25 January 2011

Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee

Posted by Callan Bentley

Over the weekend, hideously cold temperatures kept me indoors. I baked a cake, I went to see the new movie “True Grit” (excellent), and I read the 2006 compilation of John McPhee’s writing on transportation, Uncommon Carriers.

Like most everybody I know, I came to McPhee based on his geology writings — the quartet of books that were collectively republished en masse in 1998 as Annals of the Former World, an achievement which warranted a Pulitzer Prize. After that, I devoured his other books — I particularly dug Oranges (1967), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974, the year I was born!), and Coming Into the Country (1977).

But I haven’t been as enthralled with McPhee’s more recent work. He profiled my friend and mentor E-an Zen in “Travels of the Rock,” included as the final essay in the 1997 collection Irons in the Fire. That held my attention, as did the other piece in that volume about forensic geology.

But in the new millennium, McPhee went through a fish phase and then got enraptured with transportation. (All along, he’s also been into sports, and that’s still true, but it’s the area of his writing that interests me the least, so I’ll say no more of it here.) I started subscribing to the New Yorker, where McPhee serves as a staff writer, in grad school in 2002, and over the subsequent 9 years of reading that magazine, I’ve seen his essays appear perhaps twice a year. Many of them have focused on transportation of one sort or another. It sounded, frankly, like a pretty dry topic, but then again, I would have thought there couldn’t be much to oranges, either.

So while I’ve read each of the essays in Uncommon Carriers when they were published in the New Yorker, I decided to re-read them as a collection. Grouped under a single cover and read in sequence is a different experience from reading them separated by year-long intervals. So what did patterns did I pick up on?

Each essay seems to mention the terrorist attacks of September 11th at some point. This strikes me as (a) germane to the subject matter, as truckers and barges and trains and planes are all now potential targets and weapons of terrorism. It’s relevant to the life of the modern day trucker or UPS router to have a clear idea of how terrorists might use them as part of a deadly plan. But no one seems to dwell on it. It also strikes me as (b) an evolution of McPhee as a writer. McPhee has been criticized by, among others, Edward Abbey for being too apolitical. Writing about oranges and Russian art and the Greenmarket is all well and good, Abbey implied, but why not use your status as a writer to right some wrong, to address an injustice or a way forward for a sticky issue. In fact, I think Abbey’s approach is clearly alienating to some, and McPhee is seen by many as politically “safe,” interesting without indulging in the argumentation or rhetoric which permeates just about everything else we read. So I think there’s definitely a place for adamantly apolitical writers. I think it’s to McPhee’s credit that he’s willing to let himself evolve a bit by, if not exactly grappling with the issues, then at least letting them appear in his writing.

Another thing that McPhee has been criticized for is his anonymity. His stories never really featured any kind of details about his own life or perspective. That changed a bit with The Founding Fish (2002), where he indulged in a lot of description of his shad fishing, and reached previously-unknown levels in Silk Parachute, a 2010 collection of essays which are united by the thread that they all invoke “McPhee the man” at some point. (It was when he was promoting Silk Parachute last April that I saw him speak at DC’s iconic bookstore Politics and Prose.) Point being: the guy is willing to change, to loosen up a bit, as he gets older and more secure in his reputation.

The other area where this manifests itself in Uncommon Carriers is in the topic of fossil fuel use and climate change. This is particularly true for “Coal Train” and “A Fleet of One, Part 2”. The first of these, “Coal Train,” is about a staggering enterprise — the world’s largest mine spawning the world’s largest train, transporting carbon captured by ancient photosynthesis halfway across America. It is the epitome of our energy infrastructure — enormous and unwieldy and impressive.

It begins with the mines themselves. McPhee focuses on Rocky Mountain coal, formed in large continental basins during the early Cenozoic. He is particularly interested in the Power River Basin of Wyoming. At the Black Thunder Mine, for instance, they are digging into Paleocene Fort Union Formation coal, with individual beds that are “eight to ten stories thick.” Current mining of these coal units fills 60 coal trains per day. Each of those 60 trains is 19,000 tons fully loaded, 133 cars full of coal. Some outliers are over two miles in length! 60 of these behemoths roll out of the Powder River Basin each day, bound for places like Georgia, where the coal is powdered and oxidized and the resulting heat is captured to heat water to turn turbines so that electrical power may be generated. It’s a long chain of events that results in Atlantans having the lights go on when they flip a switch. McPhee documents the amazing scale of the operation.

In spite of his extraordinary figures, there is probably enough coal in the Powder River Basin to last (at current rates of usage) for 250 more years.

McPhee must have had environmental sensibilities for a long time — why else would he profile David Brower (Encounters With the Archdruid, 1971) or write a book called The Control of Nature (1989)?  But nowhere in these early books is any sort of judgment or political stance expressed directly by McPhee as narrator. In Uncommon Carriers, however, he states his positions a bit more baldly: Quoting economist Kenneth Boulding, he states, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

“A Fleet of One” is the title of the essays that open and close the Uncommon Carriers volume. They focus on a trucker named Don Ainsworth who lets McPhee ride shotgun for thousands of miles across North America. Ainsworth keeps McPhee’s pencil twitching over his notebook with a constant torrent of quirky witticisms and ego. It’s entertaining — Ainsworth’s style blends well with McPhee’s narration in the manner of Henri Vaillancourt’s, recorded by McPhee in The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). However, McPhee displays much more tenderness towards Ainsworth as a protagonist than he did towards prickly Vaillancourt.

For instance, McPhee suggests Ainsworth is praiseworthy for sleeping in a hotel room, as opposed to in his truck with the engine idling. In the winter and summer months, most truckers in the United States catch 40 winks while their engines turn over (zero miles per gallon) to provide energy to run the heater or the air conditioners in the cab. Says McPhee (p. 248), “You have not heard the sound of creature comfort until you have heard hundreds of huddled trucks idling through the night.” He does some math: “Two million trucks [the U.S. truck population] times three hundred days amounts to six billion gallons of diesel fuel per annum burned basically to keep truck drivers cool, to keep truck drivers warm, and to keep happy presidents content.”

Whoa – that’s a clear swipe at George W. Bush, a statement unique in its political chutzpah in my reading of McPhee. He’s not hiding his environmentalism under a bushel anymore!

A final note — at several points in Uncommon Carriers, McPhee gives points out connections to early work. “Coal Train” mentions crossing Nebraska’s Platte River at a spot near where McPhee collected a handful of pebbles in his forensic geology piece many years earlier. He also mentions passing a home in Wyoming of Floyd Dominy, a dam-booster for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the man who was arch-enemy to the Archdruid. If you’ve indulged in McPhee’s complete oeuvre as I have, these little tangents ring with a deep satisfaction.