Assembling California

John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

224 Pages



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At various times in a span of fifteen years, John McPhee made geological field trips in the company of Eldridge Moores, a tectonicist at the University of California at Davis. The result of these trips is Assembling California, a cross-section in human and geologic time, from Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada through the golden foothills of the Mother Lode and across the Great Central Valley to the wine country of the Coast Ranges, the rock of San Francisco, and the San Andreas family of faults. The two disparate time scales occasionally intersect—in the gold disruptions of the nineteenth century no less than in the earthquakes of the twentieth—and always with relevance to a newly understood geologic history in which half a dozen large and separate pieces of country are seen to have drifted in from far and near to coalesce as California. McPhee and Moores also journeyed to remote mountains of Arizona (where Moores grew up in a gold-mining camp), and to Cyprus and northern Greece, where rock of the deep-ocean floor has been transported into continental settings, as it has in California. Presented here in global dimension, Assembling California, is a sweeping narrative of maps in motion, of evolving and dissolving lands.


Praise for Assembling California

"No more eloquent nor dearly human writing on geology can be found than in the works of New Yorker writer John McPhee. In Annals of the Former World, his enchantment with the subject . . . offers an entirely new prospect of how our earth became what it is, as well as where it might be going. McPhee's completion of the Annals comes with his most compelling book on the subject. Assembling California, a delicious field manual on the creation of the Golden State going back a few hundred million years."—Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle

"With this work McPhee completes his book series on regional geology in the United States. The author of more than 20 works on a wide range of topics, he has a talent for relating complex concepts in a simple, interesting manner. McPhee spent portions of 15 years traveling world-wide with geologist Eldridge Moores in search of supporting evidence for the theory that California moved on shifting plates (continental drift) to become affixed to North America. He also discusses the history of mining in the state and offers sobering implications for those living near the San Andreas fault complex. Although portions of this book may be beyond the scope of the average reader, it should appeal to armchair scientists, rockhounds, and fans of McPhee's other works. Recommended for larger public as well as academic collections."—Tim Markus, Library Journal

"[This book] completes a four-part series that began with McPhee's Basin and Range. Traveling west along Interstate 80, McPhee and his geologist-guides use roadcuts as windows into the geological history of North America. In this case, the guide is . . . one of the key figures in the development of the theory of plate tectonics . . . Assembling California has its share of geological jargon. And in some places . . . one wants to see pictures or diagrams of the formations. But this is not a geology text, but a well-told story. Much has been written on how geography has helped shape civilization's development. In an accessible, engaging way, McPhee's book sheds light on the geologic forces that shaped—and will continue to shape—that geography."—Peter N. Spotts, The Christian Science Monitor (Eastern edition)

"McPhee is a master of expository prose. A lesser writer could not have made a subject as abstruse as plate tectonics both intelligible and readable . . . Travel suits the peripatetic nature of the narrative. The world is an agora through which Moores and McPhee amble and learn. Whenever their exchanges seem about to burst with an excess of ophiolites, abyssoliths and subduction zones, McPhee relieves the pressure with anecdotes and historical nuggets. Included is a tectonic dish of special interest to Californians. During the past 2,000 years, part of the San Andreas Fault near Los Angeles has been wrenched by 12 major earthquakes. On average they occurred 145 years apart. The most recent Big One hit in 1857. McPhee makes no predictions but figures his readers are smart enough to do their own arithmetic."—R.Z. Sheppard, Time

In his usual clean, graceful prose, McPhee takes readers on an intensive geological tour of California, from the Sierra Nevada through wine country to the San Andreas fault system, a 50-mile-wide swath of parallel fault lines. Through talks with his traveling companion, geologist Eldridge Moores, McPhee introduces the reader to current geological controversies, and surveys global plate tectonics—the collision and rearrangement of land masses ever since the breakup of the supercontinent of Pangaea eons ago. The duo also travel to Arizona, where Moores grew up pushing ore carts in his family's gold mine, and to Cyprus and Greece, where rock from the ocean floor has been tossed up to form continents. McPhee looks at the conjectural science of earthquake prediction and gives an account of a recent San Francisco quake. His leisurely excavation meanders from Mexican explorer Juan Bautista de Anza's settlement of San Francisco in 1776 to 1850s gold-mining camps to the summit of Mount Everest, made of marine limestone lifted from a shelf that once divided India and Tibet. With this volume McPhee concludes his Annals of the Former World series, which he began with Basin and Range."—Publishers Weekly

"The final entry in McPhee's four-volume hymn to geology, known collectively as Annals of the Former World. McPhee again displays his talent for explaining, without denaturing, technical matters that could make most heads reel. This time, he and geologist Eldridge Moores clamber around California and the Southwest, with junkets to Macedonia and Cyprus, to observe how the earth as we know it came to be. The investigation spans years; as it proceeds, McPhee makes geological obscurities simple and geological grotesqueries lovely. We see how pieces of earth fused to form California; among other things, this book is a Festschrift for the theory of continental drift—the idea that chunks of earth separate or collide, creating continents, mountain chains, gulfs. Moores reads road cuts like thumbprints; near the Donner Pass, he spots the outcropping of a quadrillion-ton chunk of granite humped under California. The 1848 California gold rush is detailed, a period when human time (measured in lifetimes) and geological time (measured in eons) conjoined, and yellow nuggets the size of shoe boxes fell out of streams. McPhee muses much on these two time streams, which also merge in the terror of earthquakes. The book's finest passage is a step-by-step retelling, as if in slow-motion, of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, hideous in its eeriness but doing nothing to postpone the dreaded Big One To Come. McPhee's overall lesson? That history is the bridesmaid of geology—and that the earth is a prankster. The author offers this wonderful testimony to the weirdness of plate tectonics: 'The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.' Intolerable if one has no taste for mysteries beneath the soil; otherwise, riveting."—Kirkus Reviews

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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 nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), 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
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  • John McPhee

  • John McPhee is the author of more than 25 books, including Annals of the Former World, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction in 1999. He has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965 and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were both nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.
  • John McPhee Peter Cook