Why Basin and Range is My New Favorite Book

basin and range

Basin and range alternates narrow mountain ranges and flat valleys.

Basin and Range by John McPhee is the most thrilling book I have read in years. It’s also the most exciting book about geology I’ve ever read, not withstanding that I’ve never read a book about geology but even if I had and I’ve forgotten the statement still stands. Even if I read another 100 books about geology, I can easily predict it’s unlikely I’ll forget my initial infatuation with Basin and Range. Which is really weird since I managed to avoid most of the sciences in my formal education curriculum; I had pursued an English and Communications major, and presently sell Sacramento real estate as a top producer Realtor.

But then I think back to a day in the 1990s at the Minnesota State Fair, wandering into the Education building. I happened across an interactive computer exhibit that promised to predict your perfect job. It was a software program that asked a bazillion questions and then formulated a prediction based on your responses. Sure, I’ll give it a whirl. I was as honest as I could be with my answers. When the time came to spit out a job description, the computer told me there were no careers in the world for me.

I was basically, unemployable.

Fortunately, the program gave me the opportunity to change some of my answers.

OK . . . A concession. So maybe I would be willing to work with people.

You might laugh, but hey, they were talking about your perfect career. Removing people from the equation sounded like an excellent idea to me. People are always a stumbling block, doing stuff you wish they wouldn’t, impeding progress. So, given the fact that I was now willing to work with others, the computer predicted I should be a geologist. Too bad, I was in my 40s and not going back to school. Besides, I love real estate.

John McPhee helped to pioneer my favorite kind of writing: creative non-fiction; a Princeton professor, he won a Pulitzer for the 1999 Annals of the Former World, a huge book, over 1,000 pages, containing 4 books and a bonus, one of which is Basin and Range, 1981. It reads like a suspense novel, sucks you in, making you turn each page and stay up way past your bedtime. He weaves the storyline of real people into facts about how earth began in such a way that before you realize it, you’re printing out charts to figure out when the Miocene occurred.

When I graduated high school in 1970, continental drift was a pooh-poohed theory, a pseudoscience. Today, students learn about plate tectonics and whoa, Pangea, a supercontinent. They watch animated videos of India breaking away from Australia and slamming into China. Basin and Range takes you across Interstate 80 and suspends you in time to watch the earth change over hundreds of millions of years: floods, plates pulling apart, plates slamming together, plates sliding under each other, forcing mountain ranges into the sky only to eventually tear them down.

Without giving away the plot, here are interesting facts I learned from Basin and Range, the latter which you can clearly see illustrated on a map of Nevada. Alternating long, narrow mountain ranges separated by basins. Thanks to TMBG, Why does the Sun Shine, I already knew the earth was 93 million miles from the sun, but I did not know its circumference was 25,000 miles. Nor that the radius is 3,959, which makes more sense if, in real estate terms, you think about a 6-block radius for a comparable sales home search from a particular address. The earth is 4.5 billion years old.

McPhee says we humans typically think in terms of 5 generations: two before, two after and the one in the middle. This perception makes it hard for us to wrap our heads around eras and the hundreds of millions of years that pass as the earth tears apart and rebuilds. Much of life on earth has been mostly destroyed 5 times. Five extinctions.

The earth is moving now. At the Equator, the earth spins at 1,000 miles per hour a day. Let’s not even talk about its orbital speed as it revolves around the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour a day. On top of this, the Pacific Plate is moving about 3 to 4 inches a year. Eventually California will become an island. Death Valley will fill with water.

Granite, the stuff your kitchen counters are made out of, is a plutonic rock that cooled slowly from molten rock. Half Dome (granite) at Yellowstone is a batholith. The takeaway in Basin and Range is the top of Mount Everest is marine limestone, which means it was under water for a long time. The Pacific Ring of Fire is the source of many earthquakes and volcanic activity. The Pacific ocean floor is dotted with volcanoes, which McPhee calls Hershey’s Kisses with the tops cut off.

Our magnetic poles have flipped hundreds of times. How about THAT? You can see the positive and negative lines in the rocks in Nevada. One day your compass points to magnetic north and millions of years later, it points south, and eventually again to the north. How about this? Salt can explode granite. Itty bitty salt. If you already know all of this stuff, this might seem elementary to you as a 12-year-old. But to a Sacramento Realtor who spends all day in another line of work, Basin and Range is fascinating reading and magical. It’s where we live. It changes you.

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