Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

Source of book: I own this.

One of the first book reviews I did before I started my blog and was still using the notes on Facebook was of Sarah Orne Jewett’s short stories. I really enjoyed those, and had intended to read her longer works sooner. However, the copy I read was a library book, and I never did get back to borrowing it again.

Fortunately, my wife found a lovely hardback of The Country of the Pointed Firs at a library sale. (And, just last month, I scored a Jewett collection from the Library of America for a buck at a used bookstore in San Diego - that’s an interesting story in itself.) So, I had a perfect excuse to enjoy this book. 



The Country of the Pointed Firs is not so much a novel as a collection of stories spanning a summer spent in the fictional New England town of Dunnet Landing, Maine. The stories also involve the same characters and are further connected by the relationships between those characters.

The unnamed narrator is boarding with Mrs. Almira Todd, a widow who supports herself by selling herbal remedies and renting out a room. Mrs. Todd knows everyone, and has a pointed, yet not harsh, observation about all. Mrs. Todd’s elderly mother and brother, who live on an island just offshore, also figure prominently in the story. There are other memorable characters, from Captain Littlepage, the eccentric retired fisherman who has never gotten over the death of his beloved wife, to Mrs. Martin, the elderly woman born on the same day as Queen Victoria who feels a certain kinship with the queen. Nearly all of the characters are older, at least middle aged, whose children are grown and usually fled from the decaying fishing village to seek their fortunes, and who have at least one foot in the past. This is typical Jewett - these are her people, the ones her physician father used to care for, and the ones she knew throughout her life. She writes their lives with gentle affection, and a keen eye for human nature.

Jewett lived in New England in the latter half of the 19th Century, and her writing harkens back to that time and place. Her stories are regional, but yet universal. This particular story also has a connection to Jewett’s life. She never married, but cohabited with a widow after the husband’s death. (She had been friends with the couple before that.) This “Boston Marriage” was possible because the women were self-sufficient financially, of course, but they appear to have been close friends at the very least. In this book, the narrator (who strongly resembles the author) has a special connection with Mrs. Todd during their time together in Dunnet Landing, and their friendship is the central focus of the book. And it really is a touching friendship, two older women enjoying each other’s company and companionship while navigating each other’s needs and expectations.

Jewett was an excellent writer, and I never fail to enjoy her use of language or her complex and memorable characters. A few lines are worth mentioning. In one, Mrs. Fosdick remembers the old days, when the town was a bustling seaport, and most of the residents had traveled abroad, Mrs. Todd included.

“I used to return feelin’ very slack an’ behind the times, ‘tis true,” explained Mrs. Fosdick, “but ‘twas excitin’, an’ we always done extra well, and felt rich when we did get ashore. I liked the variety. There, how times have changed; how few seafarin’ families there are left! What a lot o’ queer folks there used to be about here, anyway, when we as young, Almiry. Everybody’s just like everybody else, now; nobody to laugh about, and nobody to cry about.”
It seemed to me that there were peculiarities of character in the region of Dunnet Landing yet, but I did not like to interrupt.

Say what? The old folks thought the younguns were all the same and not as interesting as they were back in the day? Who knew this happened way back then?

On the other hand, Jewett herself kind of sympathised with this idea, because it was true that it was harder to be provincial and insular when you travelled abroad. Those experiences of difference broadened views.

More than this one cannot give to a young State for its enlightenment; the sea captains and the captains’ wives of Maine knew something of the wide world, and never mistook their native parishes for the whole instead of a part thereof…

In our day, we see this too. There is a strong connection between experience and knowledge of the rest of the world, and empathy toward outsiders - and also a preference for diplomacy rather than warfare. (See for example this bit on the difference between those who can find North Korea on a map, and those who cannot…)

Whether or not you have the funds to travel, all of us can at least travel in the sense of experiencing unfamiliar places and people through reading. By exploring outside our bubble, whether that is geographical, chronological, religious, ethnic, or financial, we can develop commonality with others around the work, throughout time, and despite whatever differences we may have. In fact, I would say that one of the best predictors of whether I can find common ground to discuss the things that really matter is whether a person reads and experiences outside their own bubble. I have found lately that this is nearly impossible with someone whose knowledge base is Fox News and Breitbart and a few pop-theology tomes. There is no empathy to grasp in common. Whereas readers - we always can find commonality somewhere, and there is a language that can take us outside of our own boxes to understanding each other and the world we live in.

