Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365
McPhee’s work may not at first seem a proper subject of “literary” analysis. The Pine Barrens is nonfiction prose. In addition, it is not, at least at the level at which most people read it, rhetorical. There is no blatant effort to convince the reader to take a particular political position, no attempt at persuasion. McPhee is not literary, in the sense that he makes no effort to force the facts of his story to engage larger systems of thought or structure. On the other hand, the book is not mere journalism. The success or failure of The Pine Barrens does not depend on the objectivity of the narrator or on his reportorial skill. The reader does not judge this book as he would a work about current affairs, sociology, or history. There is no “theory” to be proved, applied, or demonstrated.
The closest approximation of what McPhee and his book are and do may be found in the world of travel writing. Here, the reader expects personal insight, demanding accuracy but tolerating interpretation of accurate description. The presence of a narrator is constantly felt, no matter how objective he may make himself. Historical background is accepted if it illuminates some aspect of the entire subject. Glimpses of people the writer offers are enjoyed, both as a community viewed from a distance and as individuals viewed in some detail. The reader practically demands the unusual, the fascinating, the exotic, and the new.
The Pine Barrens provides these components in abundance, but there is also the writer’s method to consider; thus, any analysis is not a matter of interpretation but is primarily an appreciation of McPhee’s skill as a writer and an organizer. The book begins with a literal overview. Almost cinematically, McPhee positions the Pine Barrens geographically and socially. The most impressive aspect of his discussion in the first chapter, “The Woods from Hog Wallow,” is the very presence of this wilderness in a state that has become an archetype of industrial development and residential density. McPhee is careful to expand the view to include the additional irony of finding this area in the center of the Eastern megalopolis that stretches from Richmond to Boston. It is a most unlikely place for the Pine Barrens, but the Pine Barrens is a most unlikely place.
After this sweeping overview, McPhee zeros in first on the town of Hog Wallow and then on an individual who will remain as a “guide” to what the Pine Barrens is and what it means. Fred Brown, offered by the writer as the prototypical denizen of the pines, is allowed to speak and act, without the narrator interrupting the action. Indeed, the narrator’s presence is noted only when he wishes it.
The first example of McPhee’s shifts from close observation back to expansive comment is worthy of close examination. Upon leaving Fred Brown’s house to get water from the pump outside, McPhee leaves Fred as a subject as well. When McPhee operates the pump, it is as if he were pulling knowledge from the ground. Just as surely as the water rises from the earth, he describes its quality, the natural reservoir from which it comes, and the condition of that source as compared to others in the country. The reader is moved far away from Fred’s house in the Pine Barrens and yet paradoxically remains there, because McPhee is still there. With the comment on the quality of the water, the focus returns to Fred. Both transitions have been so smoothly done that they are hardly noticeable.
Fred’s knowledge of the pines becomes McPhee’s, as the narrator describes the journeys the two men make around the area. The simplicity of Brown’s observations, and McPhee’s selection of them, makes the reader immediately familiar with the pines and the history they contain. The past that Fred carries with him is the final focus of the chapter, and the reader is left with the realization that the pines, despite their unique position and their isolation, may not be now what they once were and may not be in the future what they are now.
After this introductory chapter, McPhee offers a condensed history of the Pine Barrens. The people who have lived here share Fred’s desire to “get well in away from everybody.” Fred refers primarily to the location of houses and the distance that separates denizens of the barrens, but McPhee turns this phrase into a marker of the attitudes of the “pineys.” McPhee concentrates on the incongruity of the history of the barrens: Settled by expatriates, fugitives, smugglers, and exiles, the region was eventually industrialized by a mining effort that was crude and doomed from the start. The lost industrial attempt produced the “vanished towns” that make the area seem not only empty but also abandoned. Ironically, the inhabitants prefer the conditions that exist now in the barrens, even though those conditions suggest a life of deprivation. McPhee suggests that there is more courage in continuing to live in an abandoned area, one that has “defeated” attempts to civilize it, than there is in living in an area that is merely primitive.
What the pineys have instead of industry is the gifts and advantages that the barrens give them. McPhee summarizes these in “The Separate World.” Again, McPhee works the reader’s perception of the pineys against their own. The reader is treated to a world that is “separate” because it is based on the employment of the seasons, the cycles of the pines. People make the best of what nature offers them, gathering, harvesting, and collecting the gifts of the forest in a way that is almost idyllic. Just when the description of this life reaches its most attractive, McPhee discusses the most appalling and distressing aspects of life in the pines. Separation has its price: illiteracy, inbreeding, the stigma of misperception by outsiders. The synthesis of the internal and external views is, finally, identity. “Piney” becomes a word acceptable when used by another piney but is insulting when used by an outsider. This sense of identity is central to the discussions which follow. In detail, McPhee examines those aspects of the barrens which exist in any society: religion, myths, legends, crime, popular history, the fear of catastrophe, and, most important, the prospect of the future. An overused word, microcosm, fits this description. The barrens are a world unto themselves, the pineys a people apart, despite every effort to “civilize” them and give them a future.
That future is the topic on which McPhee resolutely refuses to comment. In most books that concern themselves with ecology, the environment, or natural history, politics play an important role. Aspects of land and water management, the maintenance of wilderness areas, the overuse of recreational facilities, and the ruin of soils and water by human waste are unavoidable topics. In most cases, the political methods a writer prefers are clearly stated and supported.
Yet McPhee avoids dogmatism. Not, presumably, because he has no opinion but perhaps because he has a larger point to make. He clearly outlines the possibilities for the future of the Pine Barrens. He even updates their status in the 1981 edition of the book. Nowhere, however, does McPhee use the forum he has created as a soapbox. He notes simply that the barrens have always survived the encroachment of civilization, casting out every attempt at industrialization, every plan for subdivision, every intention to construct the world’s largest jetport, and every design to make a utopia in the forest. Such a history might create the perception that the barrens will live forever, resolutely repelling the best efforts of man to tame and civilize them. True, the area as a whole resists organized invasion, but slowly, almost like a glacier, the perimeter of the area shrinks. This process, McPhee suggests, is perhaps even more insidious because it is completely without control. The complete transformation of the area would at least be direct and would be made because of a decision. The slow destruction of an area that the destroyers probably do not even realize exists is a sad event indeed.