Book Review: Windows Into the Earth – Robert B. Smith and Lee J. Siegel

I picked this up during our family vacation to Yellowstone Park back in July when it occurred to me that the unique geological features of Yellowstone would make a pretty cool backdrop for a novel that’s been germinating in my head. I realized I didn’t know enough about geology and volcanology to write about it convincingly, so I picked this book up at the gift shop.

But ithas taken me awhile to get to it. For one thing I’m still quite a ways away from writing that particular novel. And for another…well, geology just didn’t sound as fun as some of the other things on my reading list. I admit it. I was somewhat biased.

But I decided it was time this week. I didn’t have any fiction queued up that appealed to me, and I wasn’t ready to tackle something “meatier” yet, so I pulled this one off my shelf.

I’m glad I did. It’s not a long read–the heart of it is about 150 pages, and they’re not exactly dense. The book manages to explain things quite well without getting too technical. It does get a little bogged down in minutia at times–I really couldn’t care less about whether the Teton fault is 1000, 3000, 0r 6,000 years overdue for a major quake–and after awhile geological time becomes somewhat meaningless. For example, they explain at one point that the Yellowstone hotspot erupted about 100 times in the period between 12 million and 1.5 million years ago. My first thought was “Wow! That’s a lot!” until it finally occurred to me that it’s about once every 100,000 years. Not exactly a frequent occurrence.

I enjoy learning about a variety of things, though, and I was pleased to learn something new about an area of the world I already thought I knew a lot a bout already, having grown up around there. For example, about 2/3rds of the Snake River Plain across southern Idaho was flattened by caldera explosions as the Yellowstone hotspot moved from around the Nevada/Idaho/Oregon border to it’s present location–or rather the land over the hotspot drifted to its current position. I just thought the Snake River had carved it all by itself. Not so. There used to be mountains all through there, but they were blown apart by these massive explosions over a ten million year period.

There’s plenty of drama. The book begins with the Hebgen Lake earthquake in the 1950’s to illustrate what massive and destructive forces we’re talking about. It points out how much of the region where I now live is rigged to shake apart at any moment. It provides ample warning of all the different calamities that can come from a single earthquake. Emergency Preparation is important.

It also provides a great amount of detail about how the land is shaped over time. As a fantasy writer I’ll probably never approach world-building and map-making the same way again. Smith and Siegel cover the entire picture, from the macro tectonic plate level down to the individual valley, lake, and glacier level. It really fires the imagination.

I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t finish the book. It’s a fair bit longer than the 150 pages I mention. The rest is a detailed field guide of places to go if you want to see all the geology discussed in the book up close and in person. It maps out for you routes to take through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I didn’t read it this time, but you can bet I will when we get closer to our next trip to Yellowstone.

Nevertheless, I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a deeper appreciation for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks specifically, and geology generally. The authors do an excellent job of conveying principles without getting either overly technical or talking down to you. It’s a good read, and should only take a few hours. Well worth the cost to have it in my reference library.

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