Annals of the Former World by John McPhee
McPhee tells the conflicted story of modern Geology, interspersing the layered ideas of geologists past and present with the hidden gems and gold of his interests.
consider the six days of Genesis as a figure of speech for what has in fact been four and a half billion years. In this adjustment, a day equals something like seven hundred and fifty million years, and thus “all day Monday and until Tuesday noon creation was busy getting the earth going.” Life began Tuesday noon, and “the beautiful, organic wholeness of it” developed over the next four days. “At 4 P.M. Saturday, the big reptiles came on. Five hours later, when the redwoods appeared, there were no more big reptiles. At three minutes before midnight, the human race appeared. At one-fourth of a second before midnight, Christ arrived. At one-fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution began. We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for that one-fortieth of a second can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark raving mad.”
Part fact, part folklore, it is a tradition of the region that a man named Hendrik Van Allen assessed Kittatinny Mountain and decided it was half copper. The Dutch crown ordered him to establish a mine, and to build a road on which the ore could be removed. The road ran up the Minisink and through level country to the Hudson River at Esopus Creek (Kingston, New York). A hundred miles long, it was the first constructed highway in the New World to cover so much distance.
It covers it still, and is in many places scarcely changed. When Van Allen was not busy supervising the road builders, he carried on an elite flirtational minuet with the daughter of a Lenape chief. The chief was Wissinoming, his daughter Winona. One day, Van Allen went alone to hunt in the woods near the river islands of the Minisink, and he discharged his piece in the direction of a squirrel. The creature scurried through the branches of trees. Van Allen shot again. The creature scurried through the branches of other trees. Van Allen reloaded, stalked the little bugger, and, pointing his rifle upward, sighted with exceptional care. He fired. The squirrel fell to the ground. Van Allen retrieved it, and found an arrow through its heart. By the edge of the river, Winona threw him a smile from her red canoe. They fell in love.
In the Minisink, there was no copper worth mentioning. Van Allen didn’t care. Winona rewrote the country for him, told him the traditions of the river, told him the story of the Endless Mountain. In the words of Winona’s legend as it was eventually set down, “she spoke of the old tradition of this beautiful valley having once been a deep sea of water, and the bursting asunder of the mountains at the will of the Great Spirit, to uncover for the home of her people the vale of the Minisink.”
In 1664, Peter Stuyvesant, without a shot, surrendered New Amsterdam and all that went with it to naval representatives of Charles, King of England. Word was sent to Hendrik Van Allen to close his mines and go home. It was not in him to take an Indian wife to Europe. He explained these matters to Winona in a scene played out on the cliffs high above the Water Gap. She jumped to her death and he followed.
“These crystals are like Vietnamese villages,” he went on. “You have to destroy them in order to preserve them.
In the rock itself are the essential clues to the scenes in which the rock began to form—a lake in Wyoming, about as large as Huron; a shallow ocean reaching westward from Washington Crossing; big rivers that rose in Nevada and fell through California to the sea. Unfortunately, highway departments tend to obscure such scenes. They scatter seed wherever they think it will grow. They “hair everything over”—as geologists around the country will typically complain.
"no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
The group was called Eocene and was interested in scavenging old mines. Deffeyes pointed out to them that while new gold strikes were still occurring in the world and new gold mines were still being developed, no major silver mine had been discovered since 1915.
He flew to Nevada, chartered a light plane, and went over the country a thousand feet above the ground, taking fresh private pictures with a telephoto lens. When he flew over places where other scavengers looked up and waved, he crossed those places off his list. He went in on the ground then, to a number of sites, and collected samples. He had machines at home that could deal with the samples in ways unheard of just a few years before, let alone in the nineteenth century. Kicking at old timbers, he looked at the nails. Wire nails came into use in 1900 and are convenient index fossils of the Age of Cyanide. He hoped for square nails.
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.
