Notes from the Tundraground
Coming Into the Country by John McPhee Farran Straus and Giroux, $10.95, 438 pages
ALASKA. COLD, sparkling rivers, fast-flowing beneath a deep and cloudless sky. Where moose and caribou abound and where the awesome grizzly can change that with one swipe of his five-inch claws. Land of the soaring, snow-capped mountain, Denali ("The High One" "The Mighty One") which a young Princeton graduate renamed in 1896 when, upon his return from an Alaskan prospecting adventure, he learned that William McKinley had won the Republican nomination for United States President. Alaska. Millions of untrammeled acres of rough, unpolite land, where a man can live in a kind of freedom inconceivable in the "lower 48."
Between 1975 and 1977, John McPhee traveled through and lived in many different Alaskas. "Coming Into the Country," which first appeared as a series of "New Yorker" articles, is a record of what he saw, of his Alaska. It is a new departure for McPhee, because he permits far more of himself to come through than in his previous books.
The strength of the book, beyond its magnificent descriptions and its subtle humor, lies in McPhee's skill in presenting a broad, multi-faceted picture of Alaska today--no simple task, for Alaska is an enormous state, stretched still wider by the conflicting demands of conservationists, oil men, settlers, Indians and politicians, all of whom view each other as interferers and encrouchers. He accomplishes this portrait without the familiar posture of tepid objectivity, by adopting the point of view whoever he is with. He is, in effect, a man of every loyalty, and of no loyalty at all, achieving a rare objectivity through the sympathetic portrayal of many conflicting view points.
McPhee wrote "Coming Into the Country" in three sections, corresponding to different parts of Alaska and to different periods in McPhee's travels. The first section, "The Encircled River," is a more-or-less random introduction to Alaska, involving the reader in a trip through a circular system of rivers with McPhee and a four-member conservation study team. There is considerable talk about grizzlies, and whether or not one should carry a gun to avoid being eaten. The consensus is no. Guns are an unnecessary intrusion, bears rarely attack people in the wilderness anyway.
Describing the river trip, McPhee is superb. His eye for detail is acute, yet never excessive. He treats the use of detail, not as an end in itself, but as a means of making the country real, of placing the reader in its midst. In his opening lines, McPhee writes:
My Bandanna is rolled on the diagonal, and retains water fairly well. I keep it knotted around my head, and now and again dip it into the river. The water is forty-six degrees. Against the temples, it is refrigerant and relieving. This has done away with the head-aches that the sun caused in days before. The Arctic sun.--penetrating, intense--seems not so much to shine as to strike. Even the trickles of water that run down my T-shirt feel good. Meanwhile, the river--the clearest, purest water I have ever seen flowing over rocks--breaks the light into flashes and sends them upward into the eyes.
THE MIDDLE SECTION, "What They Were Hunting For," is the least satisfying part of the book. The "hunt" is for a new state capital, to replace the inaccesible town of Juneau. The politicians and businessmen of Anchorage an Fairbanks have ruled out each other's cities, because each group wants the new honor that it, the resulting power and additional revenue additional revenue to fall on its own city. With literally no alternate choices, the politicians decide to build a new capital, grimly citing the example of Brasilia, a city built in the wilderness because "various parts of Brazil despise one another and would only agree on a wilderness site." While the decision to build a new state capital is an important one--part of disturbing trend of sacrificing the Alaskan wilderness to economic and political exigencies--the various interest groups pushing for one location over another are all too familiar. This section of the book does not measure up in fascination or majesty to the other sections and unfortunately, McPhee treats them a little too thoroughly.
"People in the region of the upper Yukon refer to their part of Alaska as 'the country' "McPhee explains at the start of the final section, which shares the book's title. "A stranger appearing among them is said to have 'come into the country."' The fact is, almost every white person in the country has been such a stranger at one time or another. In Eagle (population 100), the town McPhee focuses on in the last half of the book, you can count on one hand the adults who are native born. The rest have arrived at some point between youth and retirement, staying on as long as a lifetime, or as briefly as one miserable, snow-bound winter. McPhee is fascinated by these people. Why did they come? What were they looking for, what were they running from? And what kind of person can survive--literally survive--the isolation, the forty-below winters, the constant and unseen dangers that one incurs every day in the wilderness?
MCPHEE SPENDS TIME with many of these people. He finds them highly competent, individualistic men and women who meet the challenges of the wild in their own way, people who endlessly find fault with all ways that are not their own. McPhee takes them all at their word, leaving critical comments about a man to his neighbors. The neighbors willingly supply them.
This last section of the book is the least structured. The narrative jumps back and forth from the people of Eagle, to McPhee's solo trek one night across the grizzly-infested tundra to an Indian village adjacent to Eagle. McPhee has at times been criticized for being too organized, too refined, and the freedom he allows himself here is particularly impressive, is warm, human journalism and McPhee's style is an acknowledgement that Alaska cannot be organized into tidy, easily digested sections.
The book, like the subject matter, is all contrast and conflict. Like Alaska, it can be admired and respected, but not simplified.