Getting to Know John McPhee

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to discover the genius of John McPhee, but now that I’ve had a taste of his literary nonfiction, there’s no turning back.

At a friend’s recommendation, I recently began reading McPhee’s Pine Barrens. What a delight! Published in 1968, the book chronicles McPhee’s journey deep into the South Jersey wilderness. Not only does the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Jersey native provide a beautifully textured and endlessly compelling history of this immense stretch of timeless backcountry, but he also peppers the work with fascinating profiles of its inhabitants, all of whom embody a worldview and lifestyle remarkably unchanged by the modernity surrounding them on all sides.

Consider the following passage about a man named Fred Brown, who at the time lived in an unheated cabin in an area of the Pines called Hog Wallow:

The pork was delicious and almost crisp. Fred gave me a potato with it, and a pitcher of melted grease from the frying pan to pour over the potato. He also handed me a loaf of bread and a dish of margarine, saying, "Here’s your bread. You can have one piece or two. Whatever you want."

Fred apologized for not having a phone, after I asked where I would have to go to make a call, later on. He said, "I don’t have no phone because I don’t have no electric. If I had electric, I would have had a phone in here a long time ago." He uses a kerosene lamp, a propane lamp, and two flashlights.

If I were designing a course called New Jersey 101, McPhee’s Pine Barrens would top the list of required reading. Before cracking the spine on this book, I thought I knew the value of this epic forest in my backyard and the critical role it plays in the entirety of the Garden State’s evolution. I realize now that my appreciation was simplistic, the difference, let’s say, between admiring a post card of the Sistine Chapel and actually standing beneath its glorious dome.

Moreover, I had no idea how close we were to losing this natural wonder. At the time McPhee wrote The Pine Barrens, a plan was in the works between Burlington and Ocean counties to create “a supersonic jetport in the pines, connected by a spur of the Garden State Parkway to a new city of two hundred and fifty thousand people, also in the pines.” It makes the heart ache to consider.

I can’t wait to dive headlong into McPhee’s body of work, an eclectic collection of books concerning everything from the shifting flow of the Mississippi River to the world of freight transportation. If you value well-crafted writing, the importance of history, or the poetry of human endeavor, get to know John McPhee.

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