Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coming into the Country - John McPhee

Fewer than 20 years removed from achieving statehood, Alaska was still very much a frontier. A place for misfits, the prideful, the quiet, the lonely, but also the committed, the true, and the false, Alaskans came (and come) in all forms. But generally (with the glaring exception of indigenous people) they are immigrants, who have been drawn, not just away from one country but towards another. Committed to both inhabiting the place of their imagination and crafting a place that is their own.

McPhee recounts Alaska and its people negotiating the complicated meanings of being both part of and apart from the United States. The infiltration of people, technologies, and governmental order along the frontier could, for many, make this vast place seem increasingly small. Along the foothills and inlets of Juneau, spreading across the Turnagain Arm, into Denali and up to the North Slope would come employment, services, communication, as well as laws, rules, oversight. Alaska was the last place in the United States a person could homestead - set out for an unoccupied plot to make their own.

Though a vast space of wilderness and wildness, Alaska is also a place of people. These are McPhee's favored subjects. The city planner for a would-be newly cited state capital. The trapper on his line. The town council. The homesteader. The miner. Alaska in its many iterations dominates,and yet is shaped by its people. The land is vast, yet not untouched. Its meaning is apparent for some; to others, only hinted at. McPhee's work is as capacious as the state, finding space for the plurality of human and natural voices. It is a testament to a specific time, in a seemingly timeless land.