Book Review: Basin and Range

Basin and RangeBasin and Range by John McPhee

The highway known as U.S. Interstate 95 passes through a rock formation known as the Palisades as it approaches the George Washington Bridge from the New Jersey side. On a recent trip to Flushing, Queens, the driver of the vehicle in which I was a passenger remarked that John McPhee wrote a book, Basin and Range, about this and many other rock formations traversed by Interstate 80 (I-80). (As it happens, I-80 begins its westward journey in Teaneck, New Jersey, a couple of miles west of the Palisades, but that’s a minor quibble.)

John McPhee, writing about I-80 and geology? I had no idea. No one, at least no one who lives in the New York Metropolitan region, can claim to be literate without some exposure to John McPhee. Mine has been minimal at best to this point: I’ve read some short stories, but none of McPhee’s nonfiction. I’ve since come to learn that John McPhee is regarded as a pioneer of creative nonfiction, also known as literary nonfiction.

Basin and Range is a great example of creative nonfiction. It is a gift to the field of geology and to laypersons such as I who could stand to know more about it but who slept through those lectures in high school science classes. The genius of this book is that it tells the story of geology by telling stories about geologists and how they go about their work. To get those stories McPhee traveled and worked alongside several geologists, often performing work that graduate assistants might perform during field work seasons. We find McPhee and his subject standing just feet from a congested highway in Paterson, New Jersey or hiking into some remote location in Nevada to expose, excavate, collect, and sometimes even taste rock samples.

The term “basin and range” refers to series of parallel mountain ranges and intervening valleys. The mountains of the Eastern United States include some basin-and-range groupings, such as the First and Second Watchung mountains of New Jersey. These and the Palisades are places that I know, places that I’ve visited, so it is fun to read about them in this context. John McPhee goes into detail in describing the processes by which they were formed, and what the landscape would have looked like while they were being formed. He describes theories of continental drift early in the book; later he gives a history of the science of plate tectonics. Again, McPhee uses the stories of the scientists who put forth their theories and pioneered the disciplines within geology. We learn, for example, of a U.S. Navy officer who brought a device known as a fathometer along during his deployment on an attack transport vessel during World War II. The officer, Harry Hess, used this device to map the seafloor as he traveled and even as he participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima.

There is plenty of humor in the real-life adventures that McPhee experienced while researching and writing Basin and Range. There is also a funny passage about a dream that he had about a fire at Nasser Aftab’s House of Carpets, a real store in Paramus, New Jersey. The fire, which is fictional, destroyed the store. At the same time an incident in the adjoining ice cream factory created a scene where molten carpet fabric, ash, and liquified ice cream combined in much the same way that phenomena within and beneath the earth’s crust combined to create a specific set of geological features.

I have some work to do to explore more of McPhee’s nonfiction, and for that matter his fiction, but I suspect it will be worth the effort when I do.

Thank you for stopping by!


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