Twenty years ago, when John McPhee began his journeys back and forth across the United States, he planned to describe a cross section of North America at about the fortieth parallel and, in the process, come to an understanding not only of the science but of the style of the geologists he traveled with. The structure of the book never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under the overall title Annals of the Former World.
Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.
Annals of the Former World is the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.
In the natural cycles of the Mississippi's deltaic plain, the time had come for the Mississippi to change course, to shift its mouth more than a hundred miles and go down the Atchafalaya, one of its distributary branches. The United States could not afford that--for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and all the industries that lie between would be cut off from river commerce with the rest of the nation. At a place called Old River, the Corps therefore had built a great fortress--part dam, part valve--to restrain the flow of the Atchafalaya and compel the Mississippi to stay where it is.
In Iceland, in 1973, an island split open without warning and huge volumes of lava began moving in the direction of a harbor scarcely half a mile away. It was not only Iceland's premier fishing port (accounting for a large percentage of Iceland's export economy) but it was also the only harbor along the nation's southern coast. As the lava threatened to fill the harbor and wipe it out, a physicist named Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson suggested a way to fight against the flowing red rock--initiating an all-out endeavor unique in human history. On the big island of Hawaii, one of the world's two must eruptive hot spots, people are not unmindful of the Icelandic example. McPhee went to Hawaii to talk with them and to walk beside the edges of a molten lake and incandescent rivers.
Some of the more expensive real estate in Los Angeles is up against mountains that are rising and disintegrating as rapidly as any in the world. After a complex coincidence of natural events, boulders will flow out of these mountains like fish eggs, mixed with mud, sand, and smaller rocks in a cascading mass known as debris flow. Plucking up trees and cars, bursting through doors and windows, filling up houses to their eaves, debris flows threaten the lives of people living in and near Los Angeles' famous canyons. At extraordinary expense the city has built a hundred and fifty stadium-like basins in a daring effort to catch the debris.
Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking in his vivid depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those who would attempt to wrest control from her--stubborn, often ingenious, and always arresting characters.
The Patch is the seventh collection of essays by the nonfiction master, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is divided into two parts.
Part 1, “The Sporting Scene,” consists of pieces on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse—from fly casting for chain pickerel in fall in New Hampshire to walking the linksland of St. Andrews at an Open Championship. Part 2, called “An Album Quilt,” is a montage of fragments of varying length from pieces done across the years that have never appeared in book form—occasional pieces, memorial pieces, reflections, reminiscences, and short items in various magazines including The New Yorker. They range from a visit to the Hershey chocolate factory to encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, Joan Baez, and Mount Denali.
Emphatically, the author’s purpose was not merely to preserve things but to choose passages that might entertain contemporary readers. Starting with 250,000 words, he gradually threw out 75 percent of them, and randomly assembled the remaining fragments into “an album quilt.” Among other things, The Patch is a covert memoir.
The term refers to the predominant trees in the vast forests that cover the area and to the quality of the soils below, which are too sandy and acid to be good for farming. On all sides, however, developments of one kind or another have gradually moved in, so that now the central and integral forest is reduced to about a thousand square miles. Although New Jersey has the heaviest population density of any state, huge segments of the Pine Barrens remain uninhabited. The few people who dwell in the region, the "Pineys," are little known and often misunderstood. Here McPhee uses his uncanny skills as a journalist to explore the history of the region and describe the people—and their distinctive folklore—who call it home.
Readers of McPhee's earlier books will not be unprepared for his surprising shifts of scene and ordering of events, brilliantly combined into an organic whole. In the course of this volume we are made acquainted with the lore and techniques of placer mining, the habits and legends of the barren-ground grizzly, the outlook of a young Athapaskan chief, and tales of the fortitude of settlers—ordinary people compelled by extraordinary dreams. Coming into the Country unites a vast region of America with one of America's notable literary craftsmen, singularly qualified to do justice to the scale and grandeur of the design.
Draft No. 4 is a master class on the writer’s craft. In a series of playful, expertly wrought essays, John McPhee shares insights he has gathered over his career and has refined while teaching at Princeton University, where he has nurtured some of the most esteemed writers of recent decades. McPhee offers definitive guidance in the decisions regarding arrangement, diction, and tone that shape nonfiction pieces, and he presents extracts from his work, subjecting them to wry scrutiny. In one essay, he considers the delicate art of getting sources to tell you what they might not otherwise reveal. In another, he discusses how to use flashback to place a bear encounter in a travel narrative while observing that “readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.” The result is a vivid depiction of the writing process, from reporting to drafting to revising—and revising, and revising.
Draft No. 4 is enriched by multiple diagrams and by personal anecdotes and charming reflections on the life of a writer. McPhee describes his enduring relationships with The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and recalls his early years at Time magazine. Throughout, Draft No. 4 is enlivened by his keen sense of writing as a way of being in the world.
Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot,eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the "tight-assed" Illinois River on a "towboat" pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being "a good deal longer than the Titanic." And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839.
Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author's warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character.