Wednesday, February 16, 2011

John McPhee, Rising From the Plains

Wyoming Week continues today with this book by John McPhee, a writer with the remarkable ability to take a scientific subject (geology) and make it not just interesting but gripping. He achieves this in part by personalizing it and introducing an eminent field geologist, David Love (1913-2002), who takes him and us on a tour around Wyoming, his home-state.

There he describes over two billion years of the geological past as revealed in the cuts along Interstate 80 and in a side trip to Jackson Hole, outside Yellowstone Park. Love, it should be said, is very much a product of his upbringing on an isolated ranch in central Wyoming, his mother educated at Wellesley, his father an immigrant from Scotland who quotes William Cowper and Sir Walter Scott.

Love is independent, old school, hands-on, tireless, scrupulous, and an innovative thinker who made a significant impact over a lifetime in his field. He chose to work for the US Geological Survey after a short period of unhappy employment for an oil company.

I-80 near Green River, Wyoming
McPhee captures his very individual point of view, his dedication to science, and his Western perspective in character sketches and fragments of conversation between them. He has a dry sense of humor, colorful turns of phrase, and a toughness that goes along with long periods of field work and sleeping rough under the stars. He was also a grand-nephew of naturalist John Muir.

The book actually begins with his mother's wintery journey by horse-drawn coach from Rawlins to central Wyoming, where she has accepted a teaching job at a one-room school. It segues between the story of his parents' courtship in the first decade of the 20th century and his travels with McPhee over 70 years later. Finally it devotes a long section to Love's own boyhood, growing up on his parents' ranch, with an older brother, among cowboys raising both sheep and cattle.

Mt. Moran, Teton National Park, Ansel Adams, 1941

The accounts of surviving blizzards and floods that nearly wipe them out, the visitors passing through who may or may not be hunted killers, even an appearance (possibly two) by Butch Cassidy make this compelling reading for anyone with an interest in the early days of ranching in the West.

There's a brilliant section late in the book as McPhee describes Love's fascination with Jackson Hole while he was still a graduate student at Yale. After many years of walking the ridges and summits around it, he was able to develop a scenario of how it was formed over the eons.

McPhee's rendering of this scenario in words is vivid. In the mind's eye, you can see mountain ranges and seas rise and fall in all manner of climates from tropical to ice age, until the topography assumes its present configuration, which is still changing.

Read the book, and you won't see a western landscape the same. There's more about David Love, as he was remembered, here.

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces


  1. Now thats a book! I have just been on to Amazon, and put my name on one!!!!

  2. This sounds quite fascinating, especially since I have been to Jackson Hole. This may have to go on the ever-growing TBR.
    BTW, the other day in the bookstore I found a copy of The Virginian. It's pretty high on the pile.

  3. I've read some of his work and enjoyed it. But not this one.

  4. Must . . . not . . . buy . . . more books!

  5. Sounds like a wonderful book. I read McPhee's "Founding Fish" several years ago and really enjoyed it.

  6. Great book, especially for us Wyoming guys. I have read through many pages of Love’s notes and am familiar with his home area of Moneta—I knew the guy that owned it a few years ago, not sure if he still does. In Wyoming some places are so small one guy can own the town. Nothing there today but some ruins and a house. There are some great petroglyphs near Moneta and near where we lived for five years. Love did some study and writing about that area and is the reason I became interested in his work. Good book, solid Wyoming stuff

  7. It definitely sounds like something I'd like to read.

  8. This is one of my favorite Wyoming books, this is one of my favorite history of the earth books, too.

  9. Cheyenne, McPhee is just an excellent writer. You can't go wrong.

    Leah, a friend of mine rereads THE VIRGINIAN about as often as she rereads her favorite, Jane Austen.

    Charles, McPhee has had a huge output as a writer; this one is about my favorite.

    Chris, yeah, it's a sweet misery...

    Sage, that's one I haven't heard of.

    Susan, put it on your list.

    Veronica, glad to know someone else has read and enjoyed it, too. I don't look at a western landscape the same since I read it.

    OGR, glad to know it has the OGR seal of approval; I thoroughly enjoyed the book.