The Crofter and the Laird
As I look across the room at a shelf half-filled with John McPhee titles, I wonder how I managed to go this long without talking about him.
It’s not as though the man or his work are unknown. Some years back a copywriter who commuted from Princeton told me many of her neighbors considered the long commute to Manhattan worth it because they got to live in the same village as him.
McPhee’s work has appeared in The New Yorker since the mid 1960s. Most of that work has been gathered into volumes after he’s exhausted the subject in the pages of the magazine. His long-time publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux, has wisely maintained the same basic cover layout for every volume so once you’ve been bitten by the McPhee bug it’s easy to have a stretch of matched spines on the ledge.
My initial encounter with McPhee was spurred by geology. I was headed to the Sierra Neavadas for the first time and wanted to know what I was going to be seeing. So I picked up Basin and Range before trekking to the airport.
I wound up tearing through it on my
flight west. That book is one of four that comprise an overview of North American geology as seen from especially important places that lie along I-80.
While the subject may be dry for many people, my inner science nerd, the part of me that feels I ditched the real work of hard science for the softer social sciences, relishes this sort of thing. What I’ve never been quite sure of is if McPhee’s work moves from magazine to book form essentially unchanged. The geology books, I know for certain, were collected together as a separate title with additional material. (Annals of the Former World if you’re interested. It won a Pulitzer in 1999.)
What I found in that book was a writer with a distinctive voice and style. I think I could identify McPhee’s writing absent any clues to the author’s identity in the same way I can identify which bank of the Delaware River I’m on by looking at the older buildings.
As I continued to read his work I found that style worked for any subject he chose to cover. And those subjects are myriad: headmasters, experimental aircraft, medical doctors, Mississippi River flood control, Alaska. McPhee may well be responsible for my demonstrated Alaska fixation (here, here and here, to start.)
In this book, the subject is Colonsay, an island in the Inner Hebrides, the islands that flank Scotland‘s northwest coast. Theses are the Highlands with the added benefit of separation from the mainland.
Remote doesn’t even come close to describing the isolation of the island’s 138 or so residents. Hebridean could do double duty as a synonym for apartness the way Monadnock stands in for lone mountain.
Curiosity about his family’s past has brought our author thither. Growing up in America, he heard family tales of their heritage and decided to bring his own family in search of their collective past; Colonsay is the ancestral set of Clan MacFie. They spend several months on the island, living in a crofter‘s cottage and hacking about, mostly on foot. Up crags, down to strands, peering over cliffs and wondering at a climate that is strangely temperate for such a latitude, if nighttime indoor temperatures in the 40’s can be called temperate.
Although I learn a lot reading McPhee’s work, that’s not why I keep coming back. What draws me is his style, which seems not a style at all. Some writers are conversational. Some are writerly. McPhee is his own duck. He teaches journalism at Princeton and has lately been giving away his methods, bit by bit, in The New Yorker. I don’t see how anyone could take his class or read his articles and do as he does. He stands a monument to the idiosyncratic written voice.
McPhee makes it seem easy, almost too easy. Yet almost every page contains sentences like this: ”He is a handsome man, with a smile that can dry rain before it hits the ground.” Or vivid images “…inland glens can scarcely break the soil before the furrows behind them turn white with gulls” (both p. 45). This isn’t your everyday travel writing. It’s not even your everyday non-fiction. Which is what makes it so great.
So what of this isolated island, its crofters and laird? And what is a crofter anyway? The last is easily answered. A crofter is a small tenant farmer working a piece of land that should enable subsistence. Colonsay, by the mid-1960s, is not quite persisting at subsistence level, but just a bit beyond. Despite ferry service, automobiles, gasoline and electricity the older, simpler ways persist. As one local says, “To sit with a book by a fire is a fine evening ”
McPhee’s local guide is Donald Gibbie, a jack of all trades. His real surname is McNeill, the island being their seat, too. But, the ground being lousy with McNeills and a short list of given names, everyone gets a more identifiable sobriquet. Gibbie means son of Gilbert. Donald plows and plants. He plays shepherd to his sheep and wrangler to his cattle. He gathers mussels from the beach and fish from the sea. He is the piermaster, too. His income is probably less than £1000/yr, or roughly $3,000 to $4,000 USD at the time. There’s a lot of making do and getting by.
The laird is the owner of the island and everything on it. Every soul on the rock not his blood relative is a tenant and he is their landlord and employer. All these feudal rituals and relationships are, of course, written into law, as is the rent (which does not cover costs), the amount of spirits a pub pours into a drink and the amount of time allowed to clear the bar after last call. Americans who fret about over-regulation have no idea what a relatively regulation-light existence they lead.
If this sound familiar it should because it is a model feudal society. Such a contradiction to modernity cannot stand, at least not without raising tensions and the laird, an engineer by training, is intent on making the centuries align. It’s a tough task with no little bit of friction although for most of the year the laird stays at home, in Bath.
In talking about how he goes about writing a story McPhee has spoken about patterns and connections. I always feel, while reading him, that I’m being immersed in whatever has most recently caught his fancy. That makes the ending, which almost always seems abrupt and too early, a bit of a shock.
And keeps me coming back for more.