Coming into the Country

views updated

Coming into the Country

Book excerpt

By: John McPhee

Date: 1976

Source: McPhee, John. Coming into the Country. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

About the Author: American author John McPhee (1931–) has written more than twenty nonfiction books, many of them notable contributions about humans and their interaction with the environment, since 1965. A native of Princeton, New Jersey, he attended both Princeton University and Cambridge University before embarking on a career in journalism with Time magazine. He has been a staff writer with The New Yorker since 1965. Two of his books, Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy, were nominated for National Book Awards. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977 and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World, his collected writings about geologists and their work. Highly regarded among professional geologists for his portrayal of their science, McPhee has also been honored by the Geological Society of America, the American Institute of Professional Geologists, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and the Association of Earth Science Editors.


Coming into the Country, published in 1976, is a narrative about Alaska during the pivotal years of the early to mid-1970s. It was a time of both economic expansion and controversy about the future of the remote and sparsely populated Alaska. Statehood had been granted barely a decade earlier, but much of the land in Alaska remained under federal control and was being evaluated for preservation as national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 had formally settled long-standing disputes about the property rights of Native Americans, giving one-ninth of Alaska's land and nearly one billion dollars in cash to twelve regional Native American corporations. The trans-Alaskan pipeline was being built and there was discussion about the possibility of moving the state capital from the small and difficult-to-reach city of Juneau to the bustling commercial center of Anchorage. Pipeline construction and oil exploration brought high-paying jobs, business opportunities, and the homogeneity of virtually every other American city to Anchorage. There were fears that construction of the pipeline would lead to an oil spill and environmental ruin in pristine Prince William Sound. Some saw it as an opportunity to prosper, while others saw the end of Alaska as they knew it.

The title of Coming into the Country alludes to Alaskans who refer to the remote bush as "the country." When one arrives in the bush for the first time, he or she is said to have come into the country. Coming into the Country consists of three sections, each of which McPhee refers to as a book. The first book describes a river trip above the Arctic Circle with a group of state and federal scientists evaluating land that would eventually become the Gates of the Arctic National Park. The third book, also titled "Coming into the Country," recounts life in the remote bush town of Eagle, Alaska. The second book, titled "What They Were Hunting For" describes a life in urban Alaska during the campaign to move the state capital to Anchorage.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Coming into the Country paints a detailed and insightful picture of America's last frontier during a time of unprecedented change, presenting an unbiased journalistic account of a state struggling with its identity and future.

Some Alaskans look to Anchorage as a vision of what the state can be and others look at it as a sad example of what the state has become. Mcphee's pertrayal reflects the universal dilemma facing Alaska and virtually every other city struggling to reconcile economic growth with environmental quality. In that regard, Alaska is no different than anywhere else. McPhee's description of the sprawling and disorganized urban growth of Anchorage, a small city by broader standards but Alaska's center of commerce, would apply just as well to anywhere in the lower forty-eight states. He describes Anchorage as an "instant Albuquerque" indistinguishable from Oxnard, El Paso, or Trenton. Yet, even thirty years after the book was published, Anchorage still harbors remnants of its rough and tumble frontier past. McPhee writes of firewood stacked alongside modern office buildings and log cabins next to a J.C. Penney store. He points out that, ironically, wildlife biologists, mountain guides, and others drawn to the vast and wild frontier more often than not end up living in Anchorage because, simply enough, that is where the jobs are. McPhee describes the sentiment of a civic booster who believes that environmental idealists favor trees and animals at the expense of humans. His concern was that bicycle paths and parks take up space that will limit the ability of Anchorage to grow to its full potential.



Borneman, Walter R.. Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Web sites

Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. 〈〉 (accessed January 27, 2006).

National Park Service. "Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve." 〈〉 (accessed January 27, 2006).

State of Alaska. "Alaska!" 〈〉 (accessed January 27, 2006).

University of Alaska. "Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Resources." 〈〉 (accessed January 27, 2006).

U.S. Geological Survey. "Alaska Science Center." 〈〉 (accessed January 27, 2006).