second read

On the Rocks

Douglas McCollam on John McPhee's Annals of the Former World
June 12, 2007

Annals of the Former World

By John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


I first encountered the writer John McPhee about ten years ago on a remote stretch of the Salmon River in the wilds of northern Alaska just inside the Arctic Circle. That’s where he was, at least. I was sitting in the sun outside a small restaurant near my office in midtown Manhattan. But such was McPhee’s evocation of the Kobuk Valley landscape that it was easy to look at the flow of traffic up Third Avenue and overlay the taxis, buses, and buildings with darting graylings, marauding grizzlies, and stands of virgin willow trees.

I was a latecomer to the tribe of McPhee readers. For some reason, despite avidly consuming the work of other in-house masters at The New Yorker such as Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, I’d managed to avoid McPhee. I’d nod sagely when his name came up in conversation, but I never actually sat down to read his stuff. I vaguely associated him with the New Journalism of the 1960s, but where I’d been drawn to gawp at the stylistic pyrotechnics of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Truman Capote, I viewed McPhee, with his forensic dissections of flora and fauna as, well, a trifle dull. Twenty thousand words on the virtues of Florida oranges or Bill Bradley’s jump shot? No thanks.

That changed right about the time I decided to leave my legal career and become a writer, or at least a journalist. My first job was editing a three-hole-punch financial monthly then put out by Steve Brill’s American Lawyer. The job came with a small office, two dutiful junior editors, and David Marcus, a hyperkinetic staff writer who, with scant prompting, would hold forth at length and with surprising candor on the failings of his editors (myself included), the virtues of Princeton lacrosse, and the writing of John McPhee. Hero worship is too uncritical a quality to manifest in a character as irascible as Marcus, but his enthusiasm for McPhee was ardent and infectious. More than once I gingerly approached Marcus’s desk to investigate the fate of some overdue article on, say, the takeover of a Connecticut car-parts company, only to find him manically sifting through a mound of index cards, because ”that’s how McPhee”organized his research (though I felt pretty sure there was more actual organization in McPhee’s system). Usually when I attempted some judicious pruning of a Marcus magnum opus, he’d speed-walk into my office and begin denouncing me as a ham-handed simpleton. ”Read McPhee,”he’d often admonish, with a mixture of pity and irritation. Only then, it seemed, might I hope to grasp the Marcusian literary vision.

As there appeared to be little likelihood of avoiding such encounters with Marcus, in the spring of 1998 I decided to take his advice and picked up a copy of McPhee’s Coming into the Country, already known to many (but not to me) as a nonfiction classic. Published in 1977, the book recounts McPhee’s journeys in the Alaskan backcountry. Though I dedicated big chunks of hours to reading the book, it nevertheless took me a while to get through it as I’d often stop and reread several pages trying to figure out what McPhee was up to. I particularly rehashed the book’s front section, ”The Encircled River,”in which McPhee, like a Victorian illusionist, somehow manages to finish the story at the exact time and place on the river where it began. The time-shift in the narrative is so subtle that I drifted right through it, arriving at the end point blinking like a sleepy child awoken from the backseat of a car already parked in the driveway. For an apprentice nonfiction writer, it was a revelation.

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.

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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.

I’m tempted to say that passages like this one and many others in Annals of the Former World have had a lingering effect on me, but that does not quite describe the impact of the book. Many books haunt, but while I may have pondered the cruel fate of Tolstoy’s Madame Karenina, or felt the visceral despair of Saint Augustine, even after returning their stories to the shelf, no work has altered my perception of the world and our place in it more than McPhee’s geology tome. It caused a shift in conscience, an alteration in the currents of my thought that, even now, carve out fresh new channels for my perceptions to tumble down. Usually those kinds of seismic events are produced between the covers of religious or philosophical tracts or, perhaps, by a great novel. But geology? Over the years I’ve often attempted to explain the book’s tug on my psyche, but usually only receive looks of bemused indulgence. Such reactions have often made me wonder if Annals, like Finnegan’s Wake, is one of those books that many have on the shelf but few have actually read. I raised the question with David Remnick, McPhee’s editor at The New Yorker, of whether the book, despite having won a Pulitzer Prize, is sometimes overlooked by readers. ”I think it really is an underrated masterpiece,”said Remnick, a former student of McPhee’s at Princeton. ”It got made fun of a little bit as ‘that story about rocks.’ ”

