Rough-hewn land by Keith Heyer Meldahl. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011. No. of pages: xviii + 296. Price: US$34-95. ISBN 978-0-520-25935-5 (hardback).


The subtitle of ‘A geologic journey from California to the Rocky Mountains’ does not come close to describing the overall content for Rough-Hewn Land (R-HL). Although R-HL describes the geologic development of the western United States, it also relates the early exploration and mineral richness of the area to the curious explorers, federal government mappers, hopeful exploiters, and hardy pioneers who ventured into and across such a vastly unknown and intriguing landscape.

This small but magnificent volume should be read by every geologist for the clarity and simplicity of writing a technical book or article for the general public. The broad coverage has something for every geologist, as well as anyone with an interest in the geography, geology, history, and development of the western United States. They will find R-HL a thoughtful and entertaining volume adding something new to their knowledge of the region. Creationists, young-earth believers, and intelligent-design proponents should find R-HL giving them second thoughts about their misguided beliefs.

Scientific terms introduced in the text are immediately explained throughout by analogies (sometimes humorous) and then included in a glossary for additional explanation. With these aids, the technical terms can be understood by anyone lacking a geologic background and add to the overall value of the text. R-HL should be read by student and professional geologists for a modern interpretation (including the ever-evolving controversies) and delightful summary of the structural complexity of a region that has intrigued geologists over the past 170 years.

Essentially, R-HL is a cross-section of the western United States along interstate US80 from San Francisco through the Rocky Mountains. However, it contains a few complimentary brief extensions and diversions from Mexico to Alaska as well as Iceland. The 13 chapters of R-HL are divided into three sections: Chapters 1–5, California; 6–10, The Basin and Range and The Great Basin; and 11–13, The Rocky Mountains.

The five chapters of the California section begin with the presence of oceanic floor west of the Golden Gate and an explanation of subduction and plate tectonics. This is followed by the origin of the mother lode in vein deposits; origin, distribution, and exploitation of the placer deposits in and along the west-flowing streams of the Sierra Nevada; a cross-sectional development of the Sierra Nevada; and ends with a structural interpretation of the western edge of the North American Plate, including possible future tectonic splintering, extending from the Gulf of Baja northward along the Walker Lane in western Nevada.

The second part describes the physiographic and tectonic development of the Great Basin including a synopsis of Fremont's unsuccessful and nearly fatal search for a river draining the Great Basin across the Sierra Nevada. This is followed by an explanation of the emplacement of the vast mineral and extensive volcanic deposits within the basin. It includes a summary of the Bonneville Flood across southern Idaho, development of the Great Salt Lake, and the disastrous trek of the Donner party. The tenth chapter describes the Ediacaran and Cambrian fossil beds in the eastern part of the basin and how they relate to evolution's ‘big bang’.

Part three begins with a description and discussion of the controversy of possible explanations for some of the many streams throughout the Rocky Mountains that cut deep canyons when they might have avoided the hard rock to form drainage in softer materials by going around them. This is followed by the age and recently proposed formation of the Rocky Mountains and their exhumation.

Appendix I explains the recognition of deep time, whereas Appendix II provides GPS locations and brief guides for leading interested individuals to many of the most exciting geologic features discussed in the text.

Excellent photos and diagrams are extensively used throughout the text. Quotations cited at the beginning of each of the three parts and within some chapters from some of the early explorers (John Fremont), writers (Mark Twain), naturalists (John Muir), pioneers (Cornelia Ferris), and scientists (John Wesley Powell) show the insight that many of these individuals had long before the details of the region were truly known. The few notes at the end of each chapter also provide additional information for some of the geologic terms, calculations for various numerical features, and others cited in the text. A glossary, index, bibliography, and credits complete this informative volume.

Keith Meldahl is to be commended for his efforts and significant contribution to the knowledge of the western United States.