6 May 2020
The Broken Land, by Frank L. DeCourten
Posted by Callan Bentley
You might think that the last two months would have been a good time for reading, given the social isolation and stay-at-home orders. But that hasn’t worked out to be the case for me. The stresses of the pandemic, new and different work responsibilities, new homeschooling responsibilities, ongoing textbook writing and an impending move for my family have all conspired to gobble up my time, and there’s been very little time left over for reading books. I managed perhaps 2 or 3 pages per day. I started Frank DeCourten’s The Broken Land before I went to Death Valley in early March. But I didn’t finish it until this morning. It was good. It’s a comprehensive summary of Great Basin (Basin & Range) geology: outcrops, locations, events, and interpretations, accompanied by anecdotes and DeCourten’s own hand-sketched illustrations. I found it an excellent compilation, and I’ll keep it on my shelf for the rest of my career, for the next time (hopefully) that I’m lucky enough to return to the Basin & Range. One distinctive aspect to the book is that each chapter opens with a personal story about some experience DeCourten has had on a geological field trip. These are an attempt to draw the reader in toward the experience of geological explorations in the area. I found them familiar enough and therefore engaging, but I’m increasingly conscious that they may not appeal to everyone – they are the experiences of a able-bodied white male professor, and I wonder how they would land with any other audience. Unfortunately, I’m the wrong person to make that call. My gut tells me that the book would have been stronger without them, though. Overall, the geological content is solid and comprehensive and useful. It’s a valuable resource for anyone seeking a better understanding of how the Basin & Range came to be.
And now: Onward to the next book! Hopefully I’ll have more reading on which to report before another two months elapse.
Fair point about the narrowness of the personal stories, I suppose, but I read Catherine Fowler Billings’ Memoir with great interest. Both male and female geologists might look back on stories of 20th century field work and field trips with nostalgia for a long gone era. The coil bound GSA series of reminiscences might serve the same purpose and probably is open to the same male-centered criticism.
Right. I love field work, and I’m an outdoorsy white man, so these stories felt very familiar to me, as they would for so many others. They are legitimate, but I wish we had more personal reflections like Kay Fowler-Billings’ to provide inspiration for other audiences. We are all Earthlings; everyone deserves the chance to see that geology is something they can participate in.
I’ve read The Broken Land several times. Why? Because it’s interesting and well written and just too much to take in for one reading. Or maybe I’m a just slow learner, not sure.
Another interesting book, if you haven’t encountered it yet, is Luna Leopold’s book on hydrology and fluvial systems, Water, Rivers and Creeks. It was intended as a non-technical compendium of his larger work Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology. I thought it was fascinating.
I happened to have just picked up Frank DeCourten’s book, The Broken Land, last week. Having read only the Prologue and first chapter (which were lovely), I can’t really comment on the entire work. But, flipping through it just now I note there is not an author photo; thus, I wonder how you ascertained Mr. DeCourten is white? Perhaps he mentions his race later in the text? Or perhaps you are acquainted? I rarely read books with an eye to the author’s ethnicity or sex unless that is the point of the text. Why do we do this these days? I’ve written a number of books myself, and when someone questions why I put something in or left something out I usually say (and there are a hundred reasons) but my answer is usually, “That’s your book.” This was Frank DeCourten’s book, a book written, I’m sure, with purpose: a lifetime of experiences wrapped in a particular landscape. If you want a dry, scientific treatise on the Great Basin, there are plenty.