The earth below our feet is a great enigma that often escapes attention because of superficial familiarity. We talk, work, dwell, dream -- and transact all the other business of our lives -- on this rocky globe, and yet give it so little regard that to go about with one's eyes glued to the ground is considered tantamount to insensibility.
Walter Sullivan's "Landprints" is one of a number of recent books that set out to rekindle our awe of the earth, and fire our imagination about the tremendous forces that produced the landscape we see before us today. Set up to follow the routes of major American highways, "Landprints" sketches the geologic history of the portion of the crust known as the United States, providing an overview of science's often fantastic concepts of the land's formation.
Steeped in the contemporary geologic concepts of continental drift and plate tectonics, Sullivan paints a picture of a dynamic landscape that almost seems organic with its "stitching granites" and "scablands." The Atlantic Ocean is growing while the Pacific is shrinking, the land near Houston is sinking at a rate of a foot every five years because of the pumping of oil, the island of Petit Bois (which was once called Massacre Island) recently moved from Alabama to Mississippi, while elsewhere Taiwan's days are literally numbered (albeit a large number) since the island is in the process of being crushed against mainland China.
A science writer for The New York Times and author of "We Are Not Alone," "Black Holes" and "Continents in Motion," Sullivan writes with economy and a mastery of an intriguing miscellany of earthly facts, ranging from the location of precious metals along the East Coast (before the Civil War gold was mined on Virginia's Meabasco Creek 18 miles down the Potomac from Washington) to the origin of the term "meander," which "comes to us from the winding river in Phrygia (now part of Turkey) once known as the Maiandros (and today called the Menderes)."
The panoramas above the earth draw Sullivan's attention as well, especially rare phenomena such as parhelia or "sun dogs," and the rainbow halo around shadows known as glories. Quoting Henry Miller from "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch," Sullivan explains how Miller was telling the truth when he described seeing his head surrounded by a rainbow nimbus "such as the Buddha himself might proudly wear" at dawn along the California coast.
The principal weakness of Sullivan's writing is its lack of an evocative dimension. To convey the majesty of a petrified forest in Yellowstone, Sullivan writes that "even the youngest member of our tribe was impressed by the sight of 27 ancient forests, stacked one on top of another." This is as flat as Kansas compared to the high relief achieved by John McPhee in his recent "Basin and Range" and "In Suspect Terrain," where his aim is somewhat akin to Sullivan's. Similarly, Sullivan's treatment of the flooding of the eastern seaboard at the end of the last glaciation is much less well imagined than George Reiger's description of the same subject in his recent "Wanderer on My Native Shore."
Then there is the odd matter that this is a book "on the magnificent American landscape" that appears almost completely ignorant of the great American landscape tradition. Seminal American landscape painters like Thomas Cole and George Inness make no appearance here, and little is heard from word painters like John Muir either. This has the effect of cutting the land off from centuries of native appreciation and study (to say nothing of the wellsprings of the environmental movement), and makes it instead appear the marvelous discovery of late 20th-century geologists.
What redeems "Landprints" -- and the book is in fact redeemed quite handsomely -- is Sullivan's avid intelligence, and the often stunning photographs, more than 100 of which grace the book. "Landprints" would make an excellent traveling companion for anyone planning a trip across the country, as well as armchair travelers who like to dip and nibble among vistas of the land we call America.