The Blind Men and The Elephant from “Basin and Range”

This anecdote from Annals of the Former World serves as a metaphor for all knowledge:

Geologists mention at times something they call the Picture. In an absolutely unidiomatic way, they have often said to me, “You don’t get the Picture.” The oolites and dolomite—tuff and granite, the Pequop siltstones and shales—are pieces of the Picture. The stories that go with them—the creatures and the chemistry, the motions of the crust, the paleoenvironmental scenes—may well, as stories, stand on their own, but all are fragments of the Picture.

The foremost problem with the Picture is that ninety-nine percent of it is missing—melted or dissolved, torn down, washed away, broken to bits, to become something else in the Picture. The geologist discovers lingering remains, and connects them with dotted lines. The Picture is enhanced by filling in the lines—in many instances with stratigraphy: the rock types and ages of strata, the scenes at the time of deposition. The lines themselves to geologists represent structure—folds, faults, flat-lying planes. Ultimately, they will infer why, how, and when a structure came to be—for example, why, how, and when certain strata were folded—and that they call tectonics. “First you read ze Kafka,” I overheard someone say once in a library elevator. “Ond zen you read ze Turgenev. Ond zen and only zen are—you—ready—for—ze Tolstoy.”

And when you have memorized Tolstoy, you may be ready to take on the Picture. Multidimensional, worldwide in scope and in motion through time, it is sometimes called the Big Picture. The Megapicture. You are cautioned not to worry if at first you do not wholly see it. Geologists don’t see it, either. Not all of it. The modest ones will sometimes scuff a boot and describe themselves and their colleagues as scientific versions of them characters in John Godfrey Saxe’s version of the Hindu fable of the blind men and the elephant. “We are blind men feeling the elephant,” David Love, of the Geological Survey, has said to me at least fifty times. It is not unknown for a geological textbook to include snatches of the poem.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The first man of Indostan touches the animal’s side and thinks it must be some sort of living wall. The second touches a tusk and thinks the elephant is like a spear.The others, in turn touch the  trunk, an ear, the tail, a knee—“snake”, “fan”, “rope”, “tree”.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly right,
And all were in the wrong!

Langford Hastings in “Basin and Range”

I was struck by the naked ambition of Langford Hastings (1819–1870) while reading John McPhee’s fantastic geological travel guide Annals of the Former World. You just don’t hear about people ruthlessly misleading people because they want to become ‘President of California’ anymore:

Very few emigrants chose to cross the Bonneville flats, although the route was promoted as a shortcut—“a nigher route”—rejoining the main migration four basins into Nevada. It was the invention of Langford Hastings and was known as the Hastings Cutoff. Hastings wrote the helpful note in Skull Valley. His route was geologically unfavorable, but this escaped his knowledge and notice. His preoccupations were with politics. He wished to become President of California. He saw California—for the moment undefendably Mexican—as a new nation, under God, conceived at liberty and dedicated to the proposition that anything can be accomplished through promotion: President Langford Hastings, in residence  in a western White House. His strategy for achieving high office was to create a new shortcut on the way west, to promote both the route and the destination through recruiting and pamphleteering, to attract emigrants by the thousands year after year, and as their counselor and deliverer to use them as constituent soldiers in the promised heaven. He camped beside the trail farther east. He attracted the Donners. He attracted Reeds, Kesebergs, Murphys, McCutchends, drew them southward away from the main trek and into the detentive scrub oak made fertile by the limestones of the Wasatch. The Donners were straight off the craton—solid and trusting, from Springfield, Illinois. Weeks were used hacking up loads in the race against thirst. Even in miles, the nigher route proved longer than the one it was shortcutting, on the way to a sierra that was named for snow.

I was also struck by the quote from James Hutton (1726-1797), colleague of Adam Smith and regarded as the founder of modern geology, that the book took its title from:

“To a naturalist nothing is indifferent; the humble moss that creeps upon the stone is equally interesting as the lofty pine which so beautifully adorns the valley or the mountain: but to a naturalist who is reading in the face of rocks the annals of a former world, the mossy covering which obstructs his view, and renders undistinguishable the different species of stone, is no less than a serious subject of regret.”

McPhee paints geologists as artists of scientific discovery, prone to verbose description and a poetic feeling of being everywhere and nowhere in time.