In the nineteen-forties, a professor at Delft had written a book called The Pulse of the Earth, in which he asserted with mild cynicism that where gaps exist among the facts of geology the space between is often filled with things “geopoetical,”
All science involves speculation, and few sciences include as much speculation as geology. Is the Delaware Water Gap the outlet of a huge lake all other traces of which have since disappeared? A geomorphologist will tell you that, in principle, the idea is O.K. You have to deal with partial information. In oil drilling, you had better be ready to act shrewdly on partial information. Do physicists do that? Hell, no. They want to have it to seven decimal places on their Hewlett-Packards. The geologist has to choose the course of action with the best statistical chance. As a result, the style of geology is full of inferences, and they change. No one has ever seen a geosyncline. No one has ever seen the welding of tuff. No one has ever seen a granite batholith intrude.”
One of the oddities of the modern episodes of glaciation is that while three-fifths of all the ice in the world covered North America and extended south of Springfield, Illinois, the valley of the Yukon River in and near Alaska was never glaciated, and as a result the gold in the Yukon drainage—the gold of the richest placer streams ever discovered in the world—was left where it lay,
As the ice walls of the Pleistocene moved across Quebec, resculpting mountains, digging lakes, they apparently dozed through kimberlite pipes, scattering the contents southwest. The ice that plucked up the diamonds not only brought questions with it but also obscured the answers. How many pipes are there? Where are they? How rich are they in diamonds? If one ten-millionth of their content is gem diamond, they would be worth mining. They are somewhere northeast of Indiana. They are in all likelihood less than a quarter of a mile wide. They may be under glacial drift. They may be under lakes. A few have been discovered—none of value. Presumably, there are others, relatively studded with diamonds. Many people have searched. No one has found them.
In the Wall Street area, the bedrock does not return to the surface, but it comes within forty feet and is accessible for the footings of the tallest things in town. New York grew high on the advantage of its hard rock, and, New York being what it is, cities all over the world have attempted to resemble it. The skyline of nuclear Houston, for example, is a simulacrum of Manhattan’s. Houston rests on twelve thousand feet of montmorillonitic clay, a substance that, when moist, turns into mobile jelly. After taking so much money out of the ground, the oil companies of Houston have put hundreds of millions back in. Houston is the world’s foremost city in fat basements. Its tall buildings are magnified duckpins, bobbing in their own mire.
If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, on the other hand, sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away. Yucatans and Floridas would be under the sun one moment and underwater the next, oceans would swing open like doors, mountains would grow like clouds and come down like melting sherbet, 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 full of fireflies. 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.
Taiwan is the vanguard of a lithospheric microplate and consists of pieces of island arc preceded by an accretionary wedge of materials coming off the Eurasian Plate and materials shedding forward from the island’s rising mountains. As the plate edges buckle before it, the island has plowed up so much stuff that it has filled in all the space between the accretionary wedge and the volcanic arc, and thus its components make an integral island. It is in motion northwest. For the mainland government in Beijing to be wooing the Taiwanese to join the People’s Republic of China is the ultimate inscrutable irony. Not only will Taiwan inexorably become one with Red China. It will hit into China like a fist in a belly. It will knock up big mountains from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
Bentonite is mined in Wyoming and sold to the rest of the world. Blessed is the land that can sell its mud.
The Crows liked the hunting country in the area of the butte, and so did the Shoshonis. The two tribes fought, and lost a lot of blood, over this ground. Eventually, the chief of the Shoshonis said, in effect, to the chief of the Crows: this is pointless; I will fight you, one against one; the hunting ground goes to the winner. The chief of the Shoshonis was the great Washakie, whose name rests in six places on the map of Wyoming, including a mountain range and a county. Washakie was at least fifty, but fit. The Crow would have been wise to demur. Washakie destroyed him in the hand-to-hand combat, then cut out his heart and ate it.
“He has a cabbage heart with a leaf for every girl.”
