Assembling California

by John McPhee
Start Free Trial

Assembling California

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

In the late 1970’s, John McPhee began a series of trips across the United States, roughly at the fortieth parallel. In the four books that resulted, he has provided a geological cross-section of North America and a primer of plate tectonics. He has also done something more difficult to describe. Shifting from geological eras to “history” to the present, he has created an uncanny sense of the relativity of time.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

“Then, a piece at a time — according to present theory— parts began to assemble. An island here, a piece of continent there — a Japan at a time, a New Zealand, a Madagascar — came crunching in upon the continent and have thus far adhered.” That’s McPhee describing the literal “assembling” of California: geological time. A sudden shift in perspective and it’s 1848, with McPhee retelling the story of John Sutter and the Gold Rush with a freshness that makes it new: history. In the present, McPhee is guided by geologist Eldridge Moores, who perceives eons of change in a landscape the way a city-dweller might recognize signs of change in a neighborhood. Finally, in recounting the Loma Prieta quake that devastated the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, McPhee shows geological time and present time intersecting for a few terrifying seconds—with enormous consequences.

In a recent PUBLISHERS WEEKLY interview, Alec Wilkinson commented on the lameness of the “nonfiction” label for the work of writers such as McPhee and Joseph Mitchell (and Wilkinson himself). Whatever it is called, the writing in ASSEMBLING CALIFORNIA and the preceding volumes in ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD is as good and as likely to last as any writing of our time.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, December 1, 1992, p.633.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 3, 1993, p.13.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, December 1, 1992, p.1485.

Library Journal. CXVIII, January, 1993, p.162.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 13, 1993, p.1.

New Scientist. CXXXIX, July 24, 1993, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 7, 1993, p.9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, January 4, 1993, p.67.

Time. CXLI, April 5, 1993, p.62.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 7, 1993, p.5.

Assembling California

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2147

Assembling California is the final book in John McPhee’s geological tetralogy, Annals of the Former World. “Assembling” refers coyly to the two-decade-old theory of plate tectonics, which the three preceding books (Basin and Range, 1980; In Suspect Terrain, 1982; and Rising from the Plains, 1986) explained for those readers who survived the exposure to thick geological nomenclature. Tectonic geologists have embraced McPhee as one of their own, given his immersion in the topic and skill at discussing it. He dedicates Assembling California to Kenneth Deffeyes, the geologist who accompanied him to the Western states to look at road cuts, the freeway builder’s gift to students of rocks. But when McPhee entered California near Tahoe with the ever-prescient Deffeyes, the geologist was stumped by rock he did not recognize, and referred the author to his California alter ego, Eldridge Moores. Assembling California is the fruit of trips with Moores over several years during the 1980’s.

Geology is not humanities or anthropology, as the time charts on the book’s endpapers make clear. The most recent geological era is the Cenozoic, which traces time back a mere 65 million years. The three preceding eras begin with Precambrian time, which originates in the Hadean Eon, dated at 4,600 million years before the present. In that four-era-long wealth of time, plate tectonicists assert, the earth has been in a constant state of topographical rearrangement, such that supercontinents have more than once formed, broken apart, and re-formed. McPhee imparts this perspective with as much expertise as a lover of the subject can develop, professionals included. The earth, he writes, is “a planetary shell so mobile that nothing on it resembles itself as it was some years before, when nothing on it resembled itself as it was some years before that.” Geology addresses infinity, the persistent replacement of land with oceans and vice versa, and the continuance of all this in the present at the same, to human senses, immeasurably slow pace. McPhee’s explication of this phenomenon, parts of it admittedly hypothetical, is as close to an act of worship as a three-hundred-page book can come without ever invoking the name of God.

The art of John McPhee has always been to wrest marvels from the mundane. He can write about whiskey, oranges, canoe building, tires, Alaska, roadkill, Atlantic City, or Bill Bradley, and the reader is hard-pressed to decide if it is the subject that fascinates or McPhee’s energized consciousness of it. He brings a poet’s sensibility to the most tangible things. Writing about geology, this feaster on the detail beneath the detail asks readers to follow him into a subject as complex as a medical subspecialty with the accompanying technical lingo. Because McPhee is writing, the reader most likely will comply.

In Assembling California, McPhee’s strategy remains what it has been in many of his books: He stage-manages the presence of a man or woman who knows the subject. The world is not facts, he tacitly proposes, but personalities generating ideas, attitudes, products, and lives. To know California’s geology, one gets to know Eldridge Moores, a geologist who works out of the University of California, Davis. McPhee is interested in presenting geology as a subject while showing how the subject comes into being. Plate tectonics is a new vision. It exists as the community of geologists senses it, defines it, modifies it, fights it, and believes it. The work of human thought and perception, making discoveries and diving deep into time through stone, is as major a drama for McPhee as the earthquakes—past, present, and future—which are the most dramatic effects of tectonic action. If the world is assembling and disassembling itself as tectonics proposes, so is the scientist’s evolving vision. Geologists relish the uncertainty. McPhee quotes a volcanologist in this regard: “In the next ten years, our confusion will reach new heights of sophistication.”

Much of Assembling California recounts trips McPhee took with Moores into California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the evidence of tectonics can be most easily read. In this high range, sloped gradually to the west, dropped abruptly from its summits to the basin floor to the east, Moores demonstrates through the visible rock the subduction which caused the range to form. In “subduction,” a central concept for plate geology, one plate pushes under another as the two plates meet. A shape like the Sierra Nevada is formed, much like the effects on a car fender in a collision, a collision which consume centuries and blends rock and leaves debris at a messy joint and at new elevations. As McPhee noted in Basin and Range, and repeats here, “The summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone.” Whether the geologist looks at the Sierras, the Alps, or the Himalayas, he is reading the junction of plate contact.

A vintage McPhee analogy gives the reader some sense of what the geologist is seeing at such a “suture.” Imagine an attic that houses pieces of furniture differing widely in date and style:

You also see, lined up in close ranks, a Queen Anne maple side chair, a Federal mahogany shield-back side chair, a Chippendale shell-carved walnut side chair, and a William and Mary carved and caned American armchair. Stratigraphically, they are out of order. How did that happen? Why are they here? Only one thing is indisputable: this is some loft.

Earlier geology presumed that the earth—its rock layers, stratigraphy, readable zones of difference—arose and wore away on a vertical plane. But that attic of random chairs was puzzling, and only the effects of plate collisions and subductions could account for the disorder. Moores tells McPhee: “To see through the topography and see how the rocks lie in three dimensions beneath the topography is the hardest thing to get across to a student.… Left handed people do it better.” Readers who struggle to follow McPhee’s unabashed geological vocabulary—sheeted diabase, spreading center, terrane, batholith, abyssolith, and so on—are sensing their relative proclivity as left-handers, if not simply their curiosity about the globe they live on every day.

McPhee provides other geological perspectives which do not necessitate line-by-line recourse to a dictionary. First, he explores the Gold Rush history of California, an apt digression since gold shows up where plates come together. California was populated more or less instantly, as a result of gold fever; thus its inhabitants’ “assembly” in the place curiously resulted from the docking of one plate with another. McPhee will not explicitly point out that odd causation, but vividly juxtaposes the earth’s behavior and man’s such that the reader holds the image throughout the book. The incongruity of geological phenomena and human behavior is a variously spun theme. The geologist’s purity of intent—to know the life of stone (“It was fine-grained diabase, in magnification asparkle with crystals—free-form, asymmetrical, improvisational plagioclase crystals bestrewn against a field of dark pyroxene”)—contrasts with the greed-driven, furious, but brief tearing and blasting of California in the 1850’s.

The dance of a riffraff of gold miners on the juncture of two vast plates made history for students in grade school, but the earth keeps its plates in motion, and the towns of the miners are gone. What of more sustained mining, for which geological surveys exist, in part, to establish? McPhee visits Cyprus with Moores, Cyprus being a piece of visible ocean crust attracting Moores’s study, and dilates on the smelting of copper which began there in 2760 B.C. “At Skouriotissa, southwest of Peristerona, the concurrence of geologic time and human time had been long enough to approach a record. A very large working strip mine there had been in operation for four thousand three hundred years.” Cyprus copper made the battles in Homer’s Illiad possible, and other copper turned bronze from Cyprus armed Darius the Persian’s forty thousand soldiers. Most of humankind uses the earth’s metals to kill and buy things with, but Moores tells McPhee about “the joy of being alone with the geology.”

