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The Zen of John McPhee: Rising From The Plains

Rising From The Plains by John McPhee

I recently spent six weeks in Jackson Hole, Wyoming working on two business launch projects. I travel to the greater Yellowstone area for work a couple times per year, but this is the first time I have spent a substantial amount of time in that part of the country since I lived there in the early 2010s.

When I travel, I try to pick up a book set in the area. In anticipation of spending a few weeks in Wyoming, I picked up Rising From the Plains by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, John McPhee.

Rising from the Plains not only changed the way I look at the Wyoming landscape, but left with me a certainty that geological awareness is good for you.

teton range - rising from the plains

The Teton Range commands your attention. They’re the sheer mountains you see glittering in Westerns like Shane, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Dances With Wolves, Brokeback Mountain, The Hateful Eight, and a hundred others.

“Hollywood cannot resist the Tetons. If you have seen Western movies, you have seen the Tetons. They have appeared in the background of countless pictures, and must surely be the most tectonically active mountains on film, drifting about, as they will, from Canada to Mexico, and from Kansas nearly to the coast.” – John McPhee, Rising From The Plains

This relatively small extension of the Rocky Mountains is one of the main reasons more than three million people file into northwest Wyoming’s national parks every year, and why the wealthy spend tens-of-millions of dollars on vacation homes with views of peaks.

On a clear day, the Tetons dominate your view. But, they are really just one piece of a greater picture. Stretching east across Wyoming — stretching all the way around the world — is a geologic story as rich, if not as dramatic, as the ‘newborn’ Teton Range. You just have to pay attention.

In Rising From The Plains, McPhee crosses Wyoming, east to west, on I-80 in an old Bronco with legendary geologist, David Love. Love is a Yale professor, a born-and-raised Wyoming cowboy, and one of the most accomplished geoscientists in American history. He single-handedly mapped large, uncharted portions of the state on foot, and many of Wyoming’s most prominent formations bear the names he gave them.

In the course of Love and McPhee’s journey across the state, Love expounds on the unique character of the Wyoming landscape, it’s history, and the nature of field geology.

The permanence of streams and lakes, even mountains, is illusory. Everything is moving.

After reading Rising From The Plains, nondescript areas of land I have driven many times took on a new and substantial character. I formed a curiosity about the shapes and blank spaces in the land. The surface of the earth is the way it is for a reason — for many reasons — and an awareness of that process gives one an odd combination of agency and smallness in the world.

From time to time, I practice a variation of a mindfulness exercise called “long gazing.”

Much of our daily visual interaction happens at arms-length: screens, books, eating, etc. Even when we drive or walk down the street, rarely are we looking beyond a stone’s throw for more than just a blink at a moment.

Long gazing involves recalibrating your visual perspective, which can have a surprising impact on your mental outlook.

  • Hold something like a stone leaf in your hand and pick a point on the horizon.
  • Breath slowly, and focus on that distant point. Notice the details of that distant point and how it fits into the landscape.
  • Over the course of 2-3 minutes, draw your focus in from that distant point, to an intermediate point and, finally, focus in the in fine detail of the object in your hand.

After reading Rising From The Plains, I found that having even a basic sense geologic awareness added an extra dimension to this simple exercise. Give it a try.

To be a good geologist (or writer), one must be master of observation and perspective-shifting. The same can be said for ‘living well.’ 

When I returned to Oakland, I picked up McPhee’s, Assembling California, and did not put it down.

Rising From The Plains and Assembling California are both included in McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning anthology, Annals of The Former World, which contains his previously published works on geology: Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), Rising from the Plains (1986), and Assembling California (1993), plus a final book, Crossing the Craton.

In Basin and Range, McPhee covers the geologic history and sparse beauty of the area from eastern Utah to eastern California. In Suspect Terrain deals with the formation of the Appalachians, among other things. In Rising From the Plains, McPhee crosses Wyoming, east to west on I-80 with David Love, as mentioned above. Assembling California is just what it sounds like, and Crossing the Craton covers America’s Great Plains.

All of these books deal with the theory of plate tectonics. Scientific opinions regarding the specifics of plate tectonics have evolved over the past 4 decades, but all of these volumes remain remarkably fresh.

The earth is roiling beneath our feet, and Nature does in fact have an eraser for the stories she writes in stone: time.

If you live in the US, I’d recommend picking up a book that deals with area closest to you. If you live outside the US, I recommend Rising From the Plains.

As a side note for fellow East Bay residents, Andrew Alden’s blog, Oakland Geology, is a great local look at the land.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes from John McPhee’s Rising From The Plains.

Rising From The Plains by John McPhee

In the rock column, anywhere, more time is missing than is there; so much has been eroded away. Besides, the rock in the column is more apt to commemorate a moment — and eruption, a flood, a fallen drop of rain — than it is to report a millennium. Like a news broadcast, it is more often a montage of disasters than a cumulative record of time.

Wyoming, at first glance, would appear to be an arbitrary segment of the country. Wyoming and Colorado are the only states whose borders consist of four straight lines. That could be looked upon as an affront to nature, an utterly political conception, an ignoring of the physiographic worlds, in disregard of rivers and divides. Rivers and divides, however, are in some ways unworthy as boundaries, which are meant to imply a durability that is belied by the function of rivers and divides. They move, they change, and they go away. Rivers, almost by definition, are young. The oldest river in the United States is called the New River. It has existed (In North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia for a little more than one and a half percent of the history of the world.

In the contest between erosion and orogeny, erosion never loses. For a relatively short time, though, the mountains prevail by rising faster than they are destroyed.

[The Miocene Ogallala formation] is the only place in the whole Rocky Mountain front where you can go from the Great Plains to the summit of the mountains without snaking your way up a mountain face or going through a tunnel. This one feature had more to do with the building of the West than any other factor.

When the railroad was built, it was given (by the federal government) fifty percent of the land in a forty-mile swath along its route — in checkerboard fashion, one square mile in every two.

“As you go from Chicago west, soil diminishes in thickness and fertility, and when you get to the gangplank and up here on top of the Laramie range there is virtually none,” Love said. “It’s had ten million years to develop, and there is none. Why? Wind — that’s why. The wind blows everything away smaller than gravel.”

Erosion, giving the landscape its appearance, is said to be the work of water, ice, and wind; but wind is, almost everywhere, a minimal or negligible factor with exceptions like Wyoming.

The old timers used to say, “Snow doesn’t melt here; it just wears out.”

The President of the United States, with a dozen horses and companions, rode up Telephone Canyon on his way to Cheyenne in 1903. His mustache was an airfoil with a fitness ration the must have impressed the Wright brothers.

He took the kids outside and showed them the fossils in the church walls. He described the environment in which the creatures had lived. He mentioned the age of the rock. He explained how things evolve and the fit prosper. Here endeth his career in sedimentary theology.

“In winter, our life was governed by where the wind blew, where snow accumulated. We could see that these natural phenomena were not random — that they were controlled, that there was a system. The processes of erosion and deposition were things that we grew up with. An insulated society does not see how important terrain is to someone who has to understand it in order to live with it. Much of it meant life or death for the animals, and therefore survival for us. If there was one thing we learned, it was that you don’t fight nature. You live with it. And you make accommodations — because nature does not accommodate.”

Hollywood cannot resist the Tetons. If you have seen Western movies, you have seen the Tetons. They have appeared in the background of countless pictures, and must surely be the most tectonically active mountains on film, drifting about, as they will, from Canada to Mexico, and from Kansas nearly to the coast.

If he happened to come to a summit or an overlook with a wide view, he would try to spend as much of the day as possible there, gradually absorbing the country, sensing the control from its concealed and evident structure, wondering — as if it were a formal composition — how it had been done. (“It doesn’t matter that I don’t know what I’m looking at. Later on it becomes clear — maybe. And maybe not. You try to put the petals back on the flower.”)

[David Love] is the quintessential field geologist — the person with the rock hammer and the Brunton compass to whom weather is just one more garment to wear with his thousand-mile socks…

Reality is not something you capture on a blackboard.

“The barbed streams are evidence that the hinge is east of us here. The hinge is probably the Continental Divide. We can learn a lot from streams. They’re so sensitive. They respond to the slightest amount of tilting. I think this is underestimated… If you look at a stream you can see in the sediments the whole history of a watershed.”

Lakes are so ephemeral that they are seldom developed in the geologic record. They are places where rivers bulge, as a temporary consequence of topography. Lakes fill in, drain themselves, or just evaporate and disappear. They don’t last.

The American Museum of Natural History has a whole Gosiute trout perch in the act of swallowing a herring, recording in its violence two or three seconds from forty-six million years ago. In the museum’s worldwide vertebrate collection, roughly one fossil in five comes from Wyoming, and a high percentage of those are from Gosiute and neighboring lakes.

[On the far side of Wyoming’s Uinta Mountains] is the world’s largest deposit of hydrocarbons. It is actually nine times the amount of crude oil under Saudi Arabia, and about ten times as much oil as has so far been pumped from American rock.

The post The Zen of John McPhee: Rising From The Plains first appeared on williamwickey.com.


  1. IK Marchini says:

    Could not agree with you more. I read McPhee like some people read murder mysteries. Even these short quotes have me laughing out loud. At geology!
    Thanks for pulling me back in.

  2. Hollis says:

    Many of us know of McPhee and his wonderful writing. But I’m so glad you mentioned Andrew Alden and his Oakland Geology … such a terrific blog, a model to follow! I’m a regular reader even though I probably will never get to Oakland.

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