Rising from the Plains by John McPhee

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee (cover art)

A wonderful geology primer, equal parts lyrical and erudite, what sets Rising from the Plains apart from other narrative science writing is the way in which it situates and negotiates people amid vast, ancient landforms. At the core is a character study of David Love: decorated geologist, native son of Wyoming, and a composite of wiseness, living history, and closeness with the land. Love is our very capable ambassador to the terrain in question, where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the high plains.

Having spent a half century surveying the land, Love bemoans our inability to fully appreciate it. Our behaviors–our insistent exploits–prove this time and again. In response, Love maps once unknown terrains, not for conquest, but in the name of understanding and awareness. Stubborn and principled, he devotes his life to the preservation of his homeland, readily owning up, however, to privileging industry over preservation early in his career. Perhaps most crucially, Love understands that things are rarely as cut and dry as they seem–be it an outcropping of rock or industrial development. People need to make a living, Love concedes, and the land can certainly provide.

But can we learn to utilize the bounties of our environment without destroying it? Are we willing to look beyond ourselves–remembering that, geologically, we’ve not yet lasted a blink-of-an-eye–in order to persist more sustainably? It’s this message of seeking a balance, of taking the very long view and gaining a more holistic perspective, that keeps Rising from the Plains as fresh and necessary as when it first appeared thirty years ago.

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