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· Mother Nature — John McPhee Style ·

I just finished motorcycling 2200 miles through parts of Canada and the American Northwest. Though my wife rode part way, I rode solo when she spent a few days traveling separately with five childhood friends. Both together and alone, we saw landscapes rivaling the ones John McPhee brilliantly records in his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Annals of the Former World. McPhee's book, centered broadly on I-80 across the United States, I recalled Tuesday when, in Clearwater, British Columbia, I happily found myself reading over breakfast his 1997 New Yorker essay, "Silk Parachute." It memorializes his elderly mom. I thought "Yