Were you to ask me to name my desert island book, I'd be a pain in the ass and demand two, one fiction and one non-fiction. My fiction choice is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It's not necessarily my favorite book, which of course changes every five minutes (my list of my top ten favorite novels of all time has a couple hundred entries on it). But One Hundred Years of Solitude is, to me, the most lush, the most abundant of my many favorite books. I can read it a hundred times and find something new with each reading, or understand some aspect of the story in a new way. A gorgeous novel, alternately heartbreaking and inspirational, it possesses an abiding sense of time and history, and of our relationship as human beings to both.
But if you insist on just one book, that's it, no categorical weaseling, no one-of-each nonsense, well then I'm going to shift to non-fiction and choose Basin and Range by John McPhee. Basin and Range is the first in a series of four books in which McPhee tells of the development of the theory of plate tectonics.* But it's not just a science book. McPhee tracks his way across the United States roughly along the path of Interstate 80 in the company of a number of geologists, and along the way he tells not only the story of the rock beneath his feet but of the men and women with him who know the terrain—and terranes—like they know their own skins.
And if I got really stuck and you insisted I could only take one chapter out of one book on my desert island sojourn, I'd pick the chapter in Basin and Range in which McPhee describes the evolution of the geological time scale. McPhee doesn't title or number the chapters, so look for the one which starts "The Old Red Sandstone was put down by rivers flowing southward to a sea where marine strata were accumulating in the region that is now called Devon." No matter your interest or disinterest in geology, I urge you to take twenty minutes in the library one day to read that one chapter.
The story McPhee tells is as much poetry as science. Periods during prehistory named for Welsh tribes, geographic regions, philosophical conceits. Scientists bickering over the relationship between this or that fifty or hundred million years. Eons delineated by the appearance and disappearance of a particular type of mollusk or arthropod, by the flow of primordial rivers inferred in exposed sediments. When the science of geology came of age during the 1800s, much of the technology that would enable scientists to determine how far back events occurred didn't exist; vast chunks of time were identified and named decades before radiometric dating and similar tools would assign actual values to eons. There was in fact a certain geological quality to the development of the time scale, as new chunks of time were identified and named and divided in an accretatory and erosional manner. McPhee describes the process beautifully in what amounts to one of the most far-reaching yet intimate essays I've ever read. I can pick it up at any time and it will take my breath away.
In this essay, McPhee coined the phrase "deep time" to describe that vast weight of time before the present, the billions of years it took for the earth to reach its current state. It is a depth of time so great, McPhee notes, "With your arms spread wide to represent all time on earth . . . in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history." And yet so much of it remains beyond knowledge. The nature of geology is that it deals with surfaces and shattered remains beneath which far more is hidden than revealed. Describing the first four billions years of Earth's lifespan, McPhee says, ". . . so little is known of this seven-eighths of all history that in a typical two-pound geology text book there are fourteen pages on Precambrian time." He goes on to note that the "Precambrian has attracted geologists of exceptional imagination."
This to me is the lure of geology in the picture painted by John McPhee. For all the measurements, for all the core samples and lab tests, the calculus and the piled collections of rocks there lives at the heart of the science that spark of imagination, not so different, I believe, from the spark that lives in the heart of writers—or any artist. The art of writing, like the science of geology, is like exploring a dream with a candle, illuminating more and more until at last a history is revealed, often in broken pieces, often incomplete. Yet also sparking a further drive toward exploration and revelation. To me, McPhee—master of analogy—is speaking only partly about geology and history, just as García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude is speaking only partly of the town of Macondo and the Buendiá family. When I read about McPhee's deep time I find myself excavating my own sedimentary layers. He wakes me up and shows me how to look backward and forward in a single glance.
The chapter ends with McPhee sharing a number of comments made to him by geologists over the years as he traversed so many terrains in their company. "In the company of geologists," he says, "the least effect of time is that they think in two languages, think in two different scales." He ends with a quote from one geologist who says, "If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then, in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever."
It may be a comment about deep time, about the geological time scale, but for me it's an apt description of how I often feel when I write, and why this essay by McPhee is so important to me. When I write, I feel disconnected from ordinary time, freed from the constraints of day-to-day life. I can be anywhere, anywhen. It's a freedom, both exhiliarating and frightening, that I don't experience under any other circumstances. And so the best answer to the question "why do you write?" I can give is this: when I write, I feel like I am living forever.
* Note: The others in McPhee's geology series are In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California—and for true desert island book convenience, the series has been collected in a single volume entitled Annals of the Former World.