The first of John McPhee''s works in his series on geology and geologists, Basin and Range is a book of journeys through ancient terrains, always in juxtaposition with travels in the modern world―a history of vanished landscapes, enhanced by the histories of people who bring them to light. The title refers to the physiographic province of the United States that reaches from eastern Utah to eastern California, a silent world of austere beauty, of hundreds of discrete high mountain ranges that are green with junipers and often white with snow. The terrain becomes the setting for a lyrical evocation of the science of geology, with important digressions into the plate-tectonics revolution and the history of the geologic time scale.
One of the most valuable tools for the advancement of geological science has in fact been the humble road cut. United States Interstate 80 crosses the entire North American continent, in the process exposing hundreds of millions of years of geological history. In
Basin and Range, McPhee, accompanied at times by Princeton geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes, demonstrates how the contorted and tilted rocks seen in these road cuts reveal how islands of the earth''s crust have floated across the earth''s surface, crashing and folding to form basin and range. This is a masterful and sometimes even poetic volume of popular writing about plate tectonics, communicating the profound satisfaction of using scientific research as a tool for understanding the world around us.
This is the first of four books on North American geology by McPhee, collectively entitled Annals of the Former World. The other volumes are , , and .
“In Basin and Range, McPhee is not so much a visiting amateur as a rhapsodist of "deep time" . . . The result is a fascinating book.” ―Paul Zweig, The New York Times Book Review
“One result of the trip west is an introduction to plate tectonics--probably the most readable summary extant. Geologists will find it sound, others will find it understandable and illuminating.” ―Geotimes
“He triumphs by succinct prose, by his uncanny ability to capture the essence of a complex issue, or an arcane trade secret, in a well-turned phrase.” ―Stephen J. Gould, New York Review of Books
“An exciting account of geology and the geologist, providing both an excellent history and an up-to-date snapshot of our science in the 1980s.” ―Howard R. Gould President, the Geological Society of America
“McPhee has taken on something that all of us--especially the American Geological Institute and its news magazine Geotimes--should take on: the explanation to non-geologists of what geology is all about.” ―Wendell Cochran, Geotimes
“The best popular portrayal of geology that I have seen in my thirty-two years of experience as a professional geologist.” ―H. A. Kuehnert, Director, Worldwide Exploration, Phillips Petroleum Company
John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at
Time magazine and led to his long association with
The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book,
A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written over 30 books, including
Coming into the Country (1977),
The Control of Nature (1989),
The Founding Fish (2002),
Uncommon Carriers (2007), and
Silk Parachute (2011).
Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and
The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for
Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.