“Irons in the Fire”

John McPhee

The human experience is fractal; everything you might be interested in, there’s an entire subcommunity somewhere of people who share that interest, and have explored it in great detail.1 McPhee has a talent for finding one of these fractal subcommunities, finding the right people in it to talk to, and then writing about his experience of exploring it in such a way that he can bring the reader along for the learning experience.

There’s a couple of that type of story in this book. The titular piece, Irons in the Fire, is about the cattle industry in Nevada—cattle branding, brand inspectors, rustlers, and ranchers. The kind of world that I’ve thought about approximately never, and wound up reading through in fascination. There’s also The Gravel Page, which reappears somewhat in Travels of the Rock, that’s all about forensic geology, and some of the ways that’s been used. The latter part of The Gravel Page feels like the spec script for an HBO special.

Then there’s Duty of Care, which has that same “this is a whole community I’d never even thought about” aspect, but really gets into environmentalism, too. Consider the tire: petroleum-based, worn down somewhat by use, but once discarded… where does it go? How can you recycle that?

Release reminded me of being in design school, contemplating the importance of accessibility technology. Absolutely dated in terms of the technology now available, of course, but these personal stories of how impactful they are are a great reminder.

Lastly in my review, though not in the order of the book, In Virgin Forest talks about old-growth forest, and how shamefully little of it there is left in the US.

I love a John McPhee book. I’ve got a pile of ‘em to read still, and I’m trying to space them out so I don’t wind up writing a whole series of reviews just on one author. It’s a real effort of will, I tell you. Having said all that, what am I gonna do, not recommend it? Of course not. Check out the book, it’s a cool introduction to several new areas of the fractal human experience.2

  1. For example, how much time do you spend thinking about the keyboard you use to type on? Personally, I put very little thought into it the vast majority of the time. I know some people, however, who are into keyboards, and have entire collections of keyboards, frequently build custom keyboards themselves, and have strong opinions about the visual design of keycaps and which type of spring mechanism to use.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

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