Monday, October 8, 2012
Notes on John McPhee's "Irons in the Fire"
I went camping last week and took John McPhee’s 1997 collection Irons in the Fire with me. In between setting up the tent, rolling out the sleeping bags, walking, cycling, taking lots of pictures, and generally just hanging out here and there along Maine’s amazing coast, I read the title piece. It proved to be an excellent travel companion. It’s an account of McPhee’s journeys in Nevada with a cattle brand inspector named Chris Collis. I vaguely recall seeing it when it appeared in The New Yorker (December 20, 1993). But it didn’t make nearly the impression on me that it made last week when I read it. It’s a wonderful piece. Particularly notable aspects are:
· The Ellie Wyeth Fox drawings of cattle brands (e.g., Reverse B Hanging P, Rocking Arrow, Lazy Spiked E) that are incorporated into the text, including the Lazy J Over Running M Combined on the book cover that Fox specially created for McPhee.
· McPhee’s glorious use of present tense (e.g., “Now Gordon Eldridge, in Spring Valley, reaches into a shirt pocket and removes a small ledger containing the license numbers and the makes of unknown vehicles that he has seen in the valley since who knows when,” “Twenty-five miles down the valley, in the late slanting light, Chris turns in at Lonne Gubler’s Cleveland Ranch, where Cleve Creek comes out of the mountains and productively waters the basin,” “A new moon has come into the sky, a standing sliver, right off their brand,” “Soon after daybreak on a cold October morning, sprinkler fields are frozen in Steptoe Valley”).
· His detailed, vivid descriptions of ranching procedure, e.g., roping (“The horse, turning, keeps the rope taut and drags the calf to the fire. At the fire, the horse turns again to face the calf, backing up to keep the line taut”), branding (“While Gerry keeps the rope taut and his mom continues to kneel on the calf, his dad, on foot, takes an iron from the fire and causes a puff of smoke to rise from the calf’s right hip”), earmarking (“Chris folds the right ear. Into the crease he cuts a semicircle, making a hole in the center of the ear. He moves the blade from the hole through the pink flesh to the point of the ear – a longitudinal slit – as if he were cutting fruit”), castration (“He slices off the tip of the scrotum as if he were scissoring the tip of a cigar. He squeezes into the light the pearl-gray glistening ellipsoid oysters”). The use of those scientific adjectives (“longitudinal,” “ellipsoid”) is pure McPhee. It’s what separates his work from that of other great describers such as Ian Frazier and Edward Hoagland.
· His artful similes (e.g., “In the great treeless valleys, pickups, with their wakes of dust, stand out like speedboats,” “Out in the flats, coyotes are wailing like theft alarms”).
· The specificity (and poetics) of naming, e.g., cattle breeds (Black Angus, Angus-Hereford, Brangus, Charolais, Simbrah), geography (Schell Creek Range, White River Valley, Wheeler Peak, Little Fish Lake Valley, Kawich Mountains, Steptoe Valley, Camel Peak, Burnt Canyon, Duck Creek Range, Diamond Range, Red Bluff Spring, Railroad Valley, Sawmill Canyon), cattle brands (Lazy E Over P, Quarter Circle Standing Quarter Circle, JY Bar Connected, Cross L Combined, Long Tailed B, Quarter Circle Flying V Bar).
· This ravishing Rauschenberg-like verbal combine: “The buyer has a dish antenna, and sits at home watching videotaped cattle in the egret flats of Alvin, Texas, on the Red River plain of Louisiana, against the velvet greens of Jane Lew, West Virginia, and back to the pasture of Easterly, Texas, where mahogany steers against a stand of trees are up to their hocks in grass.”
I enjoyed “Irons in the Fire” immensely. There’s another piece in the collection that I haven’t read. It’s called “The Gravel Page.” I’m saving it for my next camping trip.