Irons in the Fire

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

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. However, as one reads through them their unity emerges, signaled by the title. The essays in John McPhee’s IRONS IN THE FIRE all concern mankind as toolmaker and user, his tools diverse and their uses not always benign. As a species we 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 man must understand to manage a half-section of eastern virgin forest; the tools necessary to understand and recycle a fundamental tool of modern man—the tire; the tools of a master mason as he repairs and preserves Plymouth Rock, itself a “tool” by which we have constructed much of our national “history.”

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Surely the most interesting tool McPhee reveals 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. Focusing 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, McPhee brings to life tools that are in most respects inert, their creation and animation depending on the large-brained hominid with the opposable thumb. His portraits of these toolmakers and users deftly reveal character, captured in speech, revealing the informed intelligence of the men and women who bring to McPhee the specialized knowledge of the cattle industry of Nevada or the geology of the much-traveled Plymouth Rock. A brilliant book, a richly satisfying read, IRONS IN THE FIRE reveals an extraordinary and attractive mind at work.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, January 1, 1997, p. 777.

Civilization. IV, April, 1997, p. 83.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, February 1, 1997, p. 203.

Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1997, p. 136.

Los Angeles Times. April 4, 1997, p. E3.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, April 13, 1997, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 27, 1997, p. 84.

U.S. News and World Report. CXXII, April 7, 1997, p. 14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, April 13, 1997, p. 13.

Irons in the Fire

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2060

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 overhead without Doppler effect. They seem to be creating the serious music of the twenty-first century.

It is into the twenty-first century that the next essay, “Release,” takes readers with the dramatic story of Robert Russell, professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College, prolific writer, accomplished teacher and administrator, whose entry into the demanding profession of reading and writing was powerfully enabled by technology—in the form first of typewriters, then of computers. While the essay is certainly a tribute to certain personal qualities possessed by Marshall, blinded at age five in an accident, it is also a tribute to the tools of technology, especially his “talking computer,” always ready to work when he is. Marshall notes that unlike human helpers, “it doesn’t mind changing and rechanging [his text]. I can do this [revising] myself. It’s a release, a marvelous release.” Thus after thirty-five years, his wife “will often see a piece of his for the first time when it arrives in the mail in print.”

“In Virgin Forest” may seem at first glance to be an anomaly in this examination of Homo faber, of man the tool maker. After it all, the essay describes a very rare tract of Eastern primeval woods, sixty-five acres of huge white oaks, American beeches, shagbark hickories, and hundreds of other species of flora and the fauna that inhabit the forest or migrate through it. Yet how is such a tract to be preserved within eyesight of the World Trade Center? What lessons can be learned from it? It turns out that Hutcheson Memorial Forest, now fortunately in the care of Rutgers University, is a tool itself of research and teaching. Saved by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the forest is watched over by a biologist named Edmund Stiles, whose job it is to observe natural processes but not to intervene except to keep human intrusion to a minimum. Thus McPhee enlarges his metaphor of tool making and use to understanding of the ongoing processes of nature in its primordial state, an industry of study in its primordial state, an industrial of publishing resulting in hundreds of articles, papers, theses, and other research publications.

At the center of this collection lies the exquisite “The Gravel Page,” a detailed exploration of forensic geology, a set of “detective” stories as gripping as any by Tony Hillerman or P. D. James, each revealing in clear and unflinching prose the technicalities of geological analysis from pick-and- shovel work to crystallography. The venues of this work include the kidnapping and murder of Adolph Coors in Colorado, the Japanese launching of thousands of high-altitude balloons laden with incendiary devices and bombs during World War II, the work of Sueyoshi Kusaba, and the murders of two Drug Enforcement Agency agents, including Enrique Carmarena in Mexico. As McPhee writes, “Detective work is what geologists do.” The work McPhee does is to describe a bevy of geologists including Karen Kleinspehn, Cecily Garnsey, Ronald Rawalt, and James Swinehart, whose expertise “is in the Cenozoic paleogeography of western Nebraska,” enabling him to identify the origin of pebbles nine times out of ten by gross analysis and other times by making very thin sections the thinness of three-hundredths of a millimeter or using “X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy or neutron activation to measure the elemental composition of the whole rock.” McPhee reveals the tools of forensic geologists with loving care and respect. Ronald Rawalt is a special agent for the FBI and a geologist who solves the murder of a policeman by analyzing the soil in the wheel well of his car once it is found.

Social responsibility, always appreciated in the abstract, may be hard to come by when facing the particular. In the case of “Duty of Care,” social responsibility involves what to do with all the tires that have accumulated from the millions of automobiles in the United States and the rest of the world, tires used by everyone from burn-and-pillage corporate executives to the ordinary working man and woman to ardent tree huggers and certified whale lovers. Tires are everyone’s responsibility. Of all the recalcitrant debris of modern civilization, tires and radioactive wastes may be the most intractable. McPhee explores a variety of solutions to the problem of tires, chronicling causes for both despair and elation and the efforts of various tire jockeys. A tire jockey is an individual who takes care of scrap tires, collecting them for a fee and stacking them in huge heaps that become productive hatcheries of disease-bearing mosquitoes or catch fire and burn for months (one such pile near Modesto, California, contains an estimated thirty-four million tires), dumping them in pits, or feeding them through tire-shredding machines. Only the last solution avoids most problems of land, water, and air pollution. Landfills refuse tires because space is already a problem and tires “float” to the surface.

The most promising alternative is to view scrap tires as a resource of oil, metal, and various sorts of useful materials with an amazing number of useful (and profitable) functions. Each tire, for example, contains 2.5 gallons or more of recoverable petroleum. Multiply that number by the number of tires discarded in the United States, and one has “a hundred and seventy-eight million barrels of oil.”

McPhee humanizes a variety of solutions to the problem, such people as Joe Farricielli and Jim Rizzo, owner and manager of the Tire Pond in Connecticut, thirty acres of a former clay pit, now home to fifteen million discarded tires dumped in the water of the pit and covered with fiber and fill; Anne Evans, born into the tire business and now devoted to finding profitable ways of using tires after being discarded, and Norman Emanuel, inventor of the early tire-shredding machine and now selling from Baltimore a variety of products reclaimed from shredded tires. McPhee makes clear that the world needs many more Norman Emanuels. In England, he points out, a law called “Duty of Care” provides for waste management. No similar law exists in the United States.

Finally, “Travels of the Rock” explores two other bits of geological detective work both connected with Plymouth Rock, the symbol of Pilgrim immigration to the New World in the early seventeenth century. Much diminished from its former self, the rock has been repaired often, most recently by a mason named Paul Choquette, of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. In addition to discussing in detail Choquette’s methods and materials, tools and techniques, McPhee provides a witty genealogy of the rock and the evidence for the rock itself’s having been a geological immigrant, part of “New England’s most distinctly and unequivocally exotic terrane,’ Atlantica,” probably from Africa. McPhee also details the construction of the rock into the tool of New England legendary history, a fascinating and fitting coda to this volume of brilliant essays on tools, tool makers, and tool users on the North American continent.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, January 1, 1997, p. 777.

Civilization. IV, April, 1997, p. 83.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, February 1, 1997, p. 203.

Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1997, p. 136.

Los Angeles Times. April 4, 1997, p. E3.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, April 13, 1997, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 27, 1997, p. 84.

U.S. News and World Report. CXXII, April 7, 1997, p. 14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, April 13, 1997, p. 13.

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