In Literary Pursuit of Rustlers, Rock Hounds and Others


There was a time when young journalists dreamed of growing up to become John McPhee, of someday writing for newspapers and magazines that allowed them to write literary journalism.

This is a form that defies space and time; space because these are almost always longer pieces in an era when newspapers and magazines have less and less, and time because these articles slow us down, demanding that we digest the information they contain, absorb the richness of detail, appreciate the metaphors and assess the importance of the people and places described for our own lives.

The first essay in this collection--which weaves through cattle rustling, virgin forest, geologic evidence in murder cases, tire disposal, exotic car auctions and Plymouth Rock--is inspired by a friend who comes back from Nevada and describes having seen the noble seal of a Nevada brand inspector on a shiny white truck somewhere between the Horse Range and the Pancake Range.


Brand inspectors chase down cattle rustlers, evoking, as McPhee’s friend points out, the 1890s, rather than the 1990s. “I got up,” writes McPhee, who emerges in these essays as a kind of tracker, “said goodbye to him, and departed for Nevada.”

This essay is punctuated by the hieroglyphics that are the brands cattle ranchers use to identify their own: Reverse B Hanging P Right Ribs, Rocking Arrow, Rolling M’s, Lazy Walking A’s and so on. “Brands are like fish in the river,” he writes, “visible to the accomplished eye. As a matter of fact, I’m no good at seeing fish, either.” One gets the feeling that a measure of success McPhee might hold himself to in a story is the ability (his own and the reader’s) to learn the language of a place, to be able, at the end of the essay, to identify the brands.

This is, of course, a source of much delight in his writing. To learn, for example, that an unmarked calf is called “an oreana, a maverick, a long-eared calf,” fills me with a sense of well-being, like being able to access useful information with a simple computer program, or being read a bedtime story in which one learns the customs of a faraway land. McPhee teaches us the brand inspecting profession, a calling that “derives from the gun-fighters who were hired by the old cattlemen to protect their stock.” He travels with them across the hundreds of miles they traverse each day stalking rustlers. He visits the ranches, standing “in the morning shadow of a limestone butte capped with quartzite--free-standing in the basin, like a floating vessel, sheer, 800 feet high.” He sifts through their legendary rustlers, like John Casey, a criminal with “no godliness” in him; Art Loper, “a one-eyed man” with a “hell of a horse”; and Wayne Lee, with “a touch of the slick about him.”

At the dead end of this portrait of hard-driving men from another century, McPhee leaves us with a soft-hearted image of the cows who, after their babies have been separated from them to send to market, “walk the fence looking for their calves.”

Many of the other essays in this collection appeared in the New Yorker, including “The Gravel Page,” McPhee’s paean to the language of geology. “Mineral grains and microfossils can narrate a story,” he writes of the FBI’s successful attempt to track down the killer of a police officer in Harrisburg, Pa.

“If you were to find a trowel covered with galena, sphalerite, calcite, dolomite, and chalcopyrite in an easily discernible suite, you could say that it had been used somewhere near the Oklahoma-Kansas-Missouri intersection, a few miles west of Joplin,” he writes with obvious admiration.


How do you know, he asks a stratigrapher whose specialty is the Cenozoic paleography of western Nebraska, where pebbles come from? “ ‘I started as an art history major,’ ” says the stratigrapher, “ ‘I learned the language. Someone asks you, ‘How do you know that’s a Vermeer?’ It’s like your grandmother walking down the street.’ ”

These essays bear some common brand markings: a terseness of tone, a reticence with personal detail (the noble absence of which forms its own presence), a vocabulary that has marinated nicely in its subject matter, and a telltale use of quotes (often long ones) supported by a minimal factual scaffolding (what the person speaking looks like, for example) to insinuate the drama of the story.

The New Yorker is, many would agree, the crucible for this appealing style, shared in slightly different versions by Nicholson Baker and Alec Wilkinson (to mention just two of my favorites). It assumes an intelligent and curious readership. It provides an escape for the mind, the heart and the senses. It gives a reader something to pour himself into. It is a grand old form, and McPhee stays light on his feet within it.