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September 17, 2007

Coming into the Country by John McPhee

Coming into the Country is a wonderful relic, the last plausible vision of a living American frontier. In the mid seventies, McPhee went to Alaska to do a few pieces for the New Yorker. He met trappers, prospectors, and "river people" who'd built moss-chinked cabins and whose individualism, gruff hospitality, and happiness he admired. McPhee made a plea for democratic access to Alaskan land. He argued that land far from roads should remain fair game for homesteaders in perpetuity.

It is odd to read an ode to Alaska's wild immensity at a time when islands are being evacuated in the Aleutians, polar bears are drowning, and the permafrost is melting. The question these days is not whether Americans can still choose to live in more or less untainted outback. The question is whether that outback will soon be transformed beyond recognition, not by oil drilling, but by climate change.

Coming into the Country allows us to escape into nostalgia. McPhee's account of the political squabbles over the location of Alaska's capital has lost its relevance, but the rest of the book still comes to life. We meet a mix of clannish Christians, proud native people, and prickly bootleggers in the small, dry town of Eagle. McPhee's tale of a man's survival in sub-zero weather after a plane crash constitutes a minor classic of its own.

Beyond escapism, this book reminds us how powerful the frontier fantasy remains in American psyches. Can it be harnessed as a metaphor? Can the dream of self-reliance on a private patch of woods help motivate us, indirectly, to cut carbon emissions? It has motivated us to go camping and conserve some wild lands even while ruining others. Still, I suspect that as the environmental movement shifts in response to global warming, we may have to jettison the frontier fantasy. It depends too much on a view of nature as more powerful than man. Whether or not we agree with Bill McKibben that we have arrived at the end of nature, we know that everything is responding to elevated temperatures. There is no untouched patch of land left in Alaska. The romance of a homestead sours when the flora and fauna are marching north past the log cabin, driven by coal and oil fires from all over the planet.


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