At first glance, this book appears to be a gathering of heterogeneous essays related only by their having come by some quirk from the same hand and all appearing first in The New Yorker. Nevertheless, as one reads through them, their unity emerges, signaled by the title. These essays all concern human beings as tool makers and users, possessing diverse tools whose uses are not always benign. As a species, humans have many “irons in the fire,” whether the literal branding irons indicated in the title essay, the talking computer of a prolific scholar blinded at age five by an accident, the extraordinary tools of forensic geology, the “tools” of nature that humans must understand to manage a half-section of Eastern virgin forest, the tools necessary to understand and recycle a fundamental tool of modern humans—the tire—or the tools of a master mason who repairs and preserves Plymouth Rock, itself a “tool” by which Americans have constructed much of their national “history.” Surely the most interesting tool John McPhee explores is the tool of the human mind, revealed in lapidary prose as hard and sharply defined as the geology that forms both substance and method for much of his writing.
McPhee focuses always on the maker and user of the tool, on the men and women who make, use, study, enforce, manage, develop, understand, and litigate tools. Tools are in most respects inert, their creation and animation depending on the large-brained hominid with the opposable thumb. McPhee’s portraits of these tool makers and users deftly reveal character captured in speech, revealing the informed intelligence of the men and women who bring him the specialized knowledge of the cattle industry of Nevada or the geology of the much-traveled Plymouth Rock. His purpose throughout is, as Sir Philip Sydney put it in the sixteenth century, to teach us about our world while pleasing us with a style and method that seemingly miss nothing.
The title essay, “Irons in the Fire,” explores in vivid and persuasive detail the ongoing battle between cattle rustlers and brand inspectors in the Nevada cattle industry. Few New Yorker readers may give much thought to the processes natural and commercial that put sirloin and prime rib on one’s plate. Cattle rustlers are the bad guys of old grade-B motion pictures, Westerns, “oaters,” and branding irons likewise a tool of the distant past. In this day of computer-driven tractors and laser-guided weeders, the world of cowboys and rustlers, of roundups and branding irons, may seem an anomaly, an improbable holdover from the 1890’s. But in the rangelands of Nevada (and elsewhere in the range and agricultural lands of the United States) that produce much of the beef that winds up in the nearest supermarket, rustlers and branding irons are part of the scene, sometimes literally in the lights of Las Vegas.
Brand books, the recorded descriptions of the burn scars on the sides and flanks that, along with ear notches, record the ownership of millions of dollars’ worth of cows and calves, are part of a complicated tool kit including computers and lariats, saddle horses and gooseneck trailers, radios and rifles that brand inspectors such as Chris Collis and Shirley Robison before him use as they work to certify that the cattle a seller ships to various markets are indeed his to ship. In this beautiful, densely detailed essay, McPhee puts readers side by side with Collis, his family, the Nevada ranchers he works with, and the “legendary” modern-day rustlers he fights, men such as Leo Stewart and Wayne Lee. His focus throughout the essay and the others in this collection is on the contexts of life, the arenas of work, serious struggles often against nature but more often against humankind.
It is high drama. In the case of Lee and Stewart, McPhee relates how Collis reconstructed the crime, reading wheel tracks, drag marks in the brush, and other evidence to deduce the story of Lee and Stewart’s “roping and loading” ten of Gerald Sharp’s calves; Collis constructs a chain of evidence that will eventually stand up in court. It is a good story, full of crisp writing and convincing detail. “The narrative of the calf ropings by Lee and Stewart in Red Bluff Canyon would derive entirely from this investigation.”
The essay evokes a way of life in an area of Nevada about the size of New York State through such detail as one finds in this description of the efforts of “four cowboys on horseback and one in a pickup” to move fourteen hundred head of cattle into a series of corrals to separate cows from calves and then the heifers from the bull calves—a roundup, in other words.
Their sound, in its concentration, is orchestral, and large in volume despite the distance [a mile]. The punctuating soloists, whose contribution would be prominent nearby, are blended into a total vibration. If you could not see the animals, you would not know what you were hearing. They sound like baritone whales. They sound like jets passing...