For one exercise of that gift, Sarah Orne Jewett can transport you to the New England of 150 years ago, to the lives of ordinary people whose experiences are rather different than ours, but whose humanity is instantly recognizable. They too love and hurt, and experience loneliness and joy, and have dreams and hopes and fears. This is what good literature does, and why it is so necessary.

***

This particular edition was illustrated by Douglas Alvord. I have a soft spot for monochrome drawings, and these are really lovely, full of as much nuance of character as Jewett’s writing. 


Friday, July 21, 2017

Christianity and Culture Part 1: Asking the Right Questions

Part 1: Culture Versus Culture: Asking the Right Questions

I have been contemplating writing this post for some time, but was sparked by a mention by my former pastor of Christ and Culture by H. Richard Nieibuhr, a book written back in the 1950s that discussed potential ways of viewing Christianity and culture. I did a bit of reading to have an idea of what Niebuhr said, and appreciated that he discussed the basic approaches. (Also, his brother Reinhold had a lot of interesting things to say about Christianity and ethics.) Having grown up in subcultures (homeschooling and Gothardism) which had elements of both the isolationist and dominionist views, I think an understanding of how these two particular views of culture have come to politically dominate both Evangelicalism and the GOP is helpful.

But I think that talking about our approach to culture - really, our approach to the highly political Culture Wars™ - is premature, because we haven’t really thought through the threshold question:

When we talk about Christianity and Culture, how do we even tell when they are truly opposed?

I believe this is a great a problem as our approach to cultural clashes - probably greater - because how we pick our battles is every bit as important as how we fight them.

To start with, I think we need a couple of definitions:

  1. What is “Culture”?

While culture can be a bit slippery to define, I tend to like anthropologist E. B. Tylor’s definition: “[T]hat complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”



This seems to be fairly comprehensive, yet helpful. The reason that I think we need to define culture more carefully is that it is all too easy to think of culture in terms of “us versus them,” or “people like us are good while people like them are bad,” which is not just unhelpful, it gets tribalist and racist really quickly. It also in practice tends to lead to the idea that people who share certain specific cultural beliefs with us are “Christian,” while those who do not are “hostile culture,” whether or not those cultural differences have any real nexus to religious beliefs. Here in the United States (and throughout the West to a degree), this means that specifically American cultural beliefs and preferences can take on the weight of religious dogma.

Instead, I think focusing on the specific things which make up culture, we can better analyze whether a particular cultural belief, art, moral, law, custom, or knowledge we are talking about, and better analyze whether our perceived conflict with Christianity is really a conflict, or if we are really dealing with a conflict between cultural preferences.

  1. What is “Christianity”?

This one is equally vital, because how we define the essence of our faith will often determine how we view conflicts with it. As a great example of this, the religious establishment in the Gospels viewed Christ himself as an existential threat to their religion. As I will discuss later in this post and series, this is because Christ was a threat to their culture, and threatened to - and did - divorce true religion from their cherished cultural preferences.

I would start with this: Christianity, whatever it has been in practice, should be, in theory, following Christ. Following His teachings, his commands, his values.

Taking these premises to the logical conclusion, we should only have a true “Christianity versus Culture” conflict when the teachings, commands, and values of Christ conflict with the beliefs, morals, laws, customs, habits, and so on, of the culture.

I bring this up in significant part because of my own upbringing. My parents were both Missionary Kids, born and raised overseas. My dad grew up in the Philippines, while my mom grew up in Mexico. Their experiences were different than most other Americans their age. My dad in particular impressed on me from an early age that Christianity often looks very different in different cultures, and that American culture was not synonymous with Christianity. Americanism and Colonialism in particular were problematic because they elevated cultural preferences and the exercise of power over others to the level of religious faith, and were thus idolatry.

