Annals of the Former World
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
1998

I first encountered the writer John McPhee about ten years ago on a remote stretch of the Salmon River in the wilds of northern Alaska just inside the Arctic Circle. That’s where he was, at least. I was sitting in the sun outside a small restaurant near my office in midtown Manhattan. But such was McPhee’s evocation of the Kobuk Valley landscape that it was easy to look at the flow of traffic up Third Avenue and overlay the taxis, buses, and buildings with darting graylings, marauding grizzlies, and stands of virgin willow trees.

I was a latecomer to the tribe of McPhee readers. For some reason, despite avidly consuming the work of other in-house masters at The New Yorker such as Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, I’d managed to avoid McPhee. I’d nod sagely when his name came up in conversation, but I never actually sat down to read his stuff. I vaguely associated him with the New Journalism of the 1960s, but where I’d been drawn to gawp at the stylistic pyrotechnics of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Truman Capote, I viewed McPhee, with his forensic dissections of flora and fauna as, well, a trifle dull. Twenty thousand words on the virtues of Florida oranges or Bill Bradley’s jump shot? No thanks.

That changed right about the time I decided to leave my legal career and become a writer, or at least a journalist. My first job was editing a three-hole-punch financial monthly then put out by Steve Brill’s American Lawyer. The job came with a small office, two dutiful junior editors, and David Marcus, a hyperkinetic staff writer who, with scant prompting, would hold forth at length and with surprising candor on the failings of his editors (myself included), the virtues of Princeton lacrosse, and the writing of John McPhee. Hero worship is too uncritical a quality to manifest in a character as irascible as Marcus, but his enthusiasm for McPhee was ardent and infectious. More than once I gingerly approached Marcus’s desk to investigate the fate of some overdue article on, say, the takeover of a Connecticut car-parts company, only to find him manically sifting through a mound of index cards, because ”that’s how McPhee”organized his research (though I felt pretty sure there was more actual organization in McPhee’s system). Usually when I attempted some judicious pruning of a Marcus magnum opus, he’d speed-walk into my office and begin denouncing me as a ham-handed simpleton. ”Read McPhee,”he’d often admonish, with a mixture of pity and irritation. Only then, it seemed, might I hope to grasp the Marcusian literary vision.

As there appeared to be little likelihood of avoiding such encounters with Marcus, in the spring of 1998 I decided to take his advice and picked up a copy of McPhee’s Coming into the Country, already known to many (but not to me) as a nonfiction classic. Published in 1977, the book recounts McPhee’s journeys in the Alaskan backcountry. Though I dedicated big chunks of hours to reading the book, it nevertheless took me a while to get through it as I’d often stop and reread several pages trying to figure out what McPhee was up to. I particularly rehashed the book’s front section, ”The Encircled River,”in which McPhee, like a Victorian illusionist, somehow manages to finish the story at the exact time and place on the river where it began. The time-shift in the narrative is so subtle that I drifted right through it, arriving at the end point blinking like a sleepy child awoken from the backseat of a car already parked in the driveway. For an apprentice nonfiction writer, it was a revelation.

Thus inducted into the clan of McPhee admirers, I was primed for the publication later that year of Annals of the Former World. The book is a compilation of writing on geology McPhee began in 1978 when he published a short item about a road cut on Interstate 80 west of New York City. Over the following twenty years, that initial story led McPhee to make a series of trips across America in the company of geologists, through whom he would explore both the geologic history of a region and the history of geology itself. Those travels resulted in four separate books: Basin and Range; In Suspect Terrain; Rising From the Plains; and Assembling California. For the publication of Annals, these were joined by a fifth and final section, Crossing the Craton.

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.