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Plate and cultural tectonics: Rocks and rewrites


Thanks for the note. I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back with you. I only check this E-mail occasionally in the summer.

I’m glad you noticed about the geology. Rocks are important. I just wish I could speak of them with greater (or any) authority. There’s only so much room in a narrative of this kind to cover the things you think are important to forwarding the story. So much fascinated me.

I would have loved to write at greater length about the geological reasons for and features of the Great Plains–even things rocks did rather than what the rocks were, for instance, the rain shadow the Rocky Mountain uplift makes. I often thought of the inland sea, what happened to it, and what kind of features it left behind as the continent rose. I would have loved to go into length about why the prairie, once plowed, was some of the most fertile land on the planet . . . in other words, where dirt comes from. In the original draft, I had a longer section on the Sand Hills and how they act as a giant drain that recharges the Ogallala Aquifer. In the end, I think someone needs to write a John McPhee-kind of conversational narrative solely about the aquifer, its land, its functioning as a geological feature, etc.

That lack of authority in geological matters also also plays into the next book–the story of the river trip home. The rocks laid bare as I descended the river out of the mountains and out onto the plains were incredibly beautiful and fascinating. The river itself often left steep slopes where you could see the pre-history of this part of the planet. The river acted, in a sense, as a saw that cut down through the landscape as it rose over time, leaving us a view into the anatomy of the continent, like one of those plastic models that lets you see the inner tracks of the human body.

I hate to say this too loudly, but high water is a good thing. Having been on the river numerous times and doing now my dissertation on the Missouri, I have come to see that high water is a cyclical, albeit unpredictable, condition. Flood is what happens when we build our assets where the river runs.

If we think about a river not as just what we see but as an entity of time and space, we can begin to understand the river not in our time but in its time. The river is where it has run and where it will run. It is not merely water in a depression, but an expression of the land, change over time, and the human and nonhuman geologies that shape and form it.

From this perspective, the river is more than water in a depression. It is its watershed, the weather, the geological changes that make it. At one point in the new book, I write of the epistemological difficulties of thinking of the river this way. After all, if the boundaries of the river is fuzzy, they don’t seem so at any given moment. I am here. It is there. But since you deal with rocks, you can well understand that the kinds of time and change that make those boundaries more gray, and why it is so difficult to take our traditional understandings of the river as transport, irrigation, drinking water, industrial water, etc., and move into less utilitarian and non-anthropocentric thinking about the river.

But that is stuff for longer conversation. I’m glad you liked Seldom Seen and I hope you will like the next book. If you don’t you can always tell me about it. We are just at the beginning of the publication process. I just got the initial draft from the editor with her comments. Now comes a rewrite and that has to go out for peer review. It goes on and on. I think, if I can work this thing right, we could be looking at bookshelves in fall 2012 or spring 2013.

In the meantime, dissertation, manuscript rewrites, dissertation, and more dissertation. Teaching fits in there somewhere.


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