Rising from the Plains By John McPhee

John McPhee í 9 characters

This book was phenomenal.
It is a must read for anyone interested in Rocky Mountain geology, or in getting a glimpse into the American west.

This book has been republished in McPhee's larger Annals of a Former World. It is a biography of the famous Wyoming geologist, J. David Love. But it also gives a beautiful overview of the geology of Wyoming through Love's eyes.

Some of the geology is a bit outdated, but it does not distract from the greater good. Paperback If you’re lucky, you’ve had the chance to get to know somebody truly inspirational, someone who just seems to belong to a different category of humanity than us normal folk. This book has three such people: A geologist named David Love; a frontier wife named Ethel Waxman; and of course the author himself, John McPhee. Arguably, the book is primarily about geology, but that’s a very limited interpretation. For many years, this was my favorite book, and re-reading it twenty years later, I realize I was right: This is marvelous.

McPhee has made a career of writing about interesting, highly-accomplished people. What sets this book apart is love – he really seems to love the people he’s profiling. (While this is blatantly obvious in the text, be assured I’m not making this up – he stated as much in an interview.) What can be more pleasurable than reading a brilliant writer writing about people he loves and admires?

McPhee got his hands on the unpublished diaries of a young woman who made a life for herself in the emerging state of Wyoming in the early 1900’s, and it’s riveting reading. Miss Waxman is an impressive example of humanity – top of her class at Wellesley, an excellent horsewoman, she became a schoolteacher – the only schoolteacher, in fact – in Fremont County, Wyoming in 1905. (Fremont County is about the size of New Hampshire, and she had only a dozen students, some of whom had a three-hour commute by horse.) Women were so scarce in the region that a stranger found a glove she’d dropped on the prairie twenty miles from her ranchhouse, but quickly figured out who the owner must be and returned it. David Love was a down-to-earth guy (literally -- he slept outdoors about 1/4 of his life, given the nature of his work.) He also knew more about Rocky Mountain earth science than anybody living back then, probably, and is a good explainer.

So many “romantic” books are all about the period leading up to a marriage…Having now been married myself for twenty-six years, having raised a family, I think romance in the decades after the wedding has been given short shrift in literature. But the story told here is full of romantic touches, in the broader sense of the term. Here’s Ethel writing about an outing with her two sons, after harvesting wild hay:

My husband liked to have me ride with them for the last load. Sometimes I held the reins and cried, “Whoa, Dan!” while the men pitched up the hay. Then while the wagon swayed slowly back over the uneven road, I lay nestled deeply between my sons in the fragrant hay. The billowy white clouds moving across the wide blue sky were close, so close, it seemed there was nothing else in the universe but clouds and hay.
Of course, not every day on the ranch was this calm. Working with large animals always carries the potential for danger:
“The bull broke into the high granary, wrote Waxman. Our only, and small, supply of horse and chicken feed was there. Foolishly, I went in after him and drove him down the steps…” The bull actually charged her in the granary and came close to crushing her against the back wall. She confused it, sweeping its eyes with a broom. It probably would have killed her, though, had it not stepped on a weak plank, which snapped. The animal panicked and turned for the door. (In decades to follow, her husband never fixed the plank.)
Spending time with the characters in this book is quite simply a joy. Even better that they aren’t fictional, and there are people alive today who remember these folks and call themgrandma and “grandpa”.

Of course, there’s a great deal about geology here as well. The book is set almost entirely in Wyoming, which has long been my bolt-hole when I grow tired of civilization. If you’re at all interested in Mother Earth, there’s something of interest in every corner of the state, and this book provides a thorough and illuminating overview. It just so happens that Wyoming is a perfect place to study just about every geologic process known, and Grand Teton National Park contains the most complete and complex geologic record of any place in North America. At the time this book was written, the exact process by which the Rocky Mountains arose was still a substantial mystery, an odd puzzle among the world’s mountain ranges. Maybe geologists have figured it out since then, but unless we come up with another science writer of McPhee’s caliber to explain it, I don't wanna hear it. Paperback In Rising from the Plains, John McPhee takes us on an exciting and fascinating road trip throughout Wyoming with geologist David Love. The first half of the book is a beautiful blend of Wyoming geology, and the history of Love’s family as they move into the Wind River Basin region in the early twentieth century. The second half of the book continues with geology of the Rocky Mountain region, but also includes a high-level look at the United States and how it affected western geology.

I enjoyed McPhee’s descriptive writing style. He has a way of transporting you back in time millions of years with his vivid descriptions of flora and fauna. In the beginning of the book is a map of Wyoming showing the different geological areas and a chart outlining the different eras. I’m a sucker for a good map, and I found the chart extremely helpful. My only complaint was the lack of paragraph breaks. Sometimes entire pages were one long paragraph, and for me this made reading a bit of work. I know this is petty, but it was enough of a distraction for me that I felt I needed to mention it.

If you love geology and western history, I would highly recommend this book! Paperback This is the third time I've read Rising from the Plains and it seems as fresh today as when I first read it for a geology class back in the mid-90's. John McPhee, who wrote for the The New York Times for many years, is an engaging writer and in this book weaves the geology of the high plains with the story of famed Rocky Mountain geologist David Love and his family, who settled in central Wyoming in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Having lived in Wyoming myself, I am familiar with the area about which he writes. Wyoming is filled with unexpected landscapes that are awesome, forbidding and beautiful. Even if you don't understand the geological terms or timeline, the book can be enjoyed for its depiction of ranch life in one of the harshest environments in the continental U.S.and the pure pleasure of McPhee's prose.

The Wyoming landscape is unique in the world and is composed of many mountain ranges in addition to the well-known Rockies and Tetons. The Rocky Mountains are new mountains, relatively speaking, that have covered older ranges. That is the case across the state; new ranges moved or enfolded older ranges pushing them every which way. Water has carved anomalies like the Devil's Footprint and Flaming Gorge. Wind has played an even larger role in shaping the landscape. There are fossils galore and along the I-80 corridor one views rock stratification created over millions of years, from the earliest days of our continent through later ages until more recent geological time - 10 million years ago.

I highly recommend this book, it's one of my favorites not only because of the memories it evokes but also because geology fascinates me and John McPhee, who does an excellent job of showing why. Paperback ''Most maps are patched together from various papers and reports. Dave has looked at all the rock. It's all in one mind. Most geologic maps are maps of time, not rocks.
-- Malcolm McKenna, quoted in John McPhee's Rising from the Plains

I am nearly finished with the individual portions of Annals of the Former World (Basin and Range ☑, In Suspect Terrain ☑, Assembling California ☑). All I have left is to read the section 'Crossing the Craton' (a forty-page addition to his 40th parallel/I-80 project that filled in the blank in the map and allowed the publishers of 'Annals of the Former World' some additional McPhee text not found in the four main books/sections previously published to incentivize McPhee's fans to fork out the addtional $35 in 1998 to get the whole brilliant McPhee mess).

I read these books a little out of order over a little over the last year. I started off well with 'Basin & Range', 'In Suspect Terrain', but then jumped to 'Assembling California' since a couple of weeks ago I was going to be driving through California and figured it would be nice to have some geology of the geography I was going to be driving through next to me.

While I was a little disappointed with 'Assembling California', I loved 'Rising from the Plains'. I don't know if it was a return to my roots (Wyoming and Snake River and Mormon Country), or the fact that this book seemed just to excite McPhee more. You could tell he loved the Loves (David Love: Yale educated geologist, cowboy; John Love: David's father, mirthful Scot rancher/cowboy, nephew of John Muir; Ethel Waxham Love: David's mother, teacher, writer). He threads this family's golden personality and history with the geology and geography of Wyoming.

These books are dangerous and should not be given to children. I am keeping them locked up with my William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, etc. If my son or daughter (no field geology sexist me) were to discover these McPhee books too young (s)he might just grow up to be a passionate field geologist. Reading this as I near my 40s, McPhee almost makes me want to take up a hammer, hop on a horse, and ride into the mountains.

I give it four stars, simply because 'Coming into the Country' still exists for me as a slightly better book, but I think the combined energy of all of the 'Annals' is definitely amazing. Paperback

This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West.

So begins John McPhee's Rising from the Plains. If you like to read about geology, you will find good reading here. If, on the other hand, you are not much engaged by the spatial complexities of the science, you could miss a richness of human history that has its place among the strata described. Sometimes it is said of geologists that they reflect in their professional styles the sort of country in which they grew up. Nowhere could that be more true than in the life of a geologist born in the center of Wyoming and raised on an isolated ranch. This is the story of that ranch, soon after the turn of the century, and of the geologist who grew up there, at home with the composition of the high country in the way that someone growing up in a coastal harbor would be at home with the vagaries of the sea. While Rising from the Plains is a portrayal of extraordinary people, it is also a history of the landscape around them, where, with remarkable rapidity, mountains came up out of the flat terrain. Gradually, the mountains were buried, until only the higher peaks remained above a vast plain. Recently, they have been exhumed, and they stand now as the Rockies.

Rising from the Plains is John McPhee's third book on geology and geologists. Following Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain, it continues to present a cross section of North America along the fortieth parallel—a series gathering under the overall title Annals of the Former World.

Description from the first-edition dust jacket (1986). Rising from the Plains


Mind-numbingly abstruse. I don't see how anyone who is not in the geology field could find this book remotely accessible. Maybe I just lack the intellectual curiosity or capacity for this book. Or maybe it's just a slog of a book that few regular folks would find appealing. Paperback McPhee at his best. The author mixes geology, history and humans into a tightly woven story.
Wyoming could not be more alive than in this story about the early 20th century settlers.
John Love settled at the epicenter of Wyoming and has two sons and a daughter. His son, David Love, took up geology of Wyoming in a large way and his observations and tact are the center of McPhee's writing. A well-spun yarn. Paperback Western history, memoir, geography, and of course, geology. All mixed into one relatively slim volume. People who have vivid mental maps of Wyoming, and have driven I-80 (preferably many times) will be the most avid readers. As I read, I kept wondering why the author/publisher didn't use illustrations. Verbal descriptions of geologic features aren't nearly as instructive as one good drawing. There is a map, but it's pretty general.

Another criticism -- there isn't an Index, which is an omission I don't understand. I know I'll want to refer back to specific discussions, so I ended up making my own brief index, including topics such as selenium, Larmide Orogeny, Never Summer Mountains (in Colorado), Hayden (and watercress), trona, antelope trap ... all referring to tidbits of info that I found interesting.

And here's one quote:

p 195 Before the federal Bureau of Reclamation built a dam there, Flaming Gorge was one of the scenic climaxes of the American West -- a 700 ft canyon in arching Triassic red beds so bright they did indeed suggest flame. ... Some of the high water penetrates beds of trona.

Trona. I'd never heard of it. McPhee explains that trona is 'sodium sesquicarbontate' used in ceramics and textiles, pulp and paper, iron and steel, and most especially, glass. Mining of this mineral has released a lot of salt into the environment, which of course is never good. And to think that I'd never heard of the stuff.

This isn't a book I'd read for pleasure. A few pages at a time were plenty. I had about convinced myself not to pick up another one of his books, but I've changed my mind. I'll watch for a book about an area that I'm more familiar with. Paperback “Had this been a May morning a hundred million years ago, in Cretaceous time, we would have been many fathoms underwater, in a broad arm of the sea, which covered the continental platform—reached across the North American craton, the Stable Interior Craton—from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean where vegetation flourished in coastal swamps. They would have been like the Florida Everglades, the peat fens of East Anglia, or borders of the Java Sea, which stand just as temporarily, reported to the future as coal. The Cretaceous is not far back in the history of the world. It’s in the last three per cent of time.”

“The spread of time at Rawlins, like the rock column in a great many places in Wyoming, was so impressively detailed that it seemed to suggest that Wyoming, in its one-thirty-seventh of the United States, contains a disproportionate percentage of American geology.”

“That the one was in fact directly on top of the other was a nomenclatural Tower of Babel that contained in its central paradox the narrative of the Rockies: the burial of the ranges, the subsequent uplifting of the entire region, the exhumation of the mountains. As if to emphasize all that, people had not only named this single mountain range as if it were two but also bestowed upon the highest summit of the Snowy Range the name Medicine Bow Peak. It was up there making its point, at twelve thousand thirteen feet.”

Imagine my disappointment that the author doesn’t swing south to the mountains I know so well but stays up in Wyoming which is an enigmatic place I know a little. I fell in love with geology in Utah, and ultimately that geology is a little more easy to digest since the Colorado Plateau is a like a little raft immune to the warping and obscuring mountain building of the Rockies, so it did take me a while to even read more about the Rockies, being super intimidated. But I know some of Wyoming, and I know the Gangplank. And I can tell you there is a moment when you transfer from I-25 to I-80 at Cheyenne and the way the road is built, you feel you are flying into the sky, the great western giant electric sky, and it is sacred harmonic experience.

McPhee continues with great imagery of snapshots of time, which I loved about this section; there was a lot about the history of the geologist’s family, which is a stunning portrait of frontier life, but what I know of Wyoming, what it became from that, I fear, colors my reading of it, and I just can’t embrace the warm and happy mythologizing he does. The first time I read it, I thought it was okay, but now, I just know too much. Wyoming, the least populous state, has a strangling conservative ethos that is not okay. Read about Matthew Shephard. It is still those times.

To the question “What lifted the Colorado Plateau, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain platform?” the answer given by this theory is “The plumes of Raton and Yellowstone.”The Colorado Plateau lies between the two hot-spot tracks, and Morgan believes that their combined influence is what lifted it, setting up the hydraulic energy that has etched out the canyonlands.