In light of this, I believe that a significant portion of the Culture Wars™ are not really about the opposition of the teachings of Christ to the culture, but about warring cultural preferences which have been elevated to the level of idolatry. When Evangelicals in particular talk about the Culture War, more often than not, they are not really defending the teachings of Christ - and often are doing the opposite.

The sad thing is that there are two poisonous results from this failure to carefully think through this issue: first, we tend to pick battles that are about culture versus culture rather than Christ versus culture. Second, we very often fail to identify those cases where the teachings of Christ truly do conflict with culture, and thus cling to and embrace the culture instead of Christ.

Here is how I see these play out:

  1. Culture versus Culture

There are three major conflicts which represent the real clash of the Culture Wars™ - and they are related. Different, but intimately connected.

Let me start by mentioning this fact: The United States is 80 percent Christian. We ARE the culture. So the idea of the dominant culture of the United States being opposed to Christianity as it exists in America is self-contradictory. The conflict must therefore be in significant part between Christians and between different Christian cultures. While there are exceptions, the Cultural Warriors - and particularly their organizations - are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and Republican. This is only one slice of Christianity in America, obviously. (For Evangelicals - particularly white middle class Evangelicals - they and they alone have theological and cultural truth, so that colors this conflict.) Thus, the Culture Wars™ owe a great deal to demographically driven cultural preferences far more than doctrine. A good proof of this can be seen that among American Christians who share most of the same core doctrines, beliefs about culture and politics break down largely on racial and class lines. Which means, if you think about it, that these beliefs must be primarily cultural rather than doctrinal.

Here are the three cultural conflicts I see that are really Culture versus Culture, rather than Christ versus Culture.

  1. Culture of the Past versus Culture of the Present

This is, of course, merely a modern manifestation of a profoundly human tendency well in evidence by the time of Aristotle nearly 2500 years ago. The “good old days” were better, society is going to hell, the young people are horrible, and so on. It has been well documented throughout human history. Perhaps it would be just an irritating facet of human existence but for one thing: The past is worshiped as if it were divine.

I have far too much experience with this because of my involvement in the Dominionist/Separatist movements of fundamentalism. (A good place to start is in my post on Cultural Fundamentalism.)

The institutions, power structures, and indeed the very injustices of the past are believed to be True Christianity™ and thus all ways that the present differs from the past are to be considered departures from true religion, and cultural war is necessary to return us to the halcyon days of utopia.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the war that organizations from Focus on the Family to Bill Gothard’s cult have waged on women who work outside the home. (My wife works outside the home, and has experienced much needless disdain from people in our life as a result.)

But it isn’t just that. The music of the past versus the present. Clothing styles of the past versus the present. Smart phones versus newspapers. Archaic slang versus modern slang. The never ending barrage of articles dissing Millennials. And so on.

Keeping in mind the above definition of “culture,” it becomes evident that most of this is a clash of cultures. Past culture versus present culture.

I hope to discuss what I believe is the theological source of this clash in a future post.

  1. White Evangelical Churchianity versus other Cultures

Again, this is connected. It is a white Evangelical culture of the past (such as the 1950s or 1850s depending on your preference) versus modern non-white, non-Evangelical cultures. You can see this both in the hostility toward “ghetto culture” or Latino cultures, but also in the specifically “churchy” parts of the culture.

Just one little example is the use of vulgarity. After all, Saint Paul and Isaiah both engaged in some pretty “earthy” language to make a point. They were not above using the Hebrew or Greek for piss and shit when it heightened the idea they were presenting. But particularly for my grandparents’ generation, this was horrible of horribles. In contrast, my grandparents’ generation sure seemed to throw around racial epithets without embarrassment. The taboo words have changed, and the change is viewed by many as culture triumphing over Christianity. But is it really more “Christian” to refer disdainfully to n-----rs than it is to drop an “Oh shit!”? Perhaps this was just a cultural difference.

