“Coming into the Country”

John McPhee

There are three ‘books’ within this book, and each tell a different part of McPhee’s experience of Alaska. The first is what feels, to me, the most like McPhee: out in the wilds, on a trip with folks who know the area better than he does, and generally just writing up how he felt going through that experience. I quite enjoyed some of his remarks about this one — Alaska, being so remote, seems to have worried him more than, say, the Grand Canyon did. “I am mildly nervous about that, but then I am mildly nervous about a lot of things.” (13)

I laughed more, in reading this, than I recall doing with his other books. Maybe I’m just starting to get more of his sense of humor, or maybe I just don’t tend to remember the comedy in comparison to everything else. But there’s little lines that just caught me, like “In a sense—in the technical sense that we had next to no idea where we were—we were lost.” (44)

The second book is about the project to relocate the capital of Alaska from Juneau. While reading it, I refused to let myself actually check my memory to see if Juneau is, in fact, still the capital of Alaska. Spoilers! I felt a sudden kinship to Charles Marohn as McPhee shared his opinion of Anchorage: “Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders.” (130) Which really evokes an image!

The last part, the titular essay, is the longest of the three. In short, he went up into “the Country” — the most remote part of Alaska, Yukon territory — and hung around the town of Eagle, getting to know, so far as I can tell, everyone there, and in the neighboring “Indian Village.” This is the part that’s going to keep rattling around in my head for a long time, I expect. So much of it still feels entirely relevant today—it’s that same sense of encroached-upon white entitlement that continues to shape American politics. You have the people living in Eagle, complaining about the Native Claims Settlement Act, because it means the land surrounding their town now belongs to the natives… without a thought for the fact that said natives have been there a hell of a lot longer. (Nor is there a moment’s thought, by them, about the fact that, thanks to the “everything within five miles of a (white) town remains the property of that town” clause means that the native village, itself, is legally the property of the town of Eagle.) You get miners, incensed that the EPA wants them to install settlement ponds so that their mine tailings will stop killing all the fish downstream, repeating over and over that they’re ‘not doing anything nature doesn’t do’… which they have to shout over the sound of the hydraulic mining rig that’s applying 10,000 years of erosion per minute to a formerly-pristine valley.

While McPhee himself winds up with an appreciation for the folks eking out a living in the Yukon territory, I must admit that I didn’t. I am, admittedly, reading about them 50 years later, with the changed modern perspective, but all it does is remind me of the staggering selfishness inherent in that whole survivalist/libertarian style. But then, at least one person he interviewed agrees… about the folks living outside Eagle, at least:

“They are unrealistic romanticists, and some are just plain stupid. They are devoid of values—materialistic, selfish people. We are constituents of a society grounded in law. They flout the law to live their romantic life style. They harvest moose, bear, fish—whatever they can get their hands on that they can fit in a pot—without regard for season or for sex, or for the law. Anything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims is fair game to them. They are interlopers. Every time they kill a moose or bear and toss it int the pot to feed their dogs, they deprive me of the opportunity to see that moose or bear. When I see something, I leave it to the person after me to see. Frankly, it just tees me off. I consider them to be a god-damned curse.”

“They’re a public nuisance.” (263)

As ever, I love a McPhee book. This one, in particular, feels like it’s of its time, anchored in the sweeping changes coming through Alaska in the 1970s; like any of the others, though, it doesn’t feel dated but rather like a time capsule. A flashbulb memory of a time and place, frozen so that we can visit it. Go check it out.1

  1. 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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