Tag Archives: John McPhee

A Million Year Walk


Yesterday I was the man walking all over San Francisco with a pillow under his arm. It was the wrong kind of pillow and I had to exchange it. I got a few looks aboard the train. I suffered a few comments at the office too. But the lunch-hour march down Townsend Street was the worst part: a wind in the February style, shin splints from a hard pace, slanting rain in the eyes, and mud puddles for sidewalks through an industrial sector of the city. Then there were the art students, twenty or thirty of them, squinting at the tips of their lit cigarettes near the Academy campus. They parted like waters for Moses to watch the bourgeois thirty-something pass on his incomprehensible errand.

I thought of what I’d read that morning in John McPhee’s Basin and Range. “On the geologic timescale,” McPhee writes, “a human life is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about.” Infinitely briefer, then, and even less worth consideration, was my present discomfort. McPhee expands on the idea by quoting a geologist friend:

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.

Looking round at the train tracks, the warehouses, the built-up terraced hills of the city, for a moment I saw the place through a lens of geologic time: I walked atop the Cambrian seabed in clouds of groping arthropods; I was wrapped in folds of cooling rock; I was buried in volcanic ash and thrust above the surface of the waters. Before my eyes the city resolved into a work of insects, a temporary beeswax hive. There were eons still to roll over it. My own consciousness was reduced, by a weight of years that smothered sensible regret, to the briefest electric spark of dream in one immemorial night.

I came to the shop where our misbegotten purchase had occurred a few days before. A middle-aged man in round, frameless glasses helped make my exchange. He had a gray goatee and a pleasant voice. Ten minutes later I passed through the crowd of students again with an apparently identical pillow under my arm, like someone on his way to a slumber party at an address he can’t find.

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Marginalia, no.202

Keys yearn to mix with change.

~ Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts

When you buy a ticket for the commuter train that runs up and down the San Francisco Peninsula, you get your change in dollar coins. Once a week on my lunch break I grab a handful and shove them into my pocket. They tinkle against my keys as I walk into the used bookshop downtown. Today I picked up a John McPhee book and read, on the first page, about the wandering poles of geologic history, and the drumskins of continental plates in perpetual basso profondo concussion. Big and small, all things conspire to make music.

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Filed under Marginalia