John McPhee’s Geology

George Estreich



I wish to make no attempt to speak for all geology or even to sweep in a great many facts that came along. I want to choose some things that interested me and through them to suggest the general history of the continent by describing events and landscapes that geologists see written in rocks. —John McPhee, Basin and Range

The Library of Congress heading for John McPhee’s Basin and Range is “Geology—the West; for the sequel, In Suspect Terrain, it’s“Geology—Northeastern States.” But other headings might apply: Geology and metaphor. Scientists and writers—analogies. Deep time—experience of. Nonfiction, experimental—aesthetics and principles.

McPhee’s work on geology has to be read slowly. Like a poem or an equation, it is so clear, or its clarity is so dense, that it takes time to absorb. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the subject matter. The processes involved are physically massive, temporally vast, and endlessly complex: the mountains rise and erode and tilt, all at once, on continents that are themselves moving, an inch at a time, over eons too long to grasp. In space and time, his subject both illuminates and defies the limits of human perspective. McPhee writes, “The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it.”




Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain aim at that comprehension anyway, but they are also about what kinds of expression might achieve it. Like poems, they hold up metaphor to depthless mysteries, but unlike most poems, their mysteries are made of rocks and time. McPhee, like the geologists he shadows, is interested in imagining what already exists, and from this perspective, deep time is as strange and interesting as trauma or transcendence, and an angular unconformity is as interesting as the divine.

We spend a lot of time with McPhee and his interviewees on Interstate 80. They lean in close to roadcuts, with the continental history exposed in front of them and tractor-trailers flashing by behind. The situation illuminates a central theme: the juxtaposition of human experience and events of inhuman scale. A decades-old highway exposes eons-old strata, which the geologists hammer, peer at, explain. McPhee observes them observing, listens to them making sense of what they see. In so doing, he studies the problem of imagination itself, and—in the books—offers an implicit answer, a conglomerate studded with clues. This essay takes a hand lens to the strata of his pages. 

 Early in Basin and Range, McPhee writes:

“I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive.”

McPhee’s writing is nothing if not descriptive, and in his writing on geology—not unlike Seamus Heaney’s poetry—the variety and physicality of his language correlates obliquely with the landscape’s physical variety: “dike swarms and slickensides, explosion pits, volcanic bombs. Pulsating glaciers. Hogbacks. Radiolarian ooze.” The pleasure is equal parts precision and strangeness, peculiar words for peculiarities in the world, and the long roll call of unfamiliar nouns illustrates a distinguishing feature of McPhee’s style: his splicing of an arcane, specialized vocabulary into a living voice. (His hybridized diction also implies his role as an ambassador or translator, someone with one foot in the specialist’s world and another in the reader’s.) In a small way, that textured language is part of the book’s general impulse: to move from measurement to comprehension, to render geology not just as information, but as experience.

In this effort, McPhee’s main linguistic tool is metaphor, and the metaphors have an insistent pattern: they shrink massive events to human scale, rendering space and time in terms of the body. The Appalachians, McPhee writes, “are something like the ribs of a washboard. The direction of the structure lies across the direction of scrubbing.” Describing glacial grooves in rock, he writes, “It was as if a giant had drawn his fingers through an acre of soft butter. The grooves were parallel. They were larger than the gutters of bowling lanes. Aggregately, they suggested the fluted shafts of Greek columns.” Describing an “angular unconformity,” where one rock formation visibly borders another, McPhee writes, “You could place a finger on that line and touch forty million years.” Drawing back to contemplate that forty million year span, he writes:

“If you were to lift your arms and spread them wide and hold them straight out to either side and think of the distance from fingertips to fingertips as representing the earth’s entire history, then you would have all the principal events in that hillside in the middle of the palm of one hand.”

One image of a hand after another: McPhee’s imagination is insistently embodied, as if he wanted us not just to see but to touch—to grasp, in every sense. His prose is as tactile as it is cerebral. The typical situation on any given page—McPhee and a geologist, walking along a roadcut, looking at exposed rock—distills eons to a brief walk. Describing his progress through sedimentary strata, McPhee writes, “as we moved along besides the screaming trucks, we were averaging about ten thousand years per step.”

Though McPhee’s books are nominally about geology, his metaphors, with their distortions of perceived time, often seem rooted in physics. Time collapses, elongates, and slows relative to the observer, as if we were traveling near the speed of light. Note, for example, the temporal changes in this passage. It begins with a static image:

“Human time, regarded in the perspective of geologic time, is much too thin to be observed: the mark invisible at the end of a ruler.”

We then accelerate suddenly. “If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, on the other hand,” McPhee writes,“sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away . . . continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks down an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden of fireflies.”

The passage is densely inventive: the larger metaphor (geological change as a sped-up movie) is composed of smaller ones (like amoebae, like rainstreaks, like puddles). The next three sentences decelerate into human time:

“At the end of the program, man shows up—his ticket in his hand. Almost at once, he conceives of private property, dimension stone, and life insurance. When a Mt. St. Helens assaults his sensibilities with an ash cloud eleven miles high, he writes a letter to the New York Times recommending that the mountain be bombed.”

