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McPhee, John. Basin and Range. Washington, D.C.: United States Printing Office, 1969.
Basin and Range is the first book in a series—Annals of the Former World—describing a geological cross-section of North America along the 40th parallel, closely following the perspective of the scientists involved in understanding that landscape. John McPhee uses multiple physical and temporal scales to craft a complex narrative, following the history of geological science, the experience of geological fieldwork, and the changing understanding of time that this science enables. Stephen Jay Gould, in a 1981 review of Basin and Range, identifies the themes of “deep time” and “ceaseless motion” as essential characteristics of this book. Gould quoted McPhee describing deep time with a personal experiment, writing,
With your arms spread wide… to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins at the wrist, and the Permian extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.
He continued writing, “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.” These two quotes capture the literary and imaginative quality of McPhee’s writing, as he describes not only the physical landscape—following Interstate 80 with Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a professor of geology at Princeton, through “roadcuts” in Wyoming, California, and Nevada—but the a cognitive landscape where the reader can imagine the structure of mantle as “magisterially viscous” and “inhabit scenes that no one ever saw, scenes of global sweep, gone and gone again.” These literary metaphors are grounded in a thorough discussion of plate tectonics which was, at the time of his writing, a “New Geology” in comparison with the descriptive “Old Geology” McPhee and Deffeyes first experienced as young men. In the last chapter, McPhee returns to a personal scale, imagining residents’ reactions to their home being covered by a new ocean in “just a matter of time.” [E. Pousson]