The incongruity of this monument was in direct proportion to its stark isolation. It was Uncle Pete’s version of Interstate 80’s Abraham Lincoln. It commemorated the brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames—Massachusetts shovel-makers, railroad financiers—whose Credit Mobilier of America made construction contracts with itself in enjoying the fruits of subsidy of the Union Pacific Railroad. If you belonged to the United States Congress, you could buy shares of Credit Mobilier stock for fifty per cent of their value.
In sharp tones, his father said, “Laddie, leave the rabbits and rifle and run for home. Run!” He knew hypothermia when he saw it, no matter that it lacked a name.
spinal injuries that required a “hanging pole” in the bunkhouse. This was a horizontal bar from which the cowboys would hang by their hands for 5-10 minutes to relieve pressure on ruptured spinal disks that came from too much bronc-fighting. Some wore eight-inch-wide heavy leather belts to keep their kidneys in place during prolonged hard rides.
The Teton Range is forty miles long and less than ten across—a surface area inverse in proportion not only to its extraordinary ubiquity but also to its grandeur. The Tetons—with Jackson Hole beneath them—are in a category with Mt. McKinley, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River as what conservation organizations and the Washington bureaucracy like to call a scenic climax.
Hayden, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, led one of the several groups that in 1879 combined to become the United States Geological Survey. When he came into the country in the late eighteen-fifties, he was so galvanized by seeing the composition of the earth in clear unvegetated view that he regularly went off on his own, moved hurriedly from outcrop to outcrop, and filled canvas bags with samples. This puzzled the Sioux. Wondering what he could be collecting, they watched him, discussed him, and finally attacked him. Seizing his canvas bags, they shook out the contents. Rocks fell on the ground. In that instant, Professor Hayden was accorded the special status that all benevolent people reserve for the mentally disadvantaged. In their own words, the Sioux named him He Who Picks Up Rocks Running, and to all hostilities thereafter Hayden remained immune.
“We should not tie in the landscape here with events that have taken place along the coast. This doesn’t neutralize or dispose of the theory of plate tectonics, but applied here it’s incongruous—it’s kind of like a rabbit screwing a horse. There is no evidence of plates grinding against each other here. The thrust sheets are probably symptoms of plate-tectonic activity fifty million years ago, but the chief problem is that tectonism is not adequately placed in a time framework here. Almost everybody now agrees that there is tremendous significance to plate tectonics—also that the concept is valid. Most people don’t argue about that anymore. Our arguments come in the details. We should dissect all these mountain ranges before we get diarrhea of the pen trying to clue them in to plate theory. There’s nothing wrong with ideas, with working hypotheses, but unsubstantiated glittering generalities are a waste of time. Most of the megathinkers are basing sweeping interpretations on pretty inadequate data. There are swarms of papers being written by people who have been looking at state and federal and worldwide geologic maps and coming to sweeping conclusions on how mountains were formed and what the forces involved were. Until we know the anatomy of each mountain range, how are we going to say what came up when—or if they all came up in one great spasm? You can’t assume they’re all the same. In order to know the anatomy of each mountain range, you have to know details of sedimentary history. To know the details of sedimentary history, you have to know stratigraphy. I didn’t know until recently that stratigraphy is dead. Many schools don’t teach it anymore. To me, that’s writing the story without knowing the alphabet. The geologic literature is a graveyard of skeletons who worked the structure of mountain ranges without knowing the stratigraphy.
Flood basalts are what the term implies—geologically fast, and voluminous in their declaration of the presence of a hot spot. In Oregon and Washington, in the middle Miocene, two hundred and fifty thousand cubic kilometres flowed out within three million years. Having achieved the surface in this form, the plume begins to make its track as the plate above slides by, just as Yellowstone, starting off from the flood basalts of Oregon and Washington, stretched out the pathway that has become the Snake River Plain. An event of the brevity and magnitude of a great basalt flood is an obvious shock to the surface world. “We don’t know what flood basalts do to the atmosphere,” Morgan remarked one day in 1985, showing me a chronology he had been making of the great flood basalts that not only filled every valley “like water” and killed every creature in areas as large as a million square kilometres but also may have spread around the world lethal effects through the sky. Morgan’s time chart of flood basalts matched almost exactly the cycles of death that are currently prominent in the dialogue of massextinction theorists, including the flood basalts of the Deccan Plateau, which are contemporaneous with the death of the dinosaurs—the event that is known as the Cretaceous Extinction.
