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In Suspect Terrain (1983)

por John McPhee

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488851,445 (4.03)9
From the outwash plains of Brooklyn to Indiana's drifted diamonds and gold, John McPhee's In Suspect Terrain is a narrative of the earth, told in four sections of equal length, each in a different way reflecting the three others-- a biography a set piece about a fragment of Appalachian landscape in illuminating counterpoint to the human history there a modern collision of ideas about the origins of the mountain range and, in contrast, a century-old collision of ideas about the existence of the Ice Age. The central figure is Anita Harris, an internationally celebrated geologist who went into her profession to get out of a Brooklyn ghetto. The unifying theme is plate tectonics-- here concentrating on the acceptance that all aspects of the theory do not universally enjoy. As such, In Suspect Terrain is a report from the rough spots at the front edge of a science. In Suspect Terrain is the second book in a series on geology and geologists, presenting a cross section of North America along the fortieth parallel, and gathered under the overall title Annals of the Former World. The other books in the series are Basin and Range, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California.… (mais)
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A geologic history of eastern North America exemplified by a journey across Interstate 80 from New York to Chicago.

The author chronicles the time spent with Anita Harris exploring the geology present across areas of Interstate 80 with special emphasis and focus on Manhattan Island, the Delaware Water Gap, and the orogeny of Pennsylvania. The author interlaces the narrative of this trip with the story of Harris' life and her work in geology as a way of highlighting her expertise and to explain the development of the geologic consensus over time.

Whereas in Reassembling California the author is speaking with an architect of plate tectonic theory, In Suspect Terrain we find Harris as a plate tectonic skeptic - not entirely dismissing the idea, but wondering if the attempt is being made to explain more than can really be explained by the theory.

In the book you read of the effects of glaciation, how retreating glaciers left all kinds of deposits across the north, and why northeastern Indiana has some elevation to it. One learns of the geologic situation of Manhattan Island and what it would have been like eons ago. Most of the narrative involves the successive rise and fall of three mountain ranges of which the Appalachians are the most recent, and how much of the eastern United States is the result of the detritus from those mountains filling in what had been shallow seas. The journey ends at the Indiana Dunes, the boundary of glacial Lake Chicago.

An entertaining read explaining how the Eastern United States came to be. ( )
  deusvitae | Oct 16, 2023 |
Several years ago, I read John McPhee's BASIN AND RANGE, an offbeat choice for me, a book about geology and mountains and debris flows. It was so extraordinary that I read it again immediately after finishing it for the first time. McPhee's use of language, his eloquent flow and rhythm, made what in most hands would probably have been a dreary trudge into a poetic and moving adventure into the land and how it is shaped and how it moves. IN SUSPECT TERRAIN (which with BASIN AND RANGE and ASSEMBLING CALIFORNIA forms a single collection, ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD, which won for McPhee the Pulitzer Prize) is in part the story of how the (mostly) eastern land mass of North America came to be formed, how the Ice Age sculpted it, and how the pressures of the land and the expanses of time gave rise to fossil fuels. But it is also a profile of Anita Harris, a contrarian geologist who argues against the long-established theory of plate tectonics (at least in its details) and who conducts McPhee on a journey through the countryside in which are discovered and deciphered the story in rock of the birth and growth of a continent. IN SUSPECT TERRAIN is denser in its use of technical terms than BASIN AND RANGE, and therefore it is less comprehensible as a technical guide to the geology it discusses. But though it is not the extraordinary achievement the earlier book is, it is filled with McPhee's genius with words. If you only read one McPhee, read BASIN AND RANGE. If you feel, as I did, driven to read a second of his books, this is a good one, even if it's a little harder work. ( )
  jumblejim | Aug 26, 2023 |
In Suspect Terrain is book two in John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World. He continues his drive along I-80 to explore the geological forces that shaped America.

This time he is accompanied by a geologist named Anita Harris. She pioneered using conodonts, which are toothlike fossils to help determine the age of rocks, and are very useful to the petroleum industry. A large portion of the book is dedicated to her life and work. She also doesn’t believe all the hype about the new (at the time) seafloor spreading theory and shares her concerns with McPhee.

Like Basin and Range, we get explanations of how America’s geology came to be. We learn why the tallest skyscrapers in New York City are clustered in certain areas of Manhattan. There is also a fascinating summary of how diamonds are created.

Another major topic of the book is glaciers. The part of the country McPhee is exploring (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana) was largely shaped by the effects of glaciation.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s not as good as Basin and Range, but it’s still good. I read both Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain in a week, which was a lot of geology to digest. I will be taking a few weeks off before I read the third book in the series.

Do I recommend it?

Like Basin and Range, you don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this book. But it still might be an acquired taste. You should know McPhee is exceptional at writing about geology. His writing is interesting and engaging, and never dull, which can be hard to do with a work of science.

This was originally posted on my website here ( )
1 vote samuelpedro1992 | Feb 7, 2022 |
Unlike all the other John McPhee books I have read, this one involves more personality.

The opinions of Anita Harris are delivered in an unpleasant way as she and John traverse the land. ( )
  m.belljackson | Nov 16, 2019 |
Ugh. I can't put my finger on it, but this felt patronising and completely over the top. The plate tectonics scepticism doesn't help, but nor does the overawed style. I need to come to terms with the fact that I just don't like this guy. ( )
1 vote seabear | Jan 7, 2013 |
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The paragraph that follows is an encapsulated history of the eastern United States, according to plate-tectonic theory and glacial geology.
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From the outwash plains of Brooklyn to Indiana's drifted diamonds and gold, John McPhee's In Suspect Terrain is a narrative of the earth, told in four sections of equal length, each in a different way reflecting the three others-- a biography a set piece about a fragment of Appalachian landscape in illuminating counterpoint to the human history there a modern collision of ideas about the origins of the mountain range and, in contrast, a century-old collision of ideas about the existence of the Ice Age. The central figure is Anita Harris, an internationally celebrated geologist who went into her profession to get out of a Brooklyn ghetto. The unifying theme is plate tectonics-- here concentrating on the acceptance that all aspects of the theory do not universally enjoy. As such, In Suspect Terrain is a report from the rough spots at the front edge of a science. In Suspect Terrain is the second book in a series on geology and geologists, presenting a cross section of North America along the fortieth parallel, and gathered under the overall title Annals of the Former World. The other books in the series are Basin and Range, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California.

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