Moores himself, in a chapter McPhee devotes to the geologist’s Arizona boyhood and college years, seems a pure product of the earth, naturally studying and “producing” his nurturing mineral source. He grew up in a tiny mining village, accessible only by dangerous mountain roads. His father mined with mediocre success, and the teenage Moores admitted to his parents that it was not the life he wanted to lead. At the California Institute of Technology, however, the only major he considered was geology: “He wondered still about those colors in granite. He may not have cared how the gold got out of the mountains, but he did want to know how the mountains came there to receive the gold.”

So the world grows, like other natural forms. There once was no California, there is now, there will not be one in the future. Though the historical scale of these motions is difficult for most minds to care about, the fact of it becomes all-important when an earthquake occurs. The world’s inhospitality is geological. That simultaneous incongruity of life—the globe’s and humanity’s—is suddenly manifested when an astoundingly beautiful city, San Francisco, is shaken. McPhee quotes Bay Area columnist Stephanie Salter responding to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake:

A traumatic experience… started in the depths of the earth and wreaked damage all the way to the depths of the psyche.… Or maybe the truth is, earthquake time is the most real time of all, a time when all the bull ceases and the preciousness of life is understood most acutely.

The final fifty pages of Assembling California McPhee reserves for the San Andreas fault and the cities it threatens, particularly San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Of the two most direct routes from southern to northern California, always choose the San Andreas Fault. If you have adequate time, it beats the hell out of Interstate 5.” The fault region is wired by seismologists, for the sake of knowledge but equally in the hopes of offering warning of impending quakes to the populated cities. To give a feeling of the wave motion of a quake, the quake being the shock created by those plates moving against each other, McPhee provides a moment-by-moment narrative of the 1989 quake which delayed the World Series. It was not a San Francisco earthquake, in fact, but a Watsonville-Santa Cruz earthquake which ultimately arrived in San Francisco with a much-spent share of its epicentered power. McPhee uses the present tense to drive home the details of what people near the epicenter experienced:

On Summit Road, near the Loma Prieta School, a man goes up in the air like a diver off a board. He lands on his head. Another man is thrown sideways through a picture window. A built-in oven leaves its niche and shoots across the kitchen. A refrigerator walks, bounces off a wall, and returns to its accustomed place. As Pearl Lake’s seven-room house goes off its foundation, she stumbles in her kitchen and falls to the wooden floor. In 1906, the same house went off the same foundation. Her parents had moved in the day before.… Ryan Moore, in bed under the covers, is still under the covers after his house travels a hundred feet and ends up in ruins around him.

Those who experienced the earthquake that struck Los Angeles in 1994 will find that McPhee’s account could have been written about them.

Some McPhee readers will question his geological preoccupations, and wonder why their favorite writer has led them so relentlessly into science with Assembling California and its predecessors. He might shrug and say this topic is that much larger than any he has presented before. Or he may be as indifferent to his readers as the earth is to those living on it. It is more likely that these books are the fulfillment of his concentration on what is around us, as in any of his books, to give himself and his readers a sense of where we are. To quote his quote of Moores:

People look upon the natural world as if all motions of the past had set the stage for us and were now frozen.… They lookout on a scene like this and think, It was all made for us—even if the San Andreas Fault is at their feet. To imagine that turmoil is in the past and somehow we are now in a more stable time seems to be a psychological need.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, December 1, 1992, p.633.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 3, 1993, p.13.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, December 1, 1992, p.1485.

Library Journal. CXVIII, January, 1993, p.162.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 13, 1993, p.1.

New Scientist. CXXXIX, July 24, 1993, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 7, 1993, p.9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, January 4, 1993, p.67.

Time. CXLI, April 5, 1993, p.62.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 7, 1993, p.5.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access