I have found that when pressed, most Evangelicals will list, alongside the usual sexual bogeymen, a litany of supposed “evil” in the culture, which are really, if you look at Tylor’s definition, cultural differences. Cultural preferences. And if you press as to which of Christ’s commands are being violated, you usually don’t get anything of substance back.

It’s Churchianity, not Christ, that conflicts with culture. And it is, more than anything else, in those ways in which white culture conflicts with non-white cultures, and where middle class culture conflicts with lower class culture that there is the most conflict.

As before, this conflict is revealed in the fact that white middle-class evangelical culture and politics tend to resemble non-religious white middle class culture and politics than it does the culture of non-white, lower class culture and politics.

  1. Republicanity versus Culture

I can’t remember exactly where I ran across this word, but it is so useful. Republicanity is the religion that many Evangelicals truly exercise, not Christianity in the sense of Christ and his commandments. That is why, as the GOP has shifted dramatically to the right, and embraced Social Darwinism, you see more and more Evangelicals giving preference to the teachings of the atheist Ayn Rand over the teachings of Jesus Christ. When the two conflict, Rand wins every time.

You can also see it in the fact that multiple leaders switched completely on whether adultery and sexual assault were a deal breaker - and the difference was whether there was an (R) or a (D) after the name.

This is why a local church in my city held a mourning service after President Obama was elected. And why so many Evangelicals celebrated a GOP victory this November despite (or perhaps because of) the damage that is likely to occur to many vulnerable people as a result.

This is why the main thrust of the culture wars is political.

As I said earlier, these three are all related, and they stem from the same basic belief: “Christianity” is synonymous with a certain white, middle class, Evangelical culture of the past and its political beliefs and affiliations, and its cultural preferences and signifiers.

  1. Where Christ truly does conflict with culture

This is the truly tragic part of the equation. At its root, Christianity has to be about a certain idea which Christ himself summed up all of the law and the prophets: “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”

Christ, in his teachings and ministry exemplified this precept, and it is what brought him into conflict with the religious establishment.

All of the cultural trappings - including the Mosaic Code - were swept away. Cultural and racial identity, gender and social hierarchies - all were upended in the Upside Down Kingdom. Christ himself said that our future judgment would depend, not on our cultural affiliation, our rituals and taboos, or even the specifics of our beliefs, but on what we did for the least of these - because that was how we treated Christ.

This is a hard teaching, and it highlights the real areas where Christ conflicts with our modern culture.

A full treatment of this is beyond the scope of this post, but let me hit a few highlights. Our American culture worships celebrity. And yet, Evangelicals worship celebrity every bit as much, as every mega-church pastor and his latest best seller demonstrates. (To say nothing of this last election, the perfect example of substance-free celebrity attracting worship.)

Our culture worships money and power. And so do we. Look at any Evangelical church board, and you won’t see much of any representation from those in the congregation in the bottom 20 percent of income. This has been true of EVERY church board at EVERY church I have ever attended. It occurs to me that this reveals a fundamental view of the church as a business rather than a ministry.

Our culture - particularly the dominant race - is hostile to immigrants, unwilling to grant to others what our own ancestors got. This is contrary not just to the teaching of Christ, but to the commands in the Mosaic Code and the teachings of the prophets. 

Our culture equates wealth with virtue and poverty with vice. And so do we, even those of us who do not officially believe the Prosperity Gospel or Social Darwinism. Christ taught the opposite.

Our American culture has had a longstanding problem with racism and white supremacy. We have considered non-whites - and blacks in particular - to be subhuman, inherently violent, less intelligent, and undeserving of full access to society. And so does American white Evangelicalism. One thing this election did was reveal just how many people I know are deeply racist. It isn’t from my atheist friends that I hear dehumanizing of minorities. It isn’t from them that I find re-posts from hate groups and openly white supremacist individuals (like Milo Yiannopoulos). It isn’t from my atheist friends that I find dismissal of Black Lives Matter as a phony media creation. No, it comes from my Evangelical friends and family. Every. Single. Time. And those of us who do push back against this problem in our culture are told to tone it down so we don’t offend fellow (white, middle class) Christians.

