John McPhee and the Art of Preservation

I was first introduced to John McPhee in journalism school, a slim little volume called Oranges. That was the punch line: “Here’s a guy who writes so well, he makes interesting books about things you couldn’t care less about, like oranges; but if you read this book, you will be fascinated by oranges.” And it was amazingly so.

Now 80 years old, he’s written more than 30 books and many more pieces in The New Yorker on a crazy variety of subjects, from the abovementioned oranges to folks living in the bush in Alaska, the geology of North America, athletes, obscure craftsmen – too many topics to list. Recently he appeared at a reading in Boulder, which was followed by a conversation with historian Patricia Nelson Limerick. The blog The Open Notebook has a transcript of their conversation, which gives a great window into McPhee’s craft.

Reading this reminded me of how much I owe McPhee, not only for the many things I learned about writing, but more importantly, the many things I learned about being, seeing. At the time I came upon him, I, like so many of my college peers, was completely under the spell of New Journalism, as it was called (Thompson, notable, Wolfe, etc.) – writing that confronted and challenged, loudly. In contrast, McPhee’s books were quiet, appreciative, full of the music of life, the lyric of human speech and story. Through that I gained a very different perspective on conservation and preservation than were typical in the Bay Area in the early 1980s. I began to appreciate conservation not as fencing off the beautiful parts of the country so that we could have postcard views of them forever. Instead, it was about people living real lives with the land and animals and other people in the places they lived. Conservation could be just as much about the miners one might meet in his geology books as it might about the fragile ecosystem of the New Jersey pine barrens, or about farmers ploughing up sod as much as the preservation of the open prairie. It is a large debt, paying dividends to this day.

H/T High Country News, The Goat Blog


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