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By nature and intent, the serious, literary nonfiction produced by John McPhee aims to reach a broad audience. His writings are unencumbered by the scholarly apparatus—footnotes, bibliographies, and the like—that characterizes academic historical publications. McPhee nevertheless offers important contributions to the history of technology. His careful research and reverence for accuracy are legendary. Every word counts in his essays; every line strives for clarity, insight, truthfulness. Moreover, because McPhee is writing for a general readership, he can freely add what professional historians fastidiously avoid: he can make himself part of the story; he can give personal testimony to the people and places he describes; he can dwell upon psychological elements and motives; and he can lace his accounts with humor.

Faithful readers of the New Yorker will be familiar with McPhee's essays, as he has been a regular contributor there for nearly four decades. Beginning with his portrait of Princeton University's basketball star and academic talent, Bill Bradley (A Sense of Where You Are [1965]), McPhee has turned his New Yorker pieces into book after masterful book. His oeuvre covers a remarkable range of topics, many of which address fundamental aspects of the interplay of technology and culture.

Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), for example, portrays one of the great defenders of wild lands, David Brower, as he clashes with three outspoken developers: the mining engineer Charles Park, who argues the case for mineral extraction wherever key deposits are found; resort builder Charles Fraser, who denounces the do-goodism of environmentalists; and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, who champions the construction of big dams. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973) tells the remarkable story of the secret development of a hybrid flying machine that blends [End Page 830] elements of airplanes and rigid airships. McPhee explores aspects of nuclear power, from weapons to propulsion to electricity generation, in The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor (1974). The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975) exemplifies how traditional technologies have been passed down through generations and how they have been shaped by their cultural and environmental settings.

The reciprocal influences among culture, environment, and technology interact on a much larger canvas in Coming into the Country (1977), where McPhee leads his readers on a mesmerizing journey through "America's ultimate wilderness," Alaska. Giving Good Weight (1979) includes essays that examine the multitude of variables associated with developing a nuclear power plant capable of floating in the open ocean, as well as the controversy surrounding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers's proposal to impound one of New England's most scenic rivers. The Control of Nature (1989) tackles the intersection of technology and the environment head on by unmasking three larger-than-life attempts to harness some of the stronger forces on planet earth: preventing North America's largest river, the Mississippi, from shifting to its preferred (and shorter) path to the sea; trying to redirect the great lava flows in Iceland; and containing the devastating "debris flows" that slough off the steep and unstable shoulders of Southern California's San Gabriel Mountains. In Looking for a Ship (1990), to cite one last example, McPhee uses a month-and-a-half voyage on the S.S. Stella Lykes through the Panama Canal and down South America's Pacific Coast as a vantage point for observing the technological and social dimensions of operating a freighter within the now-anemic United States Merchant Marine.

McPhee's twenty-fifth book, The Founding Fish (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002, 368 pp., $24), covers one of the author's own consuming passions, shad fishing, together with humanity's interactions with this bony but delectable migratory fish. The book's title reflects the claim that an early-season shad run on the Schuylkill River in 1778 saved the starving army under George Washington's command at Valley Forge, and, in so doing, perhaps rescued the American Revolution itself. As in his other works, McPhee lards his subject with discussions of sport, culture, biology, myth, human nature, and technology. The treatment of technology, however, is not singled out and fenced off in a separate chapter or two; it permeates the book as an integral part of the story's human dimension. McPhee rarely introduces a technology without incorporating discussions of technical knowledge and skill—of how people conceive, design, make, and maintain technology, as well as how they operate, tweak, and manipulate it. He often accomplishes this by turning the reader's attention to small details. In discussing the design and production of fishing lures, for example, McPhee makes clear how biological knowledge informs technological approach. Why are the lures designed the way they are? What makes them [End Page 831] effective under particular circumstances? The development of fish hatcheries, a decidedly larger and more complicated technology that requires the integration of sophisticated biological and managerial systems, receives similar evaluation. Without explicitly raising the point, McPhee breaks down the stereotype that engineers and technologists tend to be divorced from and therefore unconcerned about nature. As his eclectic array of examples suggest, the successful development of many technologies depends upon close observation and appreciation of the natural world.

If the creators and users of technology form a common thread in McPhee's writings, so too do the scientists who devote their lives to understanding. Several of his previous books, which were compiled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annals of the Former World (1998), focus on the earth sciences, giving readers insights into the thinking, values, and habits of geologists while simultaneously imparting the central findings of that scientific discipline. In The Founding Fish McPhee does the same for biologists, most notably ichthyologists. He conveys how scientific knowledge has advanced over time, assisted now and again by new measuring, monitoring, and testing technologies and techniques.

Because anadromous and catadromous fishes must be able to migrate between fresh and salt water to survive, dams can have a devastating local impact on species such as shad. Although fish elevators or fish ladders are now routinely incorporated in dams to permit fish migrations, such passageways were not required in older dams, like those commonly found in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Some sixty-six thousand dams obstruct rivers in the United States, McPhee reports, and their collective toll on migratory fishes has been enormous. This has prompted river enthusiasts, environmental activists, and conservation biologists to advocate the dismantling of dams that have outlived their useful purposes. This effort seemed largely academic until the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River was demolished in the 1990s, and McPhee was there to chronicle the event. As he explains, by way of background, the Augusta Water Power Company had built the Edwards Dam in 1837 to harness the Kennebec to drive its machine shop, gristmill, and seven sawmills. Years later, the dam was used to generate electricity. By the late twentieth century, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—the agency responsible for issuing and renewing licenses to privately owned and operated hydroelectric power generating dams—ruled that the Edwards Dam license renewal was dependent upon the installation of fishways, which were by then required by law. This made no economic sense, given the structure's small generating capacity (a mere 3.5 megawatts). With the fishways installation estimated to cost three times the amount of tearing down the dam, FERC ordered the owner, the Edwards Manufacturing Company, to dismantle it. As McPhee reported, this was "the first big dam in a major river to be [End Page 832] ordered out of existence by the federal government" (p. 75) and was widely heralded as foreshadowing a shift in natural resources policy.

Dams are not the only human intervention to threaten shad and other migratory fishes. Industrial and urban pollution also have compromised their well-being. McPhee deftly correlates the size and health of the Atlantic shad population with changes in the scope and nature of pollution. In example after example, he points to how the highs and lows of yearly commercial shad catches contrasted with the peaks and valleys in the levels of water pollution: the higher the pollution levels, the lower the catches. Post-1960s environmental laws and regulations, he demonstrates, led to improvements in water quality, which in turn contributed to substantial increases in the number of shad netted.

McPhee's coverage of technology is neither thorough nor pretending to be so. But as a supplementary text, The Founding Fish offers a superb introduction to the complexities and indelible blending of technology and the environment.

Jeffrey K. Stine

Dr. Stine is curator of engineering and environmental history at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Launched on MUSE
2004-12-07
Open Access
No
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