Table of Contents
At first sight, the title of this collection of essays may seem to be the product of an editor’s fancy—a catchy phrase to adorn the dust jacket and nothing more. Yet Table of Contents becomes an entirely appropriate choice when the reader recognizes that, for John McPhee, the world is indeed a book to be read and subdivided into recognizable chapters, each one treating a particular place or occupation. What holds Table of Contents together is McPhee’s unique vision of the world, his particular values and dreams, and the sharply defined men and women who exemplify these values in the day-to-day activities of their personal and professional lives.
It would be an oversimplification to say that McPhee is a diehard environmentalist who is generally opposed to technology and big business, although he clearly admires wild animals (especially bears), wilderness areas (especially northern Maine), and rugged individualists (especially small entrepreneurs). What inspires McPhee to write chapter after chapter in Table of Contents is fresh evidence of recycling and restoration. McPhee celebrates a certain kind of American hero who is intent on repairing, restoring, healing, or recycling some precious American resource that would otherwise be lost—whether that resource happens to be black bears in rural New Jersey, abandoned waterwheels in Upstate New York, or, more important, abandoned patients in the backwaters of Maine. The New Man and New Woman whom McPhee praises unabashedly rely on inexhaustible supplies of energy and enthusiasm. Their goal, stated in the simplest terms, seems to be the restoration of the present in order to guarantee the existence of a future. Such people are not above compromising and making accommodations; they use tools and technology in innovative and unexpected ways to produce results that always aim at the betterment of human life.
Patricia McConnell, a diminutive, forty-year-old biologist who works for the New Jersey Fish and Game Department, lures huge bears into traps baited with crullers and jelly-filled doughnuts which she buys from Dunkin’ Donuts and further enhances with drops of anise. This creative approach to bear trapping yields consistent results, and McConnell immobilizes her prey with the help of the tranquilizing drug Ketaset. Her job is to arrive at an accurate census of the bear population in New Jersey, a state not generally associated with a resident population of bears. McPhee reports, however, that bears have been sighted on interstates, in supermarket parking lots, even in backyards. McConnell hopes that her efforts will result in a permanent habitat for the bears, possibly in the Pine Barrens area. “Man has a responsibility to other life forms,” she states firmly.
McPhee is obviously awed by this small woman as she approaches these dangerous animals, armed with her tattoo box, jab stick, tape measure, weighing cuffs, and spring scales. Each bear is tagged and identified; some receive radio transmitters as well. McPhee appreciates every detail of her professionalism at the same time that he records the personal drama in the life of this brave biologist. For while Pat McConnell is driving her pickup truck over the mountain roads in search of bears, her eleven-year-old daughter is scheduled to appear in a gymnastics show. McConnell and McPhee arrive at the show just in time to see her daughter perform. McConnell, bear trapper and proud mother, arrives on the scene with mud up to the hips of her jeans. For McPhee, she is the exemplary New Woman, tireless, overworked, neglectful of her husband’s shirts and other household duties, but completely responsible in every way that counts.
In his treatment of Patricia McConnell—and of her peers in the remainder of Table of Contents—McPhee is always sensitive to this double drama of private versus public lives, and that kind of attention to his subjects gives McPhee impressive credibility and depth. The essay on McConnell (entitled “A Textbook Place for Bears”) is typical in other ways, too. McPhee admires dynamic and original personalities in all of his books. He likes pioneers, and he also likes bears, facts that are already apparent to readers of McPhee’s justly famous book on Alaska, Coming into the Country (1977).
“A Textbook Place for Bears” also serves as a good example of McPhee’s style throughout Table of Contents. It is not merely Patricia McConnell who falls under the sensitive gaze of his journalist’s eye but the bears themselves and their lovely, secluded habitats. McPhee is an unusually...
(The entire section is 1888 words.)