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IN JOHN MCPHEE'S TRAVELS, TIME MARCHES ON AND ON AND ON

ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD

By John McPhee
Farrar,Straus & Giroux
696 pages, $35

John McPhee wants to change the way you look at roadcuts.

In his latest work, a 700-page magnum opus that explores why North America is where it is and looks the way it does, McPhee characteristically approaches a Very Big Idea through the back door, almost humbly.

Hence, roadcuts. In particular, the ones along Interstate 80, or roughly the 40th parallel running east to west across the United States.

In "Annals of the Former World," a mammoth five-part book that took McPhee 20 years and many, many field trips to compile, roadcuts become the unassuming point of entry to mindnumbingly large concepts: the geologic history of our continent, deep time, the theory of plate tectonics.

"The thought occurred to me that if you were to walk a series of roadcuts with a geologist something illuminating would in all likelihood occur," McPhee explains in the backhanded, self-effacing prose he has honed during 33 years as a New Yorker writer. In fact, much of this book's first four parts -- "Basin and Range," "In Suspect Terrain," "Rising from the Plains," and "Assembling California" -- first appeared as long articles in the New Yorker; the fifth book, "Crossing the Craton," is new.

"At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire," McPhee writes. And, in the course of this book, finding the causes and results of those changes becomes his primary theme, as he bears down his focus on plate tectonics, the still-controversial theory of shifting and sliding land masses that gained prominence among geologists in the late 1960s.

Big stories indeed, these.

But McPhee -- to ward off the vertigo inevitably induced by the sheer scope of his project -- kindly juxtaposes the earth's story with comparatively miniature stories of individual human lives. He profiles the geologists he follows across the country and through the never-ending roadcuts; he notes historical figures important in the shaping of the nation and the field of geology; he brings to life forgotten pioneers and settlers and thinkers.

And, as he reveals his admiration for geology -- a "fountain of metaphor" -- he also reveals his admiration for those the field attracts. In McPhee's eyes, the geologists he follows around the country -- including leading contemporary figures like Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Anita Harris, David Love, Eldridge Moores and Randy Van Schmus -- are nothing so much as rock detectives.

"Geologists, in their all but closed conversation, inhabit scenes no one ever saw, scenes of global sweep, gone and gone again, including seas, mountains, rivers, forests, and archipelagoes of aching beauty rising in volcanic violence to settle down quietly and then forever disappear -- almost disappear," McPhee rhapsodizes. "If some fragment has remained in the crust somewhere and something has lifted the fragment to view, the geologist in his tweed cap goes out with his hammer and his sandwich, his magnifying glass and his imagination, and rebuilds the archipelago."

Which brings up one final point: in "Annals" McPhee the writer continues to be, well, McPhee.

With more than two dozen books behind him, his indomitably methodical, probing, detail-oriented style has become as much his trademark as his elegant prose. McPhee explains. He describes. He clarifies. He never becomes impatient, overbearing, or judgmental. And he is, in a way, the most thoughtful of writers, overlapping and racapping his material generously -- and subtly -- for those who happen to miss any of what he is trying to convey the first time around. All of which -- depending perhaps to a large extent on one's mood, free time, and the quality of one's dinner -- serves either to enlighten and entertain, or to create a pleasantly sleepy feeling.

A friend, a local college professor and avid reader, said he put aside McPhee's "House" -- an entire book about the start-to-finish construction of a home -- when he arrived at a revelation: "I kept reading, and reading, and reading -- and waiting for them to drive the first nail."

In McPhee, that happens. It happens again here, to some extent.

But, the author gently reminds us, if the geologic timeline of our world were a single year, the last ice sheet wouldn't have melted until December 31st at one minute before midnight. The Roman Empire would have lasted five seconds. The life we know is a glimmer so brief as to be almost an illusion.

Suddenly, 696 pages to tell this story doesn't seem so much, after all.