Coming into the Country

by John McPhee

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920

Going into the unknown and exploring the wild is a theme that has existed since the beginning of recorded story. In the United States, it is a particular theme in much of classic literature. The idea of self-reliance and living deliberately, continuously exploring the frontier, has been an American ideal since before James Fenimore Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans. Henry David Thoreau continued this idea later in the nineteenth century, and it has continued since.

John McPhee's book Coming into the Country is an incredible part of that history of self-reliance and survival on the frontier, while also talking about urban development. For most of the country, frontiers no longer exist—they have been conquered. McPhee makes the argument through his book that Alaska may be the last frontier and the last unconquerable place left in the United States. In his book, he talks with vastly different inhabitants of Alaska to get their take on what it means to live there.

There is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go. People are mentioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska.

On one of McPhee's last trips to Alaska, he talks to a young prospector in the Yukon, and the above quote is what the prospector says to him. It is important in a historical context because Americans have always been searching for a new frontier. By the twentieth century, those frontiers were all conquered, Manifest Destiny was complete, and from Maine to California, there was nothing left unconquered. However, Alaska remained unconquerable. The terrain and the wildlife will always make it a place apart from human society.

Merrill Field, a light-plane airfield in Anchorage, handles fifty-four thousand more flights per year than Newark International.

This is an important quote for a few reasons. First, it tells us a lot about Alaska. The terrain is so difficult to overcome and pass through that flights in small bush planes are more prevalent than taxis or driving. Even in places where roads are built, the roads are quickly are overcome with snow and ice, making them impossible to cross. They are another symbol of how unconquerable Alaska is. To another extent, this is an interesting quote about how separate a place Alaska is from the rest of America. Newark International is an airport in New Jersey that we often think of as being incredibly busy. It brings great numbers of people of our society together as they travel for pleasure and for business. Yet, there is a small airport in Alaska far busier due to the fact that it is not a part of everyday society—it is something vastly separate and wild.

The river cycle is only one of many hundreds of cycles—biological, meteorological—that coincide and blend here in the absence of intruding artifice. Past to present, present reflecting past, the cycles compose this segment of the earth. It is not static, so it cannot be styled “pristine,” except in the special sense that while human beings have hunted, fished, and gathered wild food in this valley in small groups for centuries, they have not yet begun to change it. Such a description will fit many rivers in Alaska.

This quote is incredibly representative of the larger themes at work in the book. Metaphorically, rivers are thought of as things that adapt and are continuously changing; they are often used as symbols in works of literature, especially for human life. What is important about this quote is the idea that humans have been unable to truly...

(This entire section contains 920 words.)

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touch Alaska's frontier. It is still unconquerable, and its ecosystems are a reflection of how little we have done, and can do, to conquer it.

What mattered was not so much the bear himself as what the bear implied. He was the predominant thing in that country, and for him to be in it at all meant that there had to be more country like it in every direction and more of the same kind of country all around that. He implied a world. He was an affirmation to the rest of the earth that his kind of place was extant. There had been a time when his race was everywhere in North America, but it had been hunted down and pushed away in favor of something else. For example, the grizzly bear is the state animal of California, whose country was once his kind of place; and in California now the grizzly is extinct.

This last quote illustrates the themes of the entire book. The bear is a symbol to describe the state of Alaska. McPhee writes, "his kind of place was extant." Extant literally means "surviving." Alaska is a place that endures and survives. That is not to say that Alaska is static while the rest of the world moves, because it certainly isn't a static place, but it survives in a sort of majestic, unmoving way that the rest of America cannot. The last sentence of the quote is also important symbolically, as it talks about the grizzly having one been the state animal of California. It is still on California's flag. However, that bear could no longer survive there and is extinct in the region. Yet, it is able to survive in Alaska, a place where no one could hunt it to the point of extinction. The grizzly survives in a place that cannot be dominated by humanity, and Alaska is that place.