That the two hot spots, at any rate, are progressively lifting the country is a point reinforced by a remarkable observation: a line drawn between them is the Continental Divide.”

Back to the geology, The Rockies are mountains that are not on a plate boundary, making them mysterious and almost an exception to plate tectonics. They are instead, mountains made and then buried in their own eroded debris. Higher than high, they eroded and buried themselves, so they are being revealed now, exhumed. Everywhere I go now I envision a Maroon Bell under the hill, just waiting to be revealed.

On the east flank of the Laramie Range is a piece of ground that somehow escaped exhumation. Actually contiguous with Miocene remains that extend far into Nebraska, it is the only place between Mexico and Canada where the surface that covered the mountains still reaches up to a summit.

Yet this one piece of the Great Plains—extremely narrow but still intact—extends like a finger and, as ever, touches the mountain core: the pink deroofed Precambrian granite, the top of the range. At this place, as nowhere else, you can step off the Great Plains directly onto a Rocky Mountain summit. It is known to geologists as the gangplank.

The mean temperature is 38 degrees. Conditions are about the same in this part of Wyoming as at the Arctic Circle.”

And. The. Wind.

“There was almost no soil in that part of the range - just twelve miles' breadth of rough pink rock. 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's none. Why? Wind - that's why. The wind blows away everything smaller than gravel.

Standing in that wind was like standing in river rapids. It was a wind embellished with gusts, but, over all, it was primordially steady: a consistent southwest wind, which had been blowing that way not just through human history but in every age since the creation of the mountains - a record written clearly in wind - scored rock. Trees were widely scattered up there and, where they existed, appeared to be rooted in the rock itself. Their crowns looked like umbrellas that had been turned inside out and were streaming off the trunks downwind. Wind erosion has tremendous significance in this part of the Rocky Mountain region, Love said, Even down in Laramie, the trees are tilted. Old-timers used to say that a Wyoming wind gauge was an anvil on a length of chain. When the land was surveyed, the surveyors couldn't keep their tripods steady. They had to work by night or near sunrise. People went insane because of the wind.

On I-80, wind will capsize tractor-trailers. When snow falls on Wyoming, its travels are only beginning. Snow snows again, from the ground up, moves along the surface in ground blizzards that can blind whole counties.

Love said he thought the role of the wind had been much greater than hitherto suspected in the Exhumation of the Rockies. Water, of course, was the obvious agent for the digging and removal of the basin fill, as a look at the Mississippi Delta would tend to confirm.
Streams only account for about half the material that was taken up and out of here. Since it is not all in the delta, where did it go? So much has been taken away that it’s got to be explained in some other manner. I think the wind took it. My personal feeling is that a lot of it blew eastward to the Atlantic. Possibly some went to Hudson Bay but in one dust storm several years ago a great deal of debris from Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado went into the Atlantic—a storm that lasted only a couple of days.”

And so, as we plunged down Telephone Canyon, the interstate was tilting less than the rock of the roadcuts, and the red sandstone yielded gradually, interstitially, to the younger limestones, until the sandstone was gone altogether and we were moving through the floor of an ocean. It was full of crinoids, brachiopods, and algal buttons, which had lived near the equator in a place like the Bismarck Archipelago or an arm of the Celebes Sea.”

My other resonant memory is of travelling I-80 from San Francisco to Philly on a cross country trip; we drove and drove across Wyoming waiting for the Rockies to appear and waiting and waiting. I had planned the route, I knew the map showed a flattish area so I assumed they would be in the distance a bit, but I thought we would know them. We got to Cheyenne near dark and realized it was over, and felt a little stupid. Who knew it would only take me about 10 more years to know that area when my brother and his family lived in Laramie? It is a time spanning, time travel moment when I still go there for some holidays with his inlaws.

How did this piece of land escape the Exhumation of the Rockies, yes the official title of the mountain event, less an mountain building (orogeny) than a revealing (epeirogeny)? I am still not sure, so have to imagine the experts aren’t either. During the Exhumation, something like 50, 000 cubic miles was excavated and deposited here and there. Fifty thousand cubic miles. The internet gave me this comparison: One cubic mile is 147,197,952,000 cubic feet. If, on average, one human being takes up a space 2 feet by 2 feet by 6 feet it means we occupy 24 cubic feet per person. So divide 147,197,952,000 by 24 and you get 6,133,248,000, which means that in the year 2000 when the world population reached 6 billion we'd all have fit in a cubic mile, with room left over for another 133 million folks. The population now has reached over 6.7 billion so today there'd be a little overflow. Or think of Lake Superior at 2,900 cubic miles in volume.

