The making of a continent

Panoramic photography is for me the ultimate expression,'' says Ron Redfern, an author, photographer, and amateur geologist. ''You get the whole scene first and then you can interpret it.''

Mr. Redfern is author of the newly published ''The Making of a Continent'' (Times Books, $27.95). The three-part PBS series of the same title is based on that book. (The final segment airs next Monday - check local listings for repeats.) He prefers to call himself an ''interpreter and synthesizer of natural science.''

For much of his life he was blind or deaf or both. It wasn't until he was 56 years old, after a successful career in business and after he was finally freed of his disabilities, that he felt compelled to make use of his senses in an entirely new career. In addition, his writing and photography satisfied a lifelong passion to understand the past, present, and future of our planet.

Born in Wales, with homes now in Denver, Switzerland, and England, Mr. Redfern has stopped off in New York to promote both the TV series and the book, providing a fascinated interviewer with several hours of observations about the landscape around us.

A layman in geology, Redfern likes to point out that the foundations of this science were based on the work of ''amateurs'' who simply took an interest in fossils and the like.

I asked him why he chose North America as the focus for ''The Making of a Continent.''

''Fascination with the continent. Through my business my wife and I used to come to America as much as five times a year. On one occasion we covered thousands of miles visiting the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and other such spots. The visit happened to coincide with the centennial celebration for John Wesley Powell, the first man to follow the Colorado River all the way down to Lake Mead through the bottom of the canyon.

''I decided this would be an excellent base for me to accumulate material for a book, which I would not only write but illustrate. (''Corridors of Time,'' Times Books). From then on I wanted most of all to write about my personal adventures and my growing understanding of this marvelous country, so different from anything I had seen in Europe.

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''I've observed that when one travels in England or on the Continent, there are constant changes in landscape. In the United States one sometimes has to travel long distances to find changes.

''The geology and origins of Europe are very complex and difficult for a layman to comprehend. So complex that it is only in the last few years that the first books have been written on the geology of Europe as a continent. But over here it is much simpler - one can look at the continent as a whole. And that is precisely why I chose to do the story of this continent.

''Because it is a unit on a tectonic plate, separate from other continents . . . one can look at how it originated, how it is developing, how it is changing, and most of all, how life has related to the changes on the continent itself.

''You cannot really do that as effectively anywhere else in the world. Here you have a continent with several hundred million people on it and before that, several million or more aboriginal peoples. And something like 70 percent of all mammals on this landscape have only been here about 5 million years. So it is new. We have an opportunity to look at the continent as a unit.''

Why is it so new?

''Around 200 million years ago the continents had assembled into one mass and began to split up. That's not a long time ago in geological terms, not when you are talking about an earth that is probably 4.6 billion years old. One of the early rifts is right in the Hudson River, the Palisadean Rift. The Hudson River flows for quite a stretch through the line of this old fault. That was one of the very early rifts when the supercontinent of Pangaea began to break up. The North Atlantic opened up in several stages. We are finding that the rocks in the Palisades correspond with rocks in Northwest Africa. It's not surprising, because they were once joined together.''

It is Mr. Redfern's theory that New York's skyline provides a major clue to its geology. ''If you look at Manhattan, you'll see that the skyscrapers follow a pattern. Manhattan is very slightly undulated. There is rock polished by the ice age and in between there are depressions filled with marshes. So you see tall buildings in the neighborhood of Wall Street built on rock. Then they flatten out in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village where there were marshes, then high buildings again, etc. You only have to look at the profile of the highest buildings in Manhattan to understand the profile of rocks underneath.

''Once Europe and North America were joined, and that breaking up didn't take place until about 60 million years ago. The separation was along the coast of north Scotland. You must remember that

Greenland is part of North America, part of the continental mass. So there are parts of Scotland which exactly correspond to parts of east Greenland, There are parts of north Wales which exactly correspond to parts of Newfoundland. And as you move south you can find parts of England which correspond to parts of Massachusetts.''

In the first of the three-part PBS series, Mr. Redfern introduces a cross section of the North American continent. He uses the Grand Canyon to explain evolution from 570 million years ago. In the second film, he describes what he calls ''the beginning of the destruction of the continent, the continuous formations of the Grand Canyon broken up and twisted like pieces of paper. So here you see the beginning of real change to the original continent. The third film concerns itself with California, which is absolutely new.''

How new?

''New in geological terms. Remember that 5, 10, 50 million years, although an infinite time to us as humans, is only a comparatively small length of time geologically speaking. Everything west of the San Andreas Fault - from Baja California for a distance of 800 miles - is suspect terrain which has moved in the last 30 million years maybe 300 miles up the coast. Eventually it'll accumulate and cluster itself along the northwest coast in Alaska. But that'll probably take another 50 million years. This is exciting stuff, the new science of tectonics. The earth is now known to be dynamic.''

Mr. Redfern says the most exciting discovery of the past decade has been that about 70 percent of all the terrain from the Brooks Range in Alaska down to Mexico, west of the Rocky Mountains, is new. ''It doesn't belong to the North American continent at all. It's what is known as newly accreted terrain.''

CHO Of all the places on the North American continent which Redfern visited, Alaska was the place that intrigued him most. ''The people are wonderful, because they are still pioneering. The first man to arrive on the North American continent came via Alaska. Beringia (or the area around the Bering Strait) really was a subcontinent in its own right, 1,000 miles wide. The people who came were unconscious that they were traveling from one continent to another.''

Does Redfern believe that our civilization is protecting its natural resources well enough?

''I'm going to give you what you may consider a surprising answer,'' he says with a little smile of anticipation. Obviously he is going to give me a proven provocative answer.

''Man is a conceited animal. We rather think the earth is our inheritance. But in actual fact, the earth controls us. And if all the nuclear bombs on earth at this moment were most unfortunately detonated, what they would do would be to destroy life. But that would have very little effect on the earth itself.

''Earth would then regenerate in various ways. The worst that man can do is destroy himself. We never really affect earth. Not materially. Not on a really large scale. Earth is a dynamic mechanism and we're only a small part of the whole. It's up to us to understand our role. Whether man continues being a species for any length of time or not depends upon his recognition of this fact.''

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