52 Titles: John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country”

I’ve always had an affection for books about folks who leave civilization and venture into the wild — chalk it up to a sanitized upbringing in the suburbs, littered with a structured week full of extracurriculars of gymnastics, piano, Chinese lessons and playdates. The only field for us kids to run in was a soon-to-be townhouse development, and it was mostly full of abandoned coffee cups belonging to construction workers, rocks, and bits of glass. I often tell people one day I’m going to live in a cabin with a vegetable garden and a pack full of dogs.

One of my favourites as a kid was My Side of the Mountain, which is about a 13-year-old boy who runs away from his cluttered New York City life to live on the land in the Catskills. He learns to forage, hunt, tan leather, train a peregrine falcon and build shelter. Like a prepubescent Thoreau.

I’d never read John McPhee before this (I know, shame me now), and having heard him described as a contemporary of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson (two writers I like, but not love), I was in no rush to seek him out. It turns out McPhee is nothing like Wolfe and Thompson in subject matter or style — he’s more restrained, more studious, more inquisitive about the way he approaches his subjects. They are similar only in the sense that they went native: Wolfe dropped acid, Thompson drank mint juleps, and McPhee braved Alaska — snow upon snow, log cabins, bears, black flies, guns, trapping lines, snowshoes, rickety bush planes and all.

My first reaction to the book was pondering a visit Alaska, though this is of course exactly what the book does not condone, because human presence destroys what Coming Into the Country is trying to immortalize.

The loveliest part was how he constructed it, in three portraits: wild Alaska, urban Alaska, and remote bush Alaska. Coming Into the Country was published in 1976, when Alaska was up for grabs — statehood had just been granted; floods of Lower 48ers were moving up; the oil boom; native land claims; and the creation of national parks.

As a modern reading, Country functions as a nice companion piece to one of Sarah Palin’s memoirs, and it also memorializes what Alaska used to be: a wondrous, terrifying, impenetrable, wild place ruled by grizzly bears. It demanded an independent spirit (or cavalier lawlessness, even) if one wanted to live on the land.






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