its animal sense of time. People think in five generations—two ahead, two behind—with heavy concentration on the one in the middle. Possibly that is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it. At least, that is what geologists wonder sometimes, and they have imparted the questions to me. (127)

Hutton published his Theory of the Earth in 1795, when almost no one doubted the historical authenticity of Noah's Flood, and all species on earth were thought to have been created individually, each looking at the moment of its creation almost exactly as it did in modern times. Hutton disagreed with that, too. Writing a treatise on agriculture, he brought up the matter of variety in animals and noted, "In the infinite variation of the breed, that form best adapted to the exercise of the instinctive arts, by which the species is to live, will most certainly be continued in the propagation of this animal, and will be always tending more and more to perfect itself by the natural variation which is continually taking place. Thus, for example, where dogs are to live by the swiftness of their feet and the sharpness of their sight, the form best adapted to that end will be the most certain of remaining, while those forms that are less adapted to this manner of chase will be the first to perish; and, the same will hold with regard to all the other forms and faculties of the species, by which the instinctive arts of procuring its means of substance may be pursued." When he died, in 1797, Hutton was working on that manuscript, no part of which was published for a hundred and fifty years. (139-40)

[Deffeyes:] "You know, the hot water, circulating deep, picks up whatever is there—gold, silver, molybdenum, mercury, tin, uranium—and brings it up and precipitates it out near the surface. A vein of ore is the filling of a fissure. A map of former hot springs is remarkably close to a map of metal discoveries. Old hot springs like this one brought up the silver of Nevada." (148)

Three or four years ago, a miner friend of Deffeyes who lives in Tombstone, Arizona, happened to find on his own property an overlooked fragment of a supergene enrichment, a narrow band no more than a few inches thick, six feet below the cactus. Knocking off some volcanic overburden with a front-end loader, the miner went after this nineteenth-century antique and fondly dug it out by hand. He said to his children, "Pay attention to what I'm doing here. Look closely at the rock. We will never see this stuff again." In a couple of hours of a weekend afternoon, he took twenty thousand dollars from the ground. (151)

We were off on dirt roads now with a cone of dust behind us, which Deffeyes characterized as the local doorbell. He preferred not to ring it. (151-2)

Certain English geologists produced confusion by embracing continental drift and then drawing up narratives and maps that showed continents moving all over the earth with respect to a fixed and undriftable England. (175)

If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone. (183)

If it was altogether true, as Hess had claimed, that with relative frequency "the whole ocean is virtually swept clean," then old rock should be absent from deep ocean floors. Since 1968, the drill ship Glomar Challenger has travelled the world looking for, among other things, the oldest ocean rocks. The oldest ever found is Jurassic. In a world that is 4.6 billion years old, with continental-shield rock that has been dated to 3.8, it is indeed astonishing that the oldest rock that human beings have ever removed from a seafloor has an age of a hundred and fifty million years—that the earth is thirty times as old as the oldest rock of the oceans. (194-5)

[Deffeyes:] "We used to think that continents grew like onions around old rock. That was overturned by plate tectonics. And we could see now how amazingly fast you could put up a mountain range. A continent-to-continent collision was a hell of an episode at a limited place. (196-7)

Across the valley is a huge whitewash "L" on a rock above the fault scar of the Humboldt Range. (212)

Meanwhile, Deffeyes, in Sturgeon's Log Cabin, applies the last refining strokes to his sketchings on the map. "The Salton Sea and Death Valley are below sea level now, and the ocean would be there if it were not for pieces of this and that between," he says. "We are extending the continental crust here. It is exactly analogous to the East African Rift, the Red Sea, the Atlantic. California will be an island. It is just a matter of time." (216)

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