John McPhee is one of the masters of narrative nonfiction writing. Since the 1960s, when he published his first book, a profile of Princeton basketball player Bill Bradley, McPhee has consistently produced some of the best literary journalism that has been written. McPhee has wide-ranging interests, and has written about geology, nuclear science, experimental aircraft, canoe building, scientists and naturalists, farmers, chefs, sailors and soldiers, and much more. Some of his finest writing, though, comes when he turns his gaze on the natural world. An avid hiker and canoeist, McPhee brings his love of nature to his writing, but his writing is never dewy-eyed. Rather McPhee sets down in clear and elegant prose what he sees in the wild. He is an inveterate list-maker, and has a knack for putting together lists that resonate with interesting names, be they towns, plants, or people. A delight in language marks all of McPhee’s work.
Here, McPhee takes his pen to the remaining area of the massive pine forests that once covered the East coast of the U.S. The Pine Barrens of New Jersey are still amazingly remote, despite their relative proximity to New York City. McPhee takes the reader on a tour of the cranberry bogs, the dwarf pine forests, and the miles and miles of sand roads that traverse the seemingly endless forest here. Along the way, you will get a sense of the history of the Pine Barrens, the fragile nature of its ecosystems, and challenges to the survival of this remnant of the early forests.
In addition to his ability to capture the natural world, McPhee also excels at character sketches. The Pine Barrens is filled with delightful portraits of the inhabitants of this rural community. He is never condescending towards his subjects. He draws out from them what their passions are and makes the reader feel those passions. McPhee is equally at home having a fried pork chop with a backwoodsman as he is in talking with politicians and scientists. In all cases, McPhee lets the individual be who they are, and then communicates that to the reader.
Whether you are interested in people, places, or nature writing, John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens has something to offer. You will never think of New Jersey the same way.
Check the WRL catalog for The Pine Barrens