book review: Annals of the Former World

Cross-posted at Gene Lewis Perry.

I’ve been returning to this book off and on for the last two years and finally finished it. In fairness, it’s five books in one volume, each covering a segment of the author’s geological journeys across the United States.

But don’t let 660 pages about rocks intimidate you. McPhee combines detailed explanations of geology with anecdotes from his travels and often amazing biographies of the geologists he travels with.

He manages to humanize a subject full of unfamiliar terms and nearly unimaginable timescales. While you might occasionally get lost in the schists and faults and sutures and orogenies, you will come out seeing the world differently.

Most remarkable to me was how these scientists managed to imagine the unimaginable — to stand on a piece of earth and see how it looked tens and hundreds and thousands of millions of years ago — based only on clues in the rocks which are themselves moving in all directions, in the process being melted into magma, buried under mountains and seas, eroded, compressed, and deformed.

To take one not-so-small example, the summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone. The highest rocks on earth were born beneath an ancient sea.

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