Environmental Storytelling–John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers

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Photo courtesy of US Department of Transportation

By Neva Knott

Recently, I read John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, a collect of ethnographies about people who drive 18-wheelers, tow boats, and coal trains. The collection is a look at the sub-cultures that propel the American lifestyle–and is an engaging and enjoyable read. Three essays in particular stood out to me.

“A Fleet of One” in which McPhee joins long-haul truck driver Don Ainsworth for a 3,000-plus mile journey across the country, in a tanker carrying hazmats. Though the story McPhee gives reference to ecological aspects of places Ainsworth’s truck rolls past. “Deadman Pass, the Blue Mountains, the Oregon Trail, The Great Divide Basin, the Carolina piedmont, the Appalachians, and the Rockies, are all specific geographical markers. He gives detail to scenery with a description of the Yakima River, “…deeply incised and ran in white water past vineyards and fruit trees, among windbreaks of Lombardy poplars. Hops were growing on tall poles and dangling like leis. There was so much beauty in the wide valley it could have been in Italy,” and comments that, “The State of Washington was bright enough, however, to require that a truck stop in the beautiful forest of Englemann spruce and Douglas fir be invisible from the interstate, right down to the last billboard.” The early descriptions of landscape signal McPhee’s point of view as he begins his ride with Ainsworth. He leaves off these ecological observations as he enters further into the world of the trucker, of the road. There is not a balanced amount or abundance of ecological information in the essay, yet McPhee’s environmental commentary versus his reportage of trucker life, truck stops, tank washes and off-loading docks establishes a contrast of place, one that suggests that McPhee sees the landscape of the road as part of the larger American landscape but realizes this is not the normal view from the driver’s seat.

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Photo courtesy of wiki commons

In “Tight-Assed River,” McPhee examines life as a tow boat crewman on the Illinois River. Interestingly, more freight moves via waterways than across highways. In as much as McPhee engages his readers with the characters who pilot these boats, he reports on the  the environmental  history of the Illinois river and “the rearrangement of nature” that entailed dredging and the building of levees in an attempt to create an open-water route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. In these few pages, McPhee explains the exploration and the geological history of the Illinois River basin. He outlines the twentieth-century prosperity along the Illinois. It was prosperity derived from the environmental bounty, “…the Illinois River was second only to the Columbia among commercial river fisheries in the United States. In 1908, twenty-five hundred Illinois fishermen caught ten per cent of the entire U. S. riverine catch.” Hunters “harvested tens of thousands of ducks,” and mussel beds provided the raw material for “numerous button factories.” This prosperity was rendered extinct when “engineers reversed the Chicago River” and the Illinois became part of Chicago’s sewage system. To conclude this exposition, McPhee cites the Clean Water Act of 1972, explaining that, “The river is not foul, as it once was, but it has a permanent tan, a beige opacity from agricultural runoff.” He quotes Tom Amstrong, the tow boat captain, “we’re brown-water people,” as connection between the history of the river and its present quality.

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Photo courtesy of wiki commons

The essay “Coal Train” is a reminder of the overarching impact something like opening up a new coal mine can have. Not only was the Powder River Basin landscape devastated, a whole new burden was put upon the rail system. McPhee explains the current boon to coal trains was a result of the Clean Air Act  of 1970, “Powder River Basin coal…is as much as five times lower in sulfur than Appalachian coal. With the Clean Air Act, power plants were required to scrub sulfur out or burn low-sulfur coal.” Consistent with his environmental commentary in the previous essays, McPhee steps away from the narrative of the train operators to explain the landscape of the coal mine itself, calling the mining of the Powder River Basin, “an invasion of the planet unprecedented in scale.” The Orin Line, known as the Coal Line, cuts through Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. McPhee visits the Black Thunder Mine, where he found, “The faces of the canyon walls were for the most part jet black—beds of coal eight to ten stories thick.” He describes the extent to which the mining is digging into the mountains. Even so, there is enough coal for another two hundred years. McPhee concludes this scene with this comment, “On the horizon there were no trees. Deer and antelope were everywhere at play, much too young to care what had happened to the range,” suggesting the National Grassland is not preserved as it should be because of the mining. In conclusion of his visit to the mine McPhee relays these statistics, “From mines along the Orin Line, twenty-three thousand coal trains annually emerge—that is, about thirty four thousand miles of rolling coal, going off as units to become carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, water, ash, and heat, and to air-condition…”. In listing the by-products of using heat as fuel for power plants, he is listing the greenhouse gases produced in the process.

While the main narrative in each of these essays is the story of people in jobs that power America, McPhee positions himself as an environmental storyteller. His environmental commentary elucidates the ecological impacts of these modes of transportation. Uncommon Carriers is an interesting read about jobs and American sub-cultures, and it is an important piece of environmental storytelling.

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