Another geological tour with McPhee

Rising From the Plains, by John McPhee. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 214 pp. $15.95. ``Rising From the Plains'' is the third in a series of ``studies'' of geology and geologists by The New Yorker magazine staff writer John McPhee. At one level it is a story of ``one man's family.'' The principal characters are John Love, a Nebraska-born homesteader, cattle puncher, and land accumulator who became a Wyoming ``muttonaire''; his Wellesley-educated, schoolteacher wife, Ethel Waxham Love; and their son, David, who went east to New Haven for his PhD, worked in oil fields in the southern Appalachians and in midcontinent, then returned to his mother lode to become ``the preeminent geologist of the Rocky Mountains.''

Ethel and David Love are McPhee's key informants. Her journals and diaries served as an essential source for reconstructing the early years when she moved west to teach school, met the hard-driving Johnny Love, married him, and helped to establish a dynasty of geologists. David (whose wife, Jane, is also a geologist -- as are their two sons) was McPhee's guide to the high country itself. Being with him, bucking along the Wyoming backroads aboard his modern-day Bronco and listening to his explanations of what lay before them was, for McPhee, ``analogous to walking up and down outside a theater in the company of David Garrick.''

The reading, the rides and walks, and the colloquies with David Love and his colleagues are the bases for the geology lesson that this book also provides.

McPhee offers a striking picture of the Rawlins Uplift, the stratified protrusion that rises from the Plains providing a rare chance to ``see'' and sense 260 million years of layering, from the Archean eon to the Miocene. In the argot of the geologist, this represents ``a greater spread of time than any other suite of exposed rocks ... between New York and San Francisco.''

Much of the book is given over to descriptions of the Rocky ranges, their form and formation, and to comparisons with other geologically interesting areas. In a style that is uniquely McPhee, readers get to know the landscapes as they get to know those who study them: intimately. This makes it a very personal book.

In 19 previous books, McPhee, a master of narrative nonfiction, has told equally fascinating stories about different sorts of people (headmasters, Hovings, crofters, lairds) and different kinds of places, from Alaska's wilds to ``La Place de la Concorde Suisse.''

Previously published volumes in the geology series are ``Basin and Range'' and ``In Suspect Terrain.'' They will eventually be joined by others under the general title ``Annals of the Former World.''

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