Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Irons in the Fire

Posted by nliakos on July 12, 2013

by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1997)

The first (eponymous) piece in this collection has McPhee following a brand inspector around Nevada. What is a brand inspector, you wonder? Have you forgotten your cowboy stories? Brand inspectors inspect the registered brands (and earmarks) on cattle, with the aim to reduce cattle rustling, which is apparently alive and well in the (formerly?) Wild West.  This is a technique McPhee often uses. To learn about something, he attaches himself to someone who does it for a living (see previous post, Brigade de Cuisine and The Pinball Philosophy). It personalizes the sometimes arcane topics of his essays. In this case, the whole idea of raising cattle for meat is repellent to me, and the treatment of the cows and calves by ranchers and rustlers alike is cold-blooded and cruel, but the brand inspector’s lifestyle and special abilities (to recognize brands McPhee cannot even see and to read the story of the theft of calves from the ground, for example) were fascinating to learn about.

Release describes how a blind writer’s life is transformed by early text-to-speech software.

In Virgin Forest is about a small tract of natural forest in New Jersey. It compares virgin and managed forests: the former are “messy.” It reminded me of the woods in Seneca Creek State Park, near my house. Except when a tree blocks a trail, fallen trees are left to decompose where they fall. It does look messy, but this little essay deepened my appreciation for the messiness.

The Gravel Page is about forensic geology, the art of using geological matter (rocks, dirt, sand, pebbles, gravel) to solve a crime. Interesting stuff, although I find I can’t get the gory details of the torture of Enrique Camarena Salazar, the D.E.A. agent who was kidnapped, tortured and killed by drug lords in Mexico in 1985, out of my mind. McPhee also details how forensic geologists solved the murder of Ad Coors (of the brewery family) and recounts the fascinating story, unknown to me, about how Japan sent 9,000 bombs via paper balloons across the Pacific to bomb America during World War II. Some of them made it, and one of them actually killed six people (five children and a minister’s wife). Forensic geologists figured out where the balloons were being launched.

I remember reading Duty of Care before; it’s about tires, their persistence in nature after they are no longer useful, some of the places where they are collected in astonishing quantities, and some of the ways people have come up with to recycle them. A tire pond, tire fires, mosquitoes and more. McPhee writes, :You don’t have to stare long at that pile before the thought occurs to you that those tires were once driven by the Friends of the Earth. They are not just the used tires of bureaucrats, ballplayers, and litter-strewing rock-deafened ninja-teen-aged nerds. They are everybody’s tires. They are Environmental Defense Fund tires, Rainforest Action Network tires, Wilderness Society tires…. No one is innocent of scrapping those tires.”

Rinard at Manheim is unusual in that it is almost entirely in the first person of someone other than the writer: Rinard, a friend of McPhee’s who deals in “exotic” automobiles (the kind normal people do not aspire to). McPhee’s own cryptic notes and explanations are interspersed among Rinard’s monologue, in square brackets and italic type. Rinard names no less than three cars which are “the ultimate exotic”: the Lamborghini Countach, the Testarossa, and the Porsche 928 S4. Sometimes McPhee’s comments contrast starkly with Rinard’s. Rinard says, “E-Type Jaguar…. Generally voted the most beautiful car ever designed.” McPhee adds, [In front view, a cross between a cat and a chipmunk.] The essay is only five pages long, which is about right for me on this topic.

Travels of the Rock, the last essay in the collection, is geological in nature again. The Rock is Plymouth Rock, never walked upon by the Pilgrims, much smaller than we assume it to be, broken in pieces and scattered around the country in dust and chips and chunks but somehow revered, although widely misunderstood. A docent there reported to McPhee some of the questions she has been asked by tourists:

  • “How did he get all those animals on that boat?”
  • “Where are the Niña and the Pinta?”
  • “Why doesn’t the rock say 1492?” (It says 1620.)
  • “Where is the sword?”

Plymouth Rock did not wait for the Pilgrims to land forever. Itself a traveler, it made its way to Plymouth Bay from (probably) the Atlantica Terrane, a largely undeformed piece of continent possibly originating in Africa: hence, Travels of the Rock.

It annoys me that I can’t find anywhere (in the book or on the web) the original publication date of any of these essays, which were certainly all published in The New Yorker, but probably not all in 1997.

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One Response to “Irons in the Fire”

  1. I like the questions people had asked the docent. A long time ago, when I was teaching basic arithmetic in a high school, a student asked me what kind of airplanes had been used in the Civil War.

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