“These mountain ranges were coming up out of the craton—heartland of the continent, the Stable Interior Craton. It was as if mountains had appeared in Ohio, inboard of the Appalachian thrust sheets, like a family of hogs waking up beneath a large blanket. An authentic enigma on a grand scale, this was one of the oddest occurrences in the tectonic history of the world.”

“During those thirty million years after things went blah, the Rockies were quietly buried ever deeper in their own debris—and, not so peacefully, in materials oozing overland or falling from the sky.Volcanic sands, from Yellowstone and from elsewhere to the west, were spread by the wind, and in places formed giant dunes. Two thousand feet of sand accumulated in central Wyoming.
Nineteen thousand—the thickest Miocene deposit in America—went into the sinking Jackson Hole. From the Wind River Mountains southward to Colorado and eastward to Nebraska, the plain was unbroken except for the tops of the highest peaks.”

One of the other mysteries of the region are the rivers and their mystery may account for the way the mountains were revealed and why my heart has found it place here.

“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 per cent of the history of the world.
The Colorado River, which has only recently appeared on earth, has excavated the Grand Canyon in very little time. From its beginning, human beings could have watched the Grand Canyon being made.”

“The streams lay in patterns that had no relationship to the Eocene topography buried far below. Some of them, rushing along through what is now the Wyoming sky, happened to cross the crests of buried ranges. If a river happened to be lying above a spur of a buried range, it would cut down through the spur, and seem, eventually—without logic, with considerable magic—to flow into a mountain range, change its mind, and come back out another way. “Eventually,” of course, is now.

In fact, there is no obvious relationship between most of the major rivers in Wyoming and the landscapes they traverse. While rivers elsewhere, running in their dendritic patterns like the veins in a leaf, shape in harmony the landscapes they dominate, almost all the rivers of the Rockies seem to argue with nature as well as with common sense.”

Other quotes:

The classic plays—Teton, Beartooth, Wind River—were not out here on the street, but meanwhile these roadcuts were like posters, advertising the dramatic events, suggesting their narratives, fabrics, and structures.

A geologist who grew up in Wyoming could not ignore economic geology, could not ignore vertebrate paleontology, could not ignore the narrative details in any chapter of time (every period in the history of the world was represented in Wyoming). After more than half a century with the story assembling in his mind, he can roll it like a Roman scroll. From the Precambrian beginnings, he can watch the landscape change, see it move, grow, collapse, and shuffle itself in an intricate, imbricate manner, not in spatial chaos but by cause and effect through time. He can see it in motion now, in several ways responsively moving in the present—its appearance indebted to the paradox that while the region generally appears to have been rising the valley has collapsed.

The foreland ranges, as the mountains east of the overthrust are called (the Wind Rivers, Uintas, Bighorns, Medicine Bows, Laramie Range, and so forth), came into the world with their own odd syncopation, albeit the general chronology went from west to east and the Laramie Range was among the last to rise. In what Love has called “some of the greatest localized vertical displacement known anywhere in the world,” the Wind Rivers rose sixty thousand feet with respect to the rock around them, the Uintas fifty thousand, others as much.

The excavation had exposed the broken, upturned ends of Pennsylvanian sandstones, dipping steeply eastward and leaning on the mountains. They rested there like lumber stood against a barn. These red sandstones lean against the Laramie Range on both sides. By themselves, they tell the story of the Laramide Orogeny, for they are a part of what was deroofed. They are a part of the Paleozoic package that once rested flat on the deep Precambrian granite. They are thought by some to have been Pennsylvanian beach sands.
Paperback While studying general Wyoming history I learned by happy happenstance of John McPhee's 1986 book Rising From the Plains, which unfolds the geological story of the state from the perspective of those American Western pioneers and their descendants who have inhabited the land for the last century. Wyoming geologist David Love is McPhee's focal point. It's challenging to pin down this book. It's a portrait of Wyoming's geology, but also of David Love and his family, and occasionally it's more free-flowing nature writing. While McPhee's material is arranged in a distinctively unusual, if not idiosyncratic, manner, his writing is lovely and always riveting. Even if you are, like I, essentially ignorant of the fundamentals of geology, this book is sure to come as a revelation. I cannot imagine how anyone who discovers this book can fail to be moved by the stateliness of Love's chosen field of study, or by the greater story that the adventure of science collectively has to unfold.

Through a second act of synchronicity while reading this book I stumbled across Ken Burns' 1996 PBS video series called The West. Episode 8 contains extended interviews with David Love in which considerable portions recounted in McPhee's book are recounted. I would advise anyone who enjoys this book to seek out that documentary as well.