Again, this is just a small sample, and I haven’t fleshed it out. But suffice it to say that the attitudes and actions of our American culture very often conflict with the teachings of Christ in these ways, and yet the Culture Wars™, where they take a position, tend to side with culture against Christ.

***

Note: I use the (™) intentionally. The Culture Wars™ are a tremendous money machine, supporting numerous multi-million dollar organizations whose purpose is to wield political power in favor of one political party. The religious right was founded for the express purpose of perpetuating segregation  and guaranteeing the votes of white evangelicals to the GOP. A tactical decision was made a few years later to pivot to legislating sexual behavior as the focus. Make no mistake, however, this is all about the money and all about the political power.

***

Just one great example of where the white middle-to-upper class past culture is assumed to be synonymous with Christianity, check out this interesting article from The Federalist. When one is talking about withdrawing from modern society for religious reasons, then shift to a vision of reading old books by white males as part of that, well, you may not be distinguishing between the two very well…

***

One more bit on the definition of culture itself. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, best known for his “hierarchy of needs,” made the following observation:

It is too often not realized that culture itself is an adaptive tool, one of whose main functions is to make the physiological emergencies come less and less often.

This is a major reason why cultures change and differ. The circumstances change. The culture of the past is often a poor fit for modern circumstances. That’s why maintenance of Patriarchy requires the women be denied education - it might become obvious that they aren’t less intelligent than men. Likewise, tribalist thinking tends to lead to big wars - globalism is necessary in a world where we are no longer separated from the rest of humanity. Science, technology, better understandings of ethics and ourselves, all of these things change our circumstances, and culture changes along with them. The answer to how to live as a Christian in the actual world we inhabit isn’t “return to the past” but the application of ethical and genuinely Christian thought to a different world. As Mark Noll points out, that is the one thing Evangelicals have grown unable to do. It’s much more satisfying to either withdraw to a bubble, or to seek political power to force others to return to the past. (That’s pretty much the definition of the Culture Wars™.)

***

Also relevant in this discussion is my series on Dominionism. The Culture Wars(TM) exist because Evangelicalism has embraced Dominionism as its preferred approach to outsiders. 

Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 1: It's All About The Power
Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 2: The American Version of Dominionism
Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 3: Presuppositionalism Has Poisoned Everything

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is one in our series of not-particularly-systematic quest to read a lot of Newbery Award winners and honorable mentions. This book falls into the second category, named as an honor book for 2011. 



Author Jennifer Holm based the book loosely on the stories her great- grandmother told her of growing up on Key West during the Great Depression. Some of the characters are based on various relatives, and some of the incidents come from the stories. Not all, though, as the book has more of a narrative arc and drama than the originals. The buried treasure incident, for example, came from tales told by the Key West denizens (the “Conchs.”)

The basic gist is this: “Turtle” (we never learn her real name - or that of most of the other characters) is an eleven-year-old girl who is sent by her mother to live with her aunt and uncle in Key West. As we learn, this is just one twist in the hard life that Turtle’s mother has had. She got pregnant by a boy in Key West, was disowned by her rather vicious mother, and left, never to return. About all she can get for work is that of live-in housekeeper for rich people - and her latest employer will not permit children, so off Turtle goes. (This was pretty common in that day, actually. And it remains common in low income and immigrant communities. The idea that communities care for each other is one of the things that has been largely lost in middle class white suburbia…)

Turtle’s arrival comes as a shock to her Aunt Minnie - who didn’t receive the letter, because the local postal service misdirected it. But, she finds room for Turtle. Along with her aunt and uncle (who is mostly away working on the highway - one of the WPA projects), there are a bunch of boy cousins, and other local urchins. Turtle has to find a way to fit in, and find her place in Key West.

