The first book on my reading list a year ago was Coming into the Country by John McPhee. This is actually a collection of three separate essays about Alaska, originally published in the New Yorker in the mid-1970s, and it shows. The book is quite interesting as a whole, and still probably the best one-volume introduction to Alaska and its peculiarities, but the three sections are quite different from each other in tone and content, and they are likely to be of varying degrees of interest to different readers.
The main reason this book is still very relevant, despite now being 35 years old, is that it happened to be written at a time of immense change in Alaska. Decisions made at that time, some of which are documented by McPhee as they were being made, have been enormously important in shaping the character of the state to this day. One of the most fascinating things about reading this book today with some knowledge of how things turned out is seeing how McPhee presents the events he describes, given that he could not of course have known which would end up being major turning points for the state and which would be dead ends. He doesn’t always guess right about which would be which, so some parts of the book are like glimpses into an alternate reality. Others seem remarkably prescient about what was to come.
The first part of the book is a description of a canoe trip McPhee took with representatives of various federal and state agencies who were evaluating public lands in Alaska to decide which should be recommended for designation as federal conservation units of various kinds. The specific trip McPhee went on was on the Salmon River in what later became Kobuk Valley National Park in northwestern Alaska, above the Arctic Circle. Most of the text is devoted to describing the trip in detail, but towards the end of the section McPhee does get around to discussing the background to the trip and the reasons they were there. This is probably the part of the book that was most useful for me to read when I was working for the Park Service; among other reasons for this, it’s apparently still the most detailed description of the Salmon ever published, since the trip was apparently never described in a formal report by any of the agency representatives.
As this fact implies, however, vanishingly few people have ever been to the Salmon River or to Kobuk Valley National Park at all. This is a very isolated area that is extremely difficult to get to. As it turned out, the area was designated as a national park, and the Salmon was designated as a national Wild River, so it’s all still pretty much as McPhee described it. Knowing this adds an interesting dimension to reading McPhee’s account, which includes a certain amount of concern about what might happen if development came to the area. Reading this really emphasizes the extent to which the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) was a major victory for the conservation movement. There have of course been concerns about impacts to lands protected by ANILCA in subsequent years (oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being the most famous), but overall the act has been enormously successful in setting aside a huge amount of land and preserving it in something resembling a natural state.
The second part of the book discusses areas that are familiar to vastly more people: the major urbanized areas of the state. It describes the movement to move the state capital from Juneau to a new site between Anchorage and Fairbanks. McPhee tags along on a day of visits to potential sites in the Susitna Valley, and he also discusses his conversations with people in Anchorage, Juneau, and Talkeetna (near some of the potential sites) about the issue. This is all of primarily historical interest today, as the capital was ultimately not moved, and it remains in Juneau. It’s pretty fascinating, though, to see what people were saying about the issue in the 1970s, when it came very close to happening.
The third part of the book is longer than the other two put together, and in my opinion it’s the weakest. It describes in detail the community of Eagle on the upper Yukon, near the Canadian border, including the young people who were at the time settling on the river in the same area and attempting to live off the land. McPhee describes a huge number of these people in detail, and as a result this section tends to drag. Most of these people are just not that interesting. The section as a whole, however, is fairly interesting as a snapshot of a particular part of rural Alaska during this period of change. McPhee’s attention seems to be primarily captured by the hippies and similar types on the Yukon, but as it turns out it was the libertarian gold miners on various smaller tributaries and the born-again Christians in Eagle proper who carried the day and helped turn Alaska into the very conservative state it is now.
The overall context for this book is that the 1970s saw a massive change in the economic and political scene in Alaska. When oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Alaska was a liberal Democratic state, less than ten years removed from the territorial era when big fishing and logging companies based in Seattle and San Francisco had extracted its resources on a huge scale with local residents seeing little or no benefit. The statehood movement was in large part a reaction against these excesses, and in its early years the state government enacted a number of laws intended to ensure that development benefited the people.
The oil boom of the early 1980s changed all that, with a massive influx of Texans and other oilmen leading to a sharp turn to the right in the state’s politics which has lasted to this day. Looking back, it’s clear that the 1970s, when the pipeline was under construction and it was not yet clear how beneficial this oil stuff was going to be to the state, was a crucial transitional period when the state lurched to the right. For McPhee, however, writing in the middle of all this, it was not all clear how things were going to turn out. He describes the election of Jay Hammond as governor in 1974 as a potential harbinger of a more conservation-oriented approach to state government, which had previously been dominated by New Deal liberals like Ernest Gruening and William Egan who were focused on economic development and relatively indifferent to environmental protection.
As it turned out, however, Hammond’s administration was less the beginning of a new era of environmental awareness and more the last gasp of Alaska’s traditional liberalism, with Hammond’s signature achievement being the establishment of the Alaska Permanent Fund to ensure that the expected revenue from oil drilling would benefit the citizens of the state. ANILCA was enacted in 1980 over the strenuous objections of the state’s congressional delegation, and since that time Alaska has become more and more identified with a hard-line conservatism represented most recently on the national stage by Sarah Palin.
This is a very interesting book, then, primarily because it is a snapshot of a moment in time that, unbeknownst to the author, turned out to be very important in shaping the state’s future in ways that no one could have predicted. It is also a pleasant read because of McPhee’s talent as a writer. Despite some portions that I thought dragged, and some quibbles with the way McPhee represents certain things, this is definitely the one book I would recommend above all others for a one-volume introduction to Alaska. I can see why my supervisor (who was born and raised in Alaska) put it at the top of my reading list.