by Rick Bass
Other than the price at the pump or a major spill in the news, few people really think about oil—about where it comes from or how it’s found. Nor do folks often gush poetically over the stuff.
But in this slim, enjoyable book, petroleum geologist and short-story writer Rick Bass explores the subject in an easy, affable style that ambles through the intriguing history of black gold. Listen, for instance, as he talks about his collection of oil samples, which he keeps in glass containers on his desk: “You can have a medal from the Olympics…. Or a photo of yourself hitting a home run in the World Series…. But capturing energy is really the most magnificent experience. The bottle of oil really does seem alive, empowered…. Hold [it] to your ear. Picture an ancient seashore. A world so different from the one we are in now, it is frightening.”
Bass talks about his job and life-style with similar imagination. In short journal entries (some don’t last a page), he offers observations and geological information about specific techniques, problems and expenses involved in finding oil. (A special diamond-studded device used to drill through rock costs $10,000, can be used only once and doesn’t guarantee any oil).
Bass views his tricky business as a challenge pitting man against “geology’s silent superiority.” To him, the contact with geological forces alive beneath the earth’s surface is almost as satisfying as finding oil. And that’s what makes this work as remarkable as that of Annie Dillard or John McPhee. From the technical procedures of studying maps, rock formations and soil samples, the book fashions a lyrical metaphor that reaffirms the human potential. “I’m becoming a better fit,” writes Bass. “I can feel time working on me, sanding me, and if I do not struggle, I will sift into place, become part of the formation…. Who knows what our formation will someday hold, trap, and claim? I hope it will be valuable.”
Bass’s respect for science and humanism is consistent: “The earth lies there, still, and obeys certain rules. I have faith that I am not going to let myself believe something that is not true.” The same disciplined sensitivity appears in Bass’s passages about his dogs, Ann and Homer, leaves in fall and a woman named Elizabeth. Through his science Bass seeks oil; in his writing he tries to map something equally elusive: the emotional essence of life. (Houghton Mif-liin/Seymour Lawrence, S16.95)