The book is full of local flavor - Holm draws on a universe of friends and family for help in getting the details of the past right. I was drooling at different points when the food was described. Particularly the tropical fruit. Other things were less attractive. Holm is up front that the Depression caused the economy of the Keys to collapse - and most residents were on aid in the 1930s. Rum running was a significant source of income, and everyone looked the other way. Financial hardship affected nearly everyone, and bootstraps weren’t enough.

Holm also writes complex characters. Turtle has to learn to be vulnerable - her hard life has led her to be cynical - and admittedly even within the story, she is given ample cause. Her cousins respond to her like you would expect real kids to. Nobody likes being displaced, and “Beans” is no exception. Aunt Minnie is stressed out already, so she alternates between compassion and irritation, like most of us would in a similar circumstance. There are few if any true villains, and no angels either. Just humans.

One of the more striking elements of the book is the group of boys that Beans heads. They are known as the “Diaper Gang.” Because they have made a business of assisting harried parents with their babies. They show up, swaddle the babies, and drag them around town in a wagon until they sleep. Or at least for a while so that the parents can have a break. The boys are actually quite good at it, and (amusingly) are unwilling to let a girl join them, because, well, girls aren’t as good at that sort of thing. (Holm apparently isn’t giving a modern gloss to this - the idea came from one of her great-grandmother’s tales. It is a reminder that the division of men’s and women’s work hasn’t always fallen along the same lines everywhere or at every time.) There isn’t money in this business, though - nobody has that to spare. However, the boys are given candy for their trouble.

The book is recommended for ages 8 to 12, which is probably about right. In my case, my 6 year old enjoyed it. And my older girls did too, in large part because of the humor, which takes the edge off what would otherwise be a tale of hardship and betrayal as much as it is of love and family. I also think this book succeeds at two of the main goals of fiction: it transports the reader to an unfamiliar time and place, and it encourages empathy for those in other circumstances.

The audiobook was narrated by Becca Battoe, who apparently was on Scrubs at one point. She is a pleasant enough reader - I have no complaints about her part of the recording. I was a bit irritated by the gaps between certain paragraphs. This is obviously a sound engineering issue, as I’m sure the book wasn’t read in a single take. A minor fault, but one amplified by the nature of listening to a CD in a vehicle: you can’t tell if there is a natural gap or if the CD has skipped. On the other hand, the relative volume levels were well balanced.



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reading the Rocks by Marcia Bjornerud


Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is an unusual book for the reason that I recommended it to someone else before I read it myself, which is not how I usually do things. However, that friend said she liked it, so I figured I would have to go read it.

Bjornerud is a professor of geology at Lawrence University, so she knows her stuff, but also has a rather poetic writing style. I was expecting a more systematic study of the subject, but won’t complain about the way she approached the topic, other than to say that the book makes more sense if you have at least had a grade school course on earth science.

A little background on this may be helpful. I was homeschooled from second grade onward, in an era when homeschooling went from fringe to mainstream. When I started, curriculum wasn’t easy to obtain - if I recall, even the mainstays of religious homeschooling curriculum now had to be purchased on the gray market. Now, of course, pretty much anything used in public or private schools can be readily found in homeschool-specific versions. And between the internet and the wonders of capitalism, there is so much out there, much of it free. (For example, Phil Plait’s wonderful Crash Course Astronomy videos.) But it was not always so. About all we had was A Beka and PBS.

So anyway, because of what was available and my family’s religious beliefs, the curriculum had a lot of gaps. While my dad wasn’t a young earther, that was (and is) the dominant belief in Evangelical circles, and A Beka definitely fell into that category. And not just by claiming evolution was an atheist conspiracy, but by ignoring or glossing over much of geology, because that led to some uncomfortable places for their theology.

I didn’t particularly suffer from this deficit, though, because I was (and am) a voracious reader, which my parents encouraged. I probably knew more about science in general than most kids my age, and our regular trips to geologically interesting places gave me field experience as well. To be clear, I got a solid academic education. However, I do know that many homeschooled kids do not get this kind of background, and at least in my experience, science and math tend to be weak points for many. (To be fair, science and math are weak subjects for Americans in general, compared to the rest of the first world.)

