Assembling California is the fourth volume of John McPhee’s books chronicling the geology and geologists of North America, collectively titled Annals of the Former World. While describing the continent from the far eastern extent of Interstate 80 to its western terminus in California, McPhee travelled not only much of the continental United States, but various parts of the world, in the company of geologists who had spent their lives learning and discerning, reading the rocks which lie beneath our feet and tower above our heads. From these travels came the three previous books of the Annals, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising from the Plains. If you have driven Interstate 80 westward (like the stretch from Lincoln, Nebraska to San Francisco, which is as far as I’ve gotten), you drive through the landscapes that McPhee discussed in the Annals. The books are an ideal companion to a cross-country road trip.
In this final volume, written over some fifteen years, McPhee writes of the geological mysteries and fascinations of California, as elucidated for him by Eldridge Moores, then a geologist at UC Davis. With Moores, McPhee will travel the length and breadth of the Golden State, beginning in the mid-1970s, and ending his discussion of the geology of California in the late 1980s. California is a state for which geology underlies almost everything in the past and present in one form or another. From the spectacular natural wonders of Yosemite, the mountains which bore the gold which drew the ’49ers westward, to the San Andreas Fault which underlies the West Coast: California is one of the most geologically interesting and varied of the entire Union.
McPhee is a writer of sumptuous, yet restrained prose. His descriptions evoke the whole sense of landscapes in Assembling California, just as they did for Wyoming in Rising from the Plains. There is a touch of surprising humour here and there in his books, but you can’t sleepwalk through McPhee. He doesn’t pull any punches, and if you are not a geologist or enthusiastic amateur, you’ll want some maps and a good dictionary close to hand (I would recommend The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Earth Sciences by Allaby and Allaby, or Dictionary of Geological Terms by Bates & Jackson, but any one will do). Indeed, a set of rock samples would be helpful, as in the sort of kit easily obtainable for use in Science Olympiads, scouting, or other such similar pursuits. Geology is in many ways a visual science, and seeing, touching, and feeling the texture of a rock can be more helpful to learning about it than an entire semester in the classroom.
The fact that some assistance would be helpful doesn’t reflect poorly on McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, though. It reflects the complexity and difficulty of his subject matter, which is compellingly woven not only with history, but with the personalities of the scientists with whom he travels. Apart from Stephen Jay Gould, I have difficulty thinking of another author who has done more to write accessibly and beautifully about geology. In all honesty, this is a book that you need to read again after the first reading. When I’ll find the time to re-read the whole set I don’t quite know.
The book concludes with the tragic events of the 17 October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, in which 63 people died and thousands were left injured or homeless. As the quake struck at 5:04pm, shortly before the beginning of Game Three of the 1989 World Series, the earthquake itself was caught live on television before the feed from the stadium was lost – an historic first.
I’ve grown up with McPhee – he was always one of my father’s favourite writers. I read the first volume of the Annals for a course in physical science twenty years ago, and, after buying the final volume while vacationing in the San Francisco area in the spring of 2010, I was determined to finish it before a return trip to the Bay Area a year later. (An aside: I bought Assembling California at the California Academy of Sciences, which is an amazing trip, well-worth making – even if they hide their minerals – nestled as it is in Golden Gate Park by the also-fabulous DeYoung Museum of Art). Having read McPhee on the long geological process that has built California, I feel certain that I got just that much more out of the trip. While having the Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California at my side will be a safe bet, having McPhee’s book will provide additional context, and no doubt make me that much more of a bore to my children and spouse.
That, though, is a chance that I’m willing to take. Highly recommended. Five stars.
Originally reviewed 16 July 2011.
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