In Suspect Terrain and Basin and Range are road books, and the paragraphs mirror the action: like a geologist driving at high speed, then swerving to look at rock formations, McPhee speeds up, slows down, changes direction, stops. The books are acts of attention, and as such they show an impersonal science through a deeply individual filter. The voice is as complex as the landscape: wry and enthusiastic, quiet and provocative, laconic and expansive at once.

Rereading these books, I began to notice elements of other genres, like veins in rock: road novel, profile, historical sketch, textbook. There are McPhee’s signature lists of unattributed quotations, like brief, experimental plays:

“A roadcut is to a geologist as a stethoscope is to a doctor.”

“An X-ray to a dentist.”

“The Rosetta Stone to an Egyptologist.”

“A twenty-dollar bill to a hungry man.”

“If I’m going to drive safely, I can’t do geology.”

There was the list poetry of geological names: “Clinoptilolite, eclogite, migmatite, tincalconite, szaibelyite, pumpellyite. Meyerhofferite.” Now and then, I stumbled on nuggets of concrete poetry, in which print suggests a physical reality. McPhee embodies the Mountain West landscape in single-word sentences:

“Basin. Fault. Range. Basin. Fault. Range.”

Explaining synclines and anticlines, McPhee writes:

“When rock is compressed and folded (like linen pushed together on a table), the folds are anticlines and synclines. They are much like the components of the letter S. Roll an S forward on its nose and you have to the left a syncline and to the right an anticline. Each is a part of the other.”

The inventiveness borders on mixed metaphor, rocks becoming linen becoming the letter S (which has a nose), but the images are just separate enough to work; and the very surfeit of metaphor, the successive transformations, are themselves suggestive of McPhee’s subject, a planet in flux.

His rendering of that planet has overtones of science fiction, except the reader is the time-traveling protagonist. In Basin and Range, McPhee takes us on an imagined road trip on I-80 at the end of the Triassic, “[moving] west from the nonexistent Hudson River,” before the Atlantic has opened:

“Behind you . . . where the ocean will be, are a thousand miles of land—a contiguous landmass, fragments of which will be Africa, Antarctica, India, Australia. You cross the Newark Basin. It is for the most part filled with red mud. In the mud are tracks that seem to have been made by a two-ton newt.”

The variety of McPhee’s prose reflects the complexity of his subject: a world where place is not stable and time is unimaginably vast. “At a given place—a given latitude and longitude—the appearance of the world will have changed too often to be recorded in a single picture, will have been, say, at one time below fresh water, at another under brine, will have been mountainous country, a quiet plain, equatorial desert, an arctic coast, a coal swamp, and a river delta, all in one Zip Code.”

In the Triassic, we take a lightning road trip across the continent at one point in time; here, we are relatively fixed in space, watching the continent itself change. These are varied approaches to a shifting picture which, McPhee acknowledges, cannot be seen at once. It’s not only that “a given place” changes in appearance; it’s that the idea of place is itself provisional. “The poles of the earth have wandered,” as McPhee writes in the opening of Basin and Range, as have the continents, and so “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.”

McPhee’s prose disguises a poetry grounded in science. Like the best poetry, it surprises and dislocates: time and space are not what we think they are. But then, for McPhee, geology is an imaginative endeavor, a literally grounded conjuring of unseen and inaccessible worlds. It is methodical and surreal, where observation and deduction lead to the obvious conclusion that rocks are both floating and flowing. Solidity dissolves, rational inference leads to fanciful landscape, and an Interstate highway roadcut contains eons, millions of years you can touch and walk beside.

If McPhee’s work depends on metaphor, it is because metaphor is one way of reaching above and beyond and around the linear movement of language, a way for a thing to be itself and another thing at once, to be both solid and transparent; and McPhee’s rocks are tangible, immovable, while simultaneously yielding to a vision of something else, a landscape that existed underfoot and is gone.

McPhee’s inventiveness—the science-fictional landscapes, the metaphors reducing eons to moments and all time to a ruler, the concrete poetry, the slyly self-reflective moments throughout—are solutions to a formal problem: the subject, vast as it is, can only be disclosed one word at a time. McPhee faces not only the limits of human imagination, the inability “to comprehend deep time,” but the limits of the medium, the mismatch between deep time and sentence time, between planetary changes and parts of speech. It is a special case of the problem faced by all writers. A book is a thread longing to be a tapestry. Necessarily, then, the tapestry has to be woven for and within and ultimately by the reader. It is specified by suggestion.

Taken together, McPhee’s writing constitutes an explanatory poetry, rendering the physical with metaphysical surprise and force. But even as McPhee explores the expressive possibilities of prose, he also meditates on expression itself. Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain are not only about deep time, but also about writing.




McPhee’s preoccupation with expression is visible in one of his root metaphors: the likeness between geology and language. There are numerous variations on this theme. For example, describing the complex geology of the Appalachians, McPhee writes:

“Whole sequences might suddenly be upside down, or repeat themselves, or stand on end reading backwards. Among such rocks, time moves in and out and up and down as well as by.”

