When you get home from a trip you do things to re-center yourself. Pull some weeds, maybe. Throw out some stuff in the fridge. Laundry. Make a list of things to do that you won’t actually do. Get organized in preparation for being completely disorganized. But this morning I felt the need to read something — something purifying. To put something different in my head after a few days in Sandusky World. So I pulled from the shelf McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World.”
It so happens there’s a lot in the book about Pennsylvania and the “deformed Appalachians,” that lovely landscape around State College. On the drive back I rolled down long valleys dotted with postcard barns and grain silos. The ridges are heavily forested and the highest mountains topped with windmills. McPhee is a master of describing terrain, and, more impressively yet, the forces that shape it. Here he is talking about the creation of the ridges and valleys, and the water gaps — those breaks in the mountains created by streams and exploited by highway engineers:
“Sometimes [the eastern rivers] came to the arching quonset roofs of anticlines, and slicing their way through quartzite found limestones within. It was like slicing into the foil around a potato and finding the softe interior. The water would remove the top of the arch, dig a valley far down inside, and leave quartzite stubs to either side as ridges flanking the carbonate valley. Streams eroding headward ate up the hillsides back into the mountainsides, digging grooves toward the nearest divide. On the other side was another stream, doing the same. Working into the mountain, the two streams drew closer to each other unitl the divide between them broke down and they were now confluent, one stream changing direction, captured. In this manner, some thousands of streams — consequent streams, pirate streams, beheaded streams, defeated streams — formed and re-formed, shifting valleys, making hundreds of water gaps with the general and simple objective of finding in the newly tilted landscape the shortest possible journey to the sea.”
And then a couple of pages later he steps back from the mechanical stuff, the pure geology, and voices a more general impression:
“For all the great deformity and complexity, the mountains now gone had left patterns behind. The land rising and falling, the sea receding and transgressing, the ancestral rivers losing power through time had not just obliterated much of what went before but had always imposed new scenes, and while I, for one, could not hold so many hundreds of pictures well related in my mind I felt assured beyond doubt that we were moving through more than chaos.”
We spend so much time these days talking about the news of the moment, the latest gaffe, the breaking scandal, the kerfuffle of the hour. Or we immerse ourselves in some transitory horror. But for sanity’s sake we have to remember that there are things bigger than all of us, that the world exists in a different time scale than the one that so preoccupies us. That can be humbling but also a relief. And so we look for broader and deeper patterns, and more eternal truths, as our reassurance that there is more going on than just chaos.