John McPhee’s essays on Alaska published in 1977 are still on many peoples’ Best Books about Alaska lists which is how I chose it. Is it still an essay at 200 pages? Not sure, but he does have a fine, easy style of writing. The book is in three sections 1) McPhee and a small group of outdoorsmen, some government, exploring a river in the wilderness. 2) Flying around with a committee that’s supposed to determine where the new capital will go and 3) the tiny town of Eagle and its residents, the people who move there or “come into the country” as they say. the natives, how everyone deals with living there, mining, trapping, the politics, survival. It is a very detailed picture of the mid-70s in small-town Alaska. Probably too detailed for some. Mostly I found it interesting. I had no idea before how destructive a single gold miner can be. I have little sympathy for them. Telling me how huge Alaska is makes no difference, The lower 48 are 5 times larger and look what we’ve done to them. I don’t mind the hunters and trappers. I think the animal populations can survive though hunting from airplanes seems crazy to me. You’re spending how much on fuel for that? I could also be wrong about the resilience of the animal population. We’ll never see a passenger pigeon unless they make one in a lab. The trouble with individual views is they really don’t know, unless they’re using studies, what the big picture is.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Alaska and even though 40 years have gone by, I’m sure a lot of it’s still relevant. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the pure wilderness part, although some of that has to do with McPhee’s description of their recalcitrant canoe. Surviving in the wilderness is something I have no interest in doing personally. Going out there, building a cabin, trapping animals, knowing you won’t eat if you don’t catch a fish that day — not my idea of fun. And honestly, I think it gives you a false sense of your own independence. They are certainly far more self-reliant than I am, but as far as I remember, they all purchase supplies from outside. Fuel, planes, snow machines, bulldozers. even those who don’t do those things buy flour and other food, they could survive then on a couple thousand a year, but no one could survive on nothing a year. They need each other and to a lesser extent, the rest of us, just as we all do. Coming into the Country is a beautiful book about a beautiful land I look forward to visiting, but I wouldn’t want to live there.