My summer reading list about place was predictably over ambitious, given that a loose synonym for “place” might be “everywhere” which kind of includes “everything,” and almost every book every written. And it might take me longer than two and half months to capture the essence of “place” in my own work. Nonetheless I have not been disappointed.
Here’s what I’ve got so far:
You are probably familiar with the unsolicited book loan. Sometimes when I say I study creative nonfiction people pull their favorite books out of their back pockets/dusty shelf, and press it to my heart saying READ THIS. This is generally welcome except for the unfortunate guilt of not reading it for 8 months (or more). This was the case with John McPhee’s Basin and Range. It’s about geology. Rocks were not at the top of my list until I realized -what is more place oriented than the literal ground underfoot? So I fit it into the summer lineup.
As McPhee moves through the first half of the book transforming ridiculous scientific vocabulary to a meaningful narrative for the lay reader, it becomes clear that you can’t possibly describe the Earth without being very specific about the time. (…and so it is always when writing about place. Obvious perhaps but a good reminder.) He also lulls you into enjoying an enlightening jaunt through the Pleistocene, Cretaceous, Carboniferous, Precambrian etc. And then BAM. He hits you with the concept of Deep Time, and the meaningless brevity of all humanity on a shaking, melting, spinning, spreading, explosive planet. As the 19th Century geologist, Dr. Hutton, put it, the earth “has no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,” with all of human existence appearing in the most recent fraction of a second. The opossum has been around longer*. By opossum I mean every opossum that ever lived as he/she contributes to the lifespan of the species as a unit. So then think about humans the same way and you and I are (kind of) just like some opossum that hung out in a tree for a few years and died in some woods somewhere in the last million or so years, and no one knows the difference because opossums are all pretty much the same, right? The scratching he/she left on a log as a message is indecipherable.
So if you and I are younger than the opossum; a hangnail on the fingertip of time, what’s the point of writing? Why bother? Everything we write will be just be devoured by lava. But equally penetrating is the question – why not? There’s really nothing to lose. It just doesn’t matter. I find that takes some of the pressure off.
If you want to get lost in plate tectonics and obscure rock facts of the western US, I would endorse Basin and Range as a worthwhile book length mega-essay. (Learn how gold gets into mountains!) Or maybe just indulge in this melodramatic apocalyptic documentary, “Colliding Continents”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCSJNBMOjJs
*Disclaimer: I’m not good at retaining factual information so this may not be exactly verifiable, but McPhee does mention the opossum.
Sarah Sheesley is a second-year MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of New Mexico. She is the Nonfiction Editor for Blue Mesa Review.