Wonders of Geology; An Aerial View of America's Mountains by Michael Collier. Published by Mikaya Press. iPad (iOS4.2 or later required), $12.99.
Reviewed by Veronique Greenwood
“All true paths lead through mountains.” When I was growing up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, this line from the poems of Gary Snyder was a family touchstone. It probably came via my dad, who is mountain-obsessed, a chaser of summits and cirques who has hiked and trekked on five continents and now lives in the Alps. I've felt vaguely uneasy the past eight years or so, living here among the extremely low hills of the Eastern United States, and the photographs of Michael Collier, in the Wonders of Geology app, bring it all back: Yes, mountains really are where it's at.
The app was written and narrated by Collier, a geologist and physician who has been taking photographs from the cockpit of his 1955 Cessna professionally for more than 40 years. Based on his book Over the Mountains (An Aerial View of Geology), it is laid out in several sections that first teach you how to read a landscape's history from geological cues, then lead you through various American ranges to see for yourself how the mountains were formed.
$12.99 might seem steep, when there are plenty of ebooks out there for a buck. But this app is worth it. You'll be revisiting it for a long time, even after you've absorbed its lessons.
Most of the information comes to you in Collier's own rich, craggy voice. He describes the Earth's inner workings while a seemingly endless parade of fantastic scenes slips by--dunes, alluvial fans, thick, crystalline glaciers. The images are stunning, saturated with color and full of light. In one of my favorites, a Sierra valley cradles a string of glacial lakes that reflect a fierce gray-blue sky. In another, a peak in Morro Bay is bathed in the soft pink of a sunrise, and you can zoom in to see the ripples of the surf.
Collier is a deft and expressive narrator, peppering his explanations with charming turns of phrase. Tectonic plates bomb around the Earth's surface like “irresponsible bumper cars”; ridges caused by spreading centers ring the planet “like the stitches on a baseball.” He shifts expertly from the profound to the colloquial. “Plate tectonic theory has ushered in a new consciousness of the Earth's age,” he says, with grave wonder. Then his voice slips into a smile, and he quips: “How much time we talkin' bout? Lots.”
In fact, Wonders of Geology is less an ebook than a kind of hand-held, interactive exhibit, with ever-present audio guide. Photos and explanatory graphics outnumber pages of text many times over. When you do come across a page of prose, it's almost an interruption. I found myself thinking petulantly, Wait, I have to read this? Why aren't you reading it to me?!
Occasional textual interruptions aside, the app is a delight. I particularly enjoyed seeing glamor shots of mountains I know well, like the Panamints of Death Valley and the sere Eastern Sierra, where I learned to core bristlecone pines as a high school kid. The app includes so many ranges that any fan of North American mountains should be able to find their own familiar faces.
To be honest, though, I don't remember these mountains ever reaching quite the height of gorgeousness evident in Collier's photographs. Maybe you have to be several hundred feet up in a 57-year old biplane to get this level of insight. Maybe, it occurs to me, this is how my dad experiences them: intoxicatingly beautiful, mountains as drug.
Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at DISCOVER Magazine. She writes about everything from caffeine chemistry to cold cures to Jelly Belly flavors. Her work has also appeared in Scientific American, Technology Review, TheAtlantic.com, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter .