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for people who care about the West

New telling of a geologic saga: A review of Rough-Hewn Land


Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains
Keith Heyer Meldahl
320 pages, hardcover: $34.95.
University of California Press, 2011.

Landscapes tell stories, and Western North America has no shortage of geological sagas in the making. Keith Heyer Meldahl offers a fresh account of this gripping Earth epic in Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains. Blending new insights from recent science, an intimate knowledge of place, and enough narrative force to match its subject matter, this is much more than just a geology guide to the region.

Meandering eastward along the parallel traced by Interstate 80 (a transect familiar to readers of John McPhee), Rough-Hewn Land provides quite a ride as it traces the biographies of landforms. It burrows into the Earth's mantle, drills back in time, rounds up relevant subplots from afar, and tracks 19th-century voyagers coping with desert and mountain extremes.

Meldahl's prose is lucid and engaging. At the Golden Gate: "Lay your hands on these rocks and time shifts to  160 million years ago. ..." Redrawing the Western boundary of North America: "The way I see it, the plate has no true edge in the southwestern United States. Like a vast ice sheet crumbling in warming seas, the continent is breaking up across a 500-mile swath of active faults that stretches from the California coast to Salt Lake City." Relishing the improbable birth of high mountains, mid-continent: "Imagine sitting on a porch with a large hippo sleeping underneath. ..." (Yes, and imagine just what might happen next!)

The book is replete with maps, photos and a series of cut-away drawings that read like a graphic novel in their account of the tumultuous goings-on far beneath our home tectonic plate. Not to give away the biggest surprise since the Cretaceous, but the West's wild topography may well be the result  of a singular plate fragment's rogue wanderings underneath North America.

The evidence, fortunately, is abundantly accessible. "The Earth's history lies outdoors, in the mountains and deserts, under the wind and sky," Meldahl notes. Rough-Hewn Land may inspire many a road trip; happily, the book includes a chapter-by-chapter guide, complete with GPS coordinates, to every featured outcrop.

Many of us are drawn to dramatic mythological creation stories. But Meldahl succeeds in making the real-life story of the region's compelling landscape even more wondrous than any traveler's half-remembered, half-imagined explanations.