Despite the YEC propaganda in the culture I grew up in, I don’t think I ever bought into the idea of a young earth. The problem was, there was just too much overwhelming evidence all around. I live in California, which, like most of the western US, has a lot of exposed rocks. And it has earthquakes. And huge mountains. In fact, in geological terms, our mountains are fairly young, which means the way they were formed is rather apparent to the eye, if you know what to look for.

I have lived within about 50 miles of the San Andreas Fault for most of my life. And that fault has created features in the landscape which tell stories. There is Vasquez Rocks, famous for its use in film, which was a favorite destination when I was a kid. There, the layers of breccia and conglomerate are tilted and cracked from the pressures of the fault, and contain fossils from the past.

At various places along the fault, like at the Carrizo Plain National Monument, you can see where hills and creek beds and rock formations have become displaced by the movement of the fault.


Wallace Creek at Carrizo Plain NM in 2014. 
The kids are literally standing on the fault, which displaced the stream bed about 600 feet. 
Crazy dry that drought year - this year, everything was covered in flowers - so many you could literally see it from space.


Even driving interstate 5 north from Los Angeles, you can see where the hills on each side are quite different.

However, the two most interesting features have to be Pinnacles National Park and Point Reyes. In each case, entire rock formations are displaced by hundreds of miles. In the case of Pinnacles, the rest of the extinct volcano is located far south. In the case of Point Reyes, the whole peninsula was moved up the state over time, and it clearly was just stuck on the side there.

And then there are the other western places of geological interest: Zion, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, Lassen, and so many more. All these rocks tell stories of their origin, and those stories do not fit with a young earth. This much was obvious even to teenaged me.

Back to Reading the Rocks. The strong point of this book is in the explanations of how we read them. Contrary to the Evangelical conspiracy theories of my youth, geology isn’t just a made-up explanation to exclude the divine. Rather, there are known processes by which things happen. Plate tectonics are responsible for more than you would realize, radiometric dating does indeed indicate the dates on many rocks, and the fossil record does indeed tell of a history of life very different from our own age. As Hutton put it, “The ruins of an older world are visible in the present structure of our planet.”

Probably the chapter that had the most material that I didn’t already know was the one focusing on the role of water in geological processes, particularly subduction. Pretty fascinating stuff.

Also of particular interest was the chilling account of mass extinctions of the past (including a period when the earth got chilled.) It is frightening to me how cavalier many people are about climate, thinking that there is no risk. The underlying dynamics have been understood for hundreds of years, and we can see from the past that bad things can accelerate. But I guess that goes along with a general hostility toward science in this country, and a tendency to make everything into a partisan issue. (Yeah, I actually remember when Republicans were in favor of conservation and someone like Nixon could found the EPA without half the country thinking it was a Commie conspiracy…)

I also appreciated the way that the author worked in the history of how geological ideas and techniques were developed. It really helps to know how people reached conclusions, not just what they discovered.

Anyway, there is a lot to like in this book. Bjornerud writes well, and keeps the topic interesting and memorable. I will definitely continue to recommend this book.

Just one final thought to end it. Early in the book, the author notes that geology can be intimidating, because of the language, much of which originated before geologists had our modern understanding. Thus, the terms are often anachronistic and misleading.

But nomenclatures outlive the systems that spawned them, and over time the technical vocabulary of geology has become an idiosyncratic melange of anachronisms, synonyms, and some genuinely useful terms.

And, in a move that warms my heart, she then quotes from Mark Twain’s autobiography about the riverboat mate whose reading consisted solely of Lyell’s Geology.

All he wanted out of those great words was the energy they stirred up in his roustabouts. In times of emergency he would let fly a volcanic irruption of the old regular orthodox profanity mixed up with and seasoned all through with imposing geological terms, then formally charge his roustabouts with being Old Silurian Invertebrates out of the Incandescent Anisodactylous Post-Pliocene Period and damn the whole gang in a body to perdition.