Thus inducted into the clan of McPhee admirers, I was primed for the publication later that year of Annals of the Former World. The book is a compilation of writing on geology McPhee began in 1978 when he published a short item about a road cut on Interstate 80 west of New York City. Over the following twenty years, that initial story led McPhee to make a series of trips across America in the company of geologists, through whom he would explore both the geologic history of a region and the history of geology itself. Those travels resulted in four separate books: Basin and Range; In Suspect Terrain; Rising From the Plains; and Assembling California. For the publication of Annals, these were joined by a fifth and final section, Crossing the Craton.

Even for a writer known for pulping juice out of seemingly desiccated subject matter, publishing a 660-page door jam on geology seemed a bit extreme. There is always with McPhee a gnawing sense that perhaps he is choosing his subjects precisely for their apparent dullness, tossing down the gauntlet, as it were, before contemporary sensibilities of what makes for good stories. In a time when so many nonfiction writers work with one eye trained on Hollywood, hoping to follow their narrative arcs and high concepts into the sunlit uplands of first dollar gross, McPhee’s work remains resolutely uncinematic.

That is certainly the case for Annals, whose frequent declivities, buried geosynclines, and discordant batholiths make it too-rugged terrain for Hollywood to file a claim on. Which is not the same thing as saying the subject is bland. Indeed, as McPhee notes early on in the book, geology is known as a descriptive science. And so it is. In making the road cuts yield up their secrets, McPhee finds keys to time machines parked at regular intervals by the side of the highway. Consider McPhee’s examination of a canyon wall in Nevada that holds sand and pebbles from the ancient shoreline of the Meramecian straits off the then-coast of North America:

The strait was warm and equatorial. The equator ran through the present site of San Diego, up through Colorado and Nebraska, and on through the site of Lake Superior. The lake would not be dug for nearly three hundred and forty million years. If in the Meramecian you were to have followed the present route of Interstate 80 moving east, you would have raised the coast of North America near the Wyoming border, and landed on a red beach. Gradually you would have ascended through equatorial fern forests, in red soil, to a high point somewhere near Laramie, to begin there a long general downgrade among low hills to Grand Island, Nebraska, where you would have come to an arm of the sea. The far shore was four hundred miles to the east, where the Mississippi River is now, and beyond it was a low, wet, humid, flat terrain, dense with ferns and fern trees–Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. Halfway across Ohio, you would have come to a second epicratonic sea, its far shore in central Pennsylvania. In New Jersey you would have begun to ascend mountains and ever higher mountains, their summits girt with ice and capped with snow, not unlike Mt. Kenya…. Reaching the site of the George Washington Bridge, you would have been at a considerable altitude, looking at mountains and more mountains before you in future Africa.

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.