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Honoring Fellow Fossil John McPhee

Honoring Fellow Fossil John McPhee

I first became familiar with the author John McPhee when I read Oranges, his absorbing history of the primary crop of my home state, Florida. McPhee took me through the wilds of the 49th state with Coming into the Country and was my companion as I cruised the passages of Alaska. Assembling California, another favorite, revealed the geologic tumult of a frontier developed by gold-seekers and an endless parade of dream-chasers.

When I had the chance several years ago to attend a luncheon in New York honoring McPhee, who teaches journalism at Princeton, I packed an Intrepid Triceratops in my bag, just in case I got lucky enough to meet him.

McPhee was being honored by Audubon New York with the Keesee Award for his environmental writing. The author of more than 30 books, McPhee won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his weighty tome on North American geology, Annals of the Former World.

Annals struck a chord in me as a (reluctant) writer drawn since childhood to the stony remnants of prehistory. “Like all writing, writing about geology is masochistic, mind-fracturing, self-enslaved labor—a description that intensifies when the medium is rock,” he says. “What then could explain such behavior? Why would someone out of one culture try to make prose out of another? Why would someone who majored in English choose to write about rocks?” 

Probably because it’s endlessly descriptive. McPhee abandoned the old precepts and took up the New Geology, pioneered by the late Princeton professor W. Jason Morgan in the late 1960s, which was based on the revolutionary concept of plate tectonics and the spreading of the seafloor. (Morgan said the plates were set in shape, and not, as previously thought, subject to move around a pliable mantle; he published his findings in 1968.)

The notion was so radical that even in the mid-1970s my university geology professor said there were still a few doubters. I loved imagining continents moving on the backs of giant tortoises, slowly colliding, and profoundly shaping landforms.

By the time I visited the Yavapai Geology Museum, located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, more than 40 years later, any scientific doubt about plate tectonics and other forces shaping the landscape had long ago vanished. This small but impressive trailside geology museum interprets the conditions that carved out the canyon, whose bottom has been calculated to be 1.8 billion years old, and whose topmost rocks are 270 million years old.

And there was John McPhee to provide the poetic narration. Inscribed on the text panel that introduces the section on Supergroup rocks is this quote from Rising from the Plains:

“Surface appearances are only that. Topography grows, shrinks, compresses, spreads, disintegrates, and disappears; every scene is temporary, and is composed of fragments from other scenes.”

An impeccable summary—Zenlike in its rigor—of the transience of geological process! And, in fact, an apt metaphor for existence.

It’s become more apparent these days that not everyone accepts the origin story of Grand Canyon as the upshot of hundreds of millions of years of churning, continental collisions, and erosion. In fact, some favor the Great Flood interpretation. A Park Ranger told me that those folks never visit the museum.

It was at Yavapai, in 2015, that my thoughts began to gather about advocating for science, and for wearing my dinosaur heart on my sleeve.

After the luncheon concluded, I went over to the next table, where McPhee and his wife were still seated. It was only fitting for a former English major who wrestled with the meaning of rocks to have his own Intrepid Triceratops, the piece of jewelry that launched Exquisite Eons®. He was delighted and told me it would reside atop his desk in the Geology Department at Princeton. 

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