by John McPhee (Farrar Straus Giroux 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985)
This is the third and final collection of McPhee essays which I borrowed from the UMD libraries. I have really been enjoying reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the essays. Or should I call them articles? They are certainly not essays of the sort I ask my students to write (no introduction, conclusion, thesis statement). Maybe they are “pieces of writing.” Whatever they are, they are delicious to read.
This collection opens with two pieces about bears. The first, Under the Snow, describes locating black bear dens in Pennsylvania, entering them, sedating the mother bear and tagging the cubs. McPhee was along as an eager cub-holder. The second, A Textbook Place for Bears, is about bears in New Jersey. There were, at the time of the writing, twenty-one bears in New Jersey, but the population was growing. (Compare this with Pennsylvania: six thousand bears.) This piece is much longer than the first and goes into detail about how biologist Pat McConnell studies and advocates for the bear population in my native state, (where there is, it seems, more than one textbook place for bears). To catch them, her preferred bait is doughnuts (from Dunkin Donuts).
Riding the Boom Extension takes the reader across the continent to Circle City, Alaska, where a man named Richard Hutchinson bought his own telephone exchange and singlehandedly set about creating a company which could provide the citizens of Circle both electricity and phone service. McPhee interviewed Hutchinson and his customers to find out how this had changed their lives. Compare Albert Carroll–“Before the telephone, I wrote letters. It took my two years to write a letter. Don’t ever take the phone out of Circle City. It’s our best resource.” to Carl Dasch–“When I say no, I don’t mean yes.” “What happens if you get sick, Carl?” “If I get sick enough, I’ll die, like everybody else.”
I had already read Heirs of General Practice, which was published as a separate book in 1984 (The Noonday Press, FSG), but I read it again from a slightly different perspective. When I read this the first time, we belonged to Kaiser Permanente, where we had internists as our primary providers and saw specialists for other complaints. Now we see family practitioners with Johns Hopkins Community Physicians. I had not realized that this change implies a shift in philosophy away from specialists, but I was glad to know this. The piece (book?) examines the education and working lives of several family practitioners in Maine. Maine is a large state which lacks enough doctors for its widespread rural population. It doesn’t even have a medical school, so it established a family practice residency program in the hope that some of the residents would choose to settle in the state after completing the program. Many of them have, and McPhee profiles some of them. He also interviews numerous specialists, many of whom (but not all!) are distinctly hostile toward family practitioners, who they believe know a little about a lot but are not competent enough in anything. I found the arguments for family medicine more convincing than those against, which often seemed ill-considered.
Open Man profiles former Senator Bill Bradley in a follow-up to McPhee’s 1963 A Sense of Where You Are (one of my early McPhee favorites and one I have recommended to many a basketball player).
Ice Pond recounts the pioneering work of Princeton physicist Theodore B. Taylor into the use of massive amounts of ice to sustainably cool buildings.
Minihydro is about people who reclaim abandoned dams and hydroelectric equipment to produce low-cost energy which they can then sell to the big utilities. I remember reading another McPhee book (I think it may have been The Founding Fish) in which he wrote about the planned destruction of dams not being used to generate hydroelectricity; but here, he describes how people are putting the dams back to work again.
Finally, North of the C.P. Line profiles another John McPhee (not a relation) who is a warden pilot in the forests of northern Maine, one of writer John McPhee’s favored wild places. The two John McPhees fly together over the forests, finding a lot in common in addition to many differences. The essay concludes, “I envy him his world, I suppose, in a way that one is sometimes drawn to be another person or live the life of a character encountered in a fiction. Time and again, when I think of him, and such thoughts start running through my mind, I invariably find myself wishing that I were John McPhee.”
Again, McPhee (the writer) does not disappoint in this collection.
And that concludes my summer McPhee series. Next up: Hallucinations by another favorite writer of mine, Oliver Sacks.