Assembling California by John McPhee

View of San Andreas Fault from Monte Bello Preserve by Judy Kramer

EV Book Club selection, July 2020

This is the story of how the land we live on came to be. Migrating oceanic and continental plates, over millions of years, created materials that “assembled” to build California, where there was once a vast ocean.

The storyteller is John McPhee, considered one of the greatest living writers of literary nonfiction. Author of numerous books and articles, McPhee has been teaching writing at Princeton for 45 years. Last semester, for the first time, he taught his legendary course remotely, at the age of 89. Eldridge M. Moores is McPhee’s geology mentor, a brilliant, pioneering, and affable Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geology at UC Davis. Moores can look at a jumble of rocks and decipher their history. He was the first to identify the long travel path of certain rocks, now up in the Sierras but long ago on a faraway ocean floor, an insight that plays a central role in plate tectonic theory.

Together they take geology field trips crisscrossing California. From the heights of Donner Pass they descend to the flatness of the Great Central Valley. On the way, they stop to contemplate on massive mountainside scars from the gold rush. Time stops here for harrowing descriptions of the miners’ life. From Palmdale to San Francisco they follow step by step the San Andreas Fault. Time stops again at Loma Prieta, with terrifying earth-rolling scenes and the voices of people experiencing them. From Davis they drive to Napa, frequently stopping, “collecting roadside samples of rocks and wine.” At a small winery, while sipping a red, Moores resolves that “its bouquet is ophiolitic,” while for McPhee “the stuff is fermented peridotite.” This is the essence of Napa Valley soils. They are formed by tectonic plate movement (ophiolite: oceanic crust transposed and lifted above sea level) and volcanic activity (peridotite: coarse-grained, solidified lava).

Image from Assembling California by John McPhee

This is also McPhee’s genius. He is an acute observer, making connections that capture the essence of a place simply, precisely, vividly. With just words, you can see, in your mind’s eye, the place. You can see the enormous, almost flat roadcut to the south of Carquinez Bridge: “the sediments are so weakly cemented that the two sides lie open like butterfly wings and are thus immense.” Vivid too are the elongated, dissimilar sides of Tomales Bay. One “straw brown” the other “riparian … dark-green,” or put it another way, “A tan cotton sock on one foot and a green wool sock on the other could not represent a greater mismatch.”

Image from Assembling California by John McPhee

The book transports you to these places while unfolding their geological stories. No photos, and only a handful of minimalistic figures. No index, glossary, table of contents, or even chapter titles. It can be maddening when you try to find the page where you read about Parkfield, the “Earthquake Capital of the World,” and you have to flip through half of the book. Flipping through, your eye catches on a random page, a treasure missed in previous readings. You create your own indexing schemes and on the margins you jot notes, question and exclamation marks. The book invites active reading. The lack of visual information sparks your curiosity to find out more and explore events and places. This way, the book goes to the heart of what the EVs value: observation, association, creativity, curiosity, exploration. And all throughout you can feel Moores’ and McPhee’s boundless excitement about geology. Their excitement is contagious.

Book review by EV, Tonia Spyridi