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Keeping the World in Perspex

November 19, 2007

Today I spent the day drinking good coffee sitting in a comfortable chair (7D) beside a window looking out at the Arizona desert from a height of 33,000 feet. I was supposed to be writing, but on a clear morning, flying from LA to New York, I was mesmerized the stunning topology below. The land winds and folds through canyons, escarpments, plains and badlands punctuated only occasionally by human activity. A Joycean stream-of-consciousness passage from the planet itself.

A long time ago, I profiled legendary California geologist Tom Dibblee. I only took a few walks with him. But even if I couldn’t learn to hear it myself, I discovered how the earth could speak to someone—how they could learn to listen.

To walk these hills with Tom Dibblee is to watch him communicate with the earth. He reads the land the way others read the newspaper. In the way that letters resolve themselves into words and phrases, offering up ideas and information, the ground whispers to Dibblee the secret history of the planet. The story he hears is one that few of us can even begin to comprehend: that over the long perspective of geologic time, the roiling movements of the earth are as fluid as the convection currents in a teacup; and that the firmament on which civilization is built is as tenuous as the leaves floating on the surface.

Tom walked over something like a third of California foot by foot, mapping the surface geology, which resulted in a beautiful collection of maps and—along the way—suggesting the extent of movement along the San Andreas fault long before plate tectonics was popular. The maps can be seen at the Dibblee Geological Foundation website.

Anyway, I think it’s kind of interesting that what I was actually supposed to be writing about is the way that real letters become words and phrases to resolve themselves into information and ideas. I’m doing a story for eContent magazine on the impact of typography on sense-making from material in print and on the screen. More about that later.

I’d better get back to it. Besides, the view from this window in the hotel looks down into a canyon called Lexington Avenue, but it’s not nearly as distracting.

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