Trying to explain the book’s power, I’ve clumsily equated its effect to a kind of personal Copernican revolution, one that stripped away lingering notions of childhood religion and permanently colored my perception of human history. The endorsement of Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the universe in the early seventeenth century, you might recall, caused Galileo to be placed under house arrest for life by the Vatican. After reading Annals, I better understood how unsettling a bit of heresy was Copernican astronomy, because it, like the book, moves mankind far, far, far from the center of the narrative of creation and existence. To illustrate how humankind stands in relation to the larger sweep of events, McPhee supplies the useful notion of ”animal time.”As creatures of animal time, human beings tend to walk around in a bubble of five generations: two back; two forward. Occasionally, we may stretch a rung or two beyond this construct, but generally speaking that’s our comfort zone. To help contrast animal time with geologic time, McPhee notes that geologists sometimes use a calendar year to represent the history of the earth. In the first ten months, the Precambrian period, the basement of time, there is little in the way of fossil records:

Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds.

McPhee then offers a try-at-home exercise to help break the bonds of animal time:

With your arms spread wide again to represent all the time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.

For geologists then, the human condition appears quite different:

They often liken humanity’s presence on earth to a brief visitation from elsewhere in space, its luminous, explosive

characteristics consisting not merely of the burst of population in the twentieth century, but of the whole residence of people on earth–a single detonation, resembling nothing so much as a nuclear implosion with its successive neutron generations, whole generations following one another once every hundred-millionth of a second. …[T]he human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it…. Primordial inhibition may stand in the way. On the geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about. The mind blocks the information.

Obviously, the effect of letting this notion of deep time seep into one’s conscience is not always comforting–or productive. When I came home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina I heard many fellow Orleanians talk about the traditions and history of the city that had to be saved. I found myself thinking that the surrounding ground was lying to us. With its five-hundred-year-old oak trees draped in Spanish Moss and its eighteenth-century historic landmarks, the landscape of New Orleans does appear old–from the perspective of animal time almost primordial. In geologic time, though, it’s quite young and unstable. The Mississippi River deposited the ground on which the city is built only in the last ten thousand years–a minute ago in geologic time–and will take it back just as fast. On the other hand, escaping from animal time can be comforting as well. Whenever ethnic violence flares up at home or abroad, I take some solace in the fact that just 50,000 years ago we were all one small tribe living in Africa. Surely then we can come to recognize our own family whom we left only a moment ago.

The achievement of McPhee in writing Annals isn’t to teach you to measure time, which is an intellectual enterprise, but to make you feel it, to guide your senses in peering around the built-in barriers that retard our detection of its true dimensions. He does this in a manner befitting his subject matter: through mass and constant pressure. When we talked, David Remnick told me that,

although he had read all the sections of the book when they were first published, they somehow gained power when collected together, accumulated and compressed, as it were, to a far greater density. It’s the kind of density that has its detractors. Though McPhee is revered by many writers, particularly those ”McPhinos”(like Remnick) who took his writing course, The Literature of Fact, at Princeton, there are others who find his work ponderous, his choice of subjects off-putting, and his exalted status among egghead journalists irritating. In 2005, Michael Wolff, who covers the media for Vanity Fair magazine, took a swipe at ”the cult of John McPhee,”calling the man himself ”a writer of fabled factuality and unstylishness, who, I would wager, has seldom been read to the end by anybody other than his acolytes.”

I guess that means I should be fitted for vestments, because I find it hard to see how anyone who has started a McPhee story could put it down, a fact of which I was reminded not long after agreeing to write this assessment of Annals. Looking for my copy, I realized that I had left it at my apartment in Washington, D.C., so I went by a local bookstore in New Orleans to see if they had it in stock. No luck, but they did have Coming into the Country, the book that had first sparked my affinity for McPhee. It was a beautiful day, and I sat outside on the lawn of an old mansion that’s been converted to a small library in my neighborhood, a place where I sometimes go to write. For a while I tried to read with a critical eye, plumbing the text for clues as to what so rankles McPhee’s critics (the penchant for Melvillean lists? The sometimes glacial pacing?) and also for what I liked (Melvillean lists, glacial pacing). I was dutiful for a while, but the sun was warm and as the afternoon wore on I ended up putting my pen aside and lying back on the grass. On the avenue in front of the library, the after-school traffic swelled and knotted, but it was too late by then to disturb my reverie. I had already slipped back onto the Salmon River, and all the honking SUVs were snarling grizzly bears.

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.