The most pleasing sentence I’ve read this week was written not by a poet but a journalist:
“Junipers in the mountains were thickly hung with berries, and the air was unadulterated gin.”
The first two-thirds, through “berries,” is nothing special, an observation anyone who recognizes a juniper (the tree with the widest natural range in the world) could make. Only someone who knows his liquor and times his prose as deftly as Groucho timed a joke could have written the rest. “Unadulterated gin” evokes Prohibition and bathtub gin, which lends a comic tang to a sentence that starts on Mount Tobin in northwestern Nevada.
[A digression, from Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of North American Trees: “It is the flavor of the berries which imparts to gin its characteristic aroma and tang, for they are used in the preparation of this alcoholic drink which would otherwise be a nearly tasteless eau de vie. Indeed our word `gin’ comes from the French genièvre, as gin is still called in Flanders and Belgium. And that, in turn, derives, of course from the name of the tree in French, genèvrier.”]
The author is John McPhee and the sentence, a throw-away, comes early in Annals of the Former World, a chronicle of modern geology and a love song to the North American continent.
McPhee is hardly obscure. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965, he has published 31 volumes and won a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve read all his books at least once, and the best of them – The Pine Barrens, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, Annals of the Former World – stand with the best American writing of recent decades. That he’s a better writer than most of the novelists working today seems obvious, yet there’s a tentative, hedging-of-bets feel to his literary reputation. He doesn’t write fiction or poetry (though both disciplines inform his work), and for nonfiction to earn attention and respect it must almost always be fashionably topical. McPhee’s subjects have included oranges and a wine-maker in the Swiss army. In Annals, a volume often devoted to plate tectonics, McPhee writes like this without diluting the difficulty of his subject-matter:
“Mountains are not somehow created whole and subsequently worn away. They wear down as they come up, and these mountains have been rising and eroding in fairly even ratio for millions of years – rising and shedding sediment steadily through time, always the same, never the same, like row upon row of fountains.”
At its best, McPhee’s prose is poetic -- that is, notable for precision and concision -- but there’s nothing ornamental or prettified about it. So many much-touted prose styles resemble strings of Christmas lights on a shotgun shack, contributing nothing and emphasizing the squalor and emptiness. McPhee admires competence and problem-solving in his subjects, qualities embodied in his prose. Among American writers he most resembles the Thoreau of the journal, not in “philosophy” (a dreaded word in this context) but in his regard for craft. I’ve written before of McPhee’s admiration for the author of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and here’s a pertinent sample from Thoreau’s journal, dated Nov. 28, 1860:
“Go to the English Government, which, of course, is representative of the people, and ask, What is the use of juniper berries? The answer is, To flavor gin with. This is the gross abuse of juniper berries, with which an enlightened Government – if ever there shall be one – will have nothing to do.”