It’s a remarkable pair of sentences: the first equates geology with language, and the second unfolds the equation. But the sentences are also telling us something about McPhee’s method, the way he defies the linear progress of eons and the linearity of the sentence. In his prose, time becomes plastic, its linear, layer-cake chronology fused and upended, moving in and out and up and down as well as by.

McPhee also defies the linear through repetition. It’s a poetic tactic, like a refrain. “Geology repeats itself,” says the geologist Anita Harris, pointing out the lithified evidence of a four hundred million year old river; and four pages later, pointing to rocks of different ages in a single conglomerate, she says:

“You’ll see Silurian pebbles in Devonian rock, Devonian pebbles in Mississippian rock. Geology repeats itself.”

To repeat the sentence geology repeats itself is a concise stroke of genius. The sentence is true on at least two levels. The rocks repeat themselves: mountains build, erode, and build again. But at the same time, the science builds and erodes, cycling through new theories. McPhee attempts to give us this double sense of placement: on the actual land, and on the ideas that drive our understanding of that land. His deliberate echo of the phrase geology repeats itself is a self-referential moment. It is a clue, an embedded fragment in the page’s strata, the book implying something about the way it works, about the way a linear medium (language) copes with a complex history.

If McPhee’s writing both embraces and defies the linear movement of language, it is partly to render a complex sense of time: both linear and cyclical. Time, deep time, is linear, the accretion of millions of years, and cyclical, in its repetitive processes. McPhee’s sentences are a single line from beginning to end, but his use of repetition is cyclical. Occasionally the two paradigms are combined, as when McPhee writes, “[b]elow the disassembling world lie the ruins of a disassembled world”: by repeating a short phrase and altering a verb form, McPhee suggests both cyclical change, and the unimaginable duration required for the cycles to occur.

Whether in its linear or cyclical aspect—or both—geological time can only be imagined in the present moment. Throughout these books, McPhee both inhabits and reaches beyond that moment. Locating us beside “the west apron of the George Washington Bridge,” he imagines a time when “the future site of the bridge was under ten thousand feet of rock.” The present time includes all others. It is a composite picture, one time containing many, and it is mostly gone; but McPhee’s implication is that both scholarship and imagination are required to see and express what is left.

Much of In Suspect Terrain is about the Delaware Water Gap, “where a downcutting Delaware River . . . sawed a mountain in two,” and in a key passage, McPhee invokes George Inness, who “painted the Delaware Water Gap many times”:

“I have often thought of those canvases . . . in the light of Anita [Harris]’s comment that you would understand a great deal of the history of the eastern continent if you understood all that had made possible one such picture. She was suggesting, it seemed to me, a sense of total composition—not merely one surface composition visible to the eye but a whole series of preceding compositions which in the later one fragmentarily endure and are incorporated into its substance—with materials of vastly differing age drawn together in a single scene, a composite canvas . . .”

In this passage, Inness is an implicit figure for McPhee, who—through repetition—is trying to grasp the whole. But in McPhee’s hands, language becomes a medium uniquely capable of capturing a phenomenon too complex for any one art: it can convey the look of a roadcut, the meanings of the cut, the way the exposed rock came to be formed, a sense of what used to be there overlaid on what is there now, profile the observing geologist and the observing writer, splice colonial and geological history. It can charge a single scene with both motion and specific significance; and most of all, it can translate that significance, move an understanding from specialists to lay persons, from one social stratum to another. It can teach.

In McPhee’s books, geology is ultimately a social process. Comprehending rocks depends on comprehending what other people think about rocks. His announcement of purpose—“to suggest the general history of the continent by describing events and landscapes that geologists see written in rocks”— equates landscape with language, and in so doing joins scientist, writer, and reader in a common enterprise. Geology is part of a conversation over time, one that ultimately includes the reader. In McPhee’s account of that conversation, the geologist, the writer, and the reader are implicitly aligned. All are readers: geologists read the rock, McPhee reads the geologists, the reader reads McPhee. But all are writers too: Anita Harris, Kenneth Deffeyes, and the others seek not only to read the rock, but to express what they see, to imagine a vanished landscape into words; McPhee, based on their imaginings, creates his own; the reader, interpreting McPhee’s words, creates yet another.

In McPhee’s hands, that social process is specifically American, and Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain are American books, discussing the continent’s geology and the country’s history. Which returns us to the interstate highway that links both books, in space and deep time.

In books filled with metaphors that ultimately reflect on writing, I-80 is a central image. It allows McPhee to juxtapose human and geological time scales, but it also yokes together continental and national identities, splicing American time, American stories, with continental movements: not only stories of the geologists profiled, but histories of the regions studied. In a book that includes tropical Ohio, alpine New Jersey, and a California that has not yet risen above the ocean, I-80 becomes a metaphor for the book itself: a single thread of words, a human path cut through ancient rock.



John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

George Estreich’s memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye: A Memoir, won the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His prose has been published in The Oregonian, Salon, and The New York Times. He lives in Oregon with his family.