A Rock Springs policeman shot another Rock Springs policeman at point-blank range and later explained in court that he had sensed that his colleague was about to kill him. How was that again? The defendant said, “When a man has the urge to kill, you can see it in his eyes.” The jury saw it that way, too. Not guilty. Some people in Sweetwater County seemed to be of the opinion that the dead policeman needed killing.
Lakes are so ephemeral that they are seldom developed in the geologic record. They are places where rivers bulge, as a temporary consequence of topography. Lakes fill in, drain themselves, or just evaporate and disappear. They don’t last. The Great Lakes are less than twenty thousand years old.
There were mountain bluebells and salt sage in the valley, ground phlox and prickly pear. Love reached down and plucked up a plant and asked if I knew what it was. It looked familiar, and I said, “Wild onion.” He said, “It’s death camas. It brings death quickly. It killed many pioneer children. They thought it looked like wild onion.”
In 1857, after the lone miners had worked the place over, the American River Ditch Company built a dam there, to impound water for hydraulic mining. The dam eventually crumbled. The dam site did not. As environmentalists have discovered to their eternal chagrin, a dam site is a dam site forever, no matter what the state or the nation may decide to do about it in any given era. On present road maps of California, that part of the American River is marked “Auburn Dam and Reservoir (Under Construction).”
They fired their furnaces with Aleppo pines, and other conifers—the ancient forests of Cyprus. To smelt one pound of copper from sulphide required three hundred pounds of charcoal. From the earliest beginnings of the mining until the last years of the Roman Empire, about two hundred thousand tons of copper were smelted on Cyprus. That used up fifty-eight thousand square miles of pinewood forest, on an island whose total area is thirty-six hundred square miles. The forest had to be rejuvenated sixteen times for copper alone, not to mention the fleets of ships that were made on Cyprus, or the firing of the island’s world-renowned kilns.
“For lack of wood, Oman, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel all had short-lived mines,” Constantinou said. “The Troodos gave water here to support trees. But sixty million tons of charcoal made from 1.2 billion cubic metres of wood is no joke. Sometimes I close my eyes and see that ancient scene. I get crazy. I see all those people, tens of thousands of people, carrying ore, carrying wood.”
—Do you see those switchbacks climbing out of the plain? The Greeks used to survey a road by putting a hundred kilos on the back of a burro and sending him uphill. They followed the burro with a road.
For a couple of years, Moores worked alone in Macedonia, attracting the attention of nothing much but mastiffs, which appeared out of nowhere. The mastiffs were protective of sheep, and hostile to geologists and wolves.
“Optimism is highest at the beginning. A mining camp has nowhere to go but down.”
After the two plates joined, in the Eocene, the whole enterprise that geologists now refer to as the Indo-Australian Plate continued to move northward, gathering islands, for a few tens of millions of years. Then, with India as its hammerhead, it struck the Asian mainland. Moores thinks that the collision has scarcely begun.
The idea of the seismic gap first occurred to the seismologist Akitsune Imamura, in Tokyo, more or less at the time of the great San Francisco earthquake of April, 1906. As he studied Japanese earthquake records, which went back hundreds of years, Imamura arranged them graphically in zones of time and place. Where he found quiescent stretches—unfilled areas of his charts—he could see that they had been temporary, as pressure built to fill them. He could see that Tokyo—for what was then the time being—was in a large quiescent zone. In 1912, he began warning the public that the Tokyo gap was soon to be filled. He said that its size suggested to him a severe shock. Essentially, no one was interested. Imamura repeated his warnings for eleven years. The response remained as empty as the gap. In 1923, a hundred and forty thousand people died as Imamura’s gap, in a couple of minutes, closed.