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Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from…

Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains

by Keith Heyer Meldahl

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When it comes to books written about geology for a general audience there is only one definitive classic: Annals of the Former World by John McPhee. It's hard to imagine that anything could really improve upon the classic, but I think Rough-Hewn Land has in many ways added to McPhee's geological chronicle across the western portion of I-80 and is a worthy companion piece. For a complete history of the assembling of California to the exhumation of the Rockies you can't go wrong with either of these books, but there are a few key differences:

The first key difference between Rough-Hewn Land and the Annals, is that Rough-Hewn Land has been written by a professional geologist, that is intimate with the geology of the western United States. McPhee uses his unique narrative style to essentially relate a very detailed interview/tour guide of a local expert. Medahl on the other hand is the expert, so his story is more coherent and complete. He also is better at relating how plate tectonics controls the dramatic landscapes of the American west. I was worried that Medahl's prose would be somewhat dry considering that he is a professor after all, but I was pleasantly surprised that his writing is not only very readable but it is also quite enjoyable. There was even a bit of humor in his writing, that is if you find geologist “humor” to be funny (Beer cans are used at one point to illustrate a concept). And if the geology bores the reader Medahl has included some asides into the regional histories like the California gold rush and why the geology of Utah doomed the Donner Party long before they got to the infamous pass named in their honor. However, it does lack the amateur enthusiasm of the McPhee's books. Medahl like most geologist is quite passionate about his subject, but it's not the kind of enthusiasm of a first discovery.

Another major difference between the Annals and Rough-Hewn Land is that Medahl has peppered pictures and block diagrams to help illustrate the more complicated bits. Geology is a very visual sort of science and without a diagram or picture it's hard to visualize what the author is talking about. The Annals completely lacks diagrams of any kind, making it more difficult to truly understand what's going on for the uninitiated. This is a big plus in favor for Rough-Hewn Land. Another huge factor in favor for Rough-Hewn Land is an appendix that list many of the outcrops complete with GPS coordinates that Medahl visited when putting this book together. So it's possible to construct a field trip along I-80 to get a first hand look at the geology.

Plate tectonics also plays a much bigger part in Rough-Hewn Land. This isn't necessarily a fault of the Annals so much as it is a matter of time. Since Annals has been written our understanding of the plate tectonics and the fault systems of the American west has increased exponentially. Medahl using a modern evidence goes so far as to say that the San Andreas may not be the western most edge of the North American Plate. Instead he proposes that the actual edge of the North American Plate is further inland near the Sierra Mountain range and that there is a smaller plate called the Sierran Plate which should be considered a separate plate from the North American Plate. A very intriguing hypothesis to say the least and the evidence for Medahl's argument is compelling. In this respect Rough-Hewn Land is a welcomed update to the Annals.

Lastly another key difference is the direction of the traverse across the western portion of the United States. Rough-Hewn Land starts on the west coast and finishes in the plains where McPhee chooses to go in the opposite direction. From my point of view this is the proper direction to tell a complete history of the west. It makes more sense to go from the younger events and work our ways backwards in time rather than going from the old to the new. This is not an intuitive notion for sure, but it just makes more sense when you are trying to put it altogether.

Rough-Hewn Land is a proper geology book, not just an update to the Annals of the Former World. I'm now adding a book to a very short list of geology books to recommend to a newly minted enthusiast. It's as enjoyable as it is informative, easy to read and understand, full of pictures and diagrams, and GPS points to get out into the field. Brilliant! ( )
2 vote stretch | Jun 7, 2013 |
In "Rough-Hewn Land," Keith Heyer Meldahl takes us on a field trip from San Francisco to the Rocky Mountains, tracing the genealogy of the landscape.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0520259351, Hardcover)

"Unfold a map of North America," Keith Heyer Meldahl writes, "and the first thing to grab your eye is the bold shift between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains." In this absorbing book, Meldahl takes readers on a 1000-mile-long field trip back through more than 100 million years of deep time to explore America's most spectacular and scientifically intriguing landscapes. He places us on the outcrops, rock hammer in hand, to examine the evidence for how these rough-hewn lands came to be. We see California and its gold assembled from pieces of old ocean floor and the relentless movements of the Earth's tectonic plates. We witness the birth of the Rockies. And we investigate the violent earthquakes that continue to shape the region today. Into the West's geologic story, Meldahl also weaves its human history. As we follow the adventures of John C. Frémont, Mark Twain, the Donner party, and other historic characters, we learn how geologic forces have shaped human experience in the past and how they direct the fate of the West today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:28 -0400)

"Rough-Hewn Land tells the geologic story of the American West--the story of its rocks, rivers, mountains, earthquakes, and mineral wealth, including gold. It tells it by taking you on a 1000-mile-long field trip across the rough side of the continent from the California coast to the Rocky Mountains. This book puts you on the outcrop, geologic hammer in hand, to explore the evidence for how the spectacular, rough-hewn lands of the West came to be. When North America broke free from Eurasia and Africa some 200 million years ago, it triggered a cascade of violent geologic events that shaped the West we see today. As the west-moving continent crunched across the seabed of the ancient Pacific, islands and assorted pieces of ocean floor collected against its prow to build California--and plant gold there too. Meanwhile, mountains squeezed upward from California to Colorado, and vast quantities of molten rock seeded the crust with precious metals while spewing volcanic fire across the land. Later, the land stretched like an accordion to form the washboard-like Basin and Range province and Great Basin within it, while California began to crackle along the San Andreas fault. Throughout the West today, a near-constant drumroll of earthquakes testifies to a world still reshaping itself in response to the ceaseless movements of the Earth's tectonic plates. Rough-Hewn Land weaves these stories into the human history of the West. As we follow the adventures of John C. Frm?ont, Mark Twain, the Donner party, and other historic characters, we see how geologic forces have shaped human experience, just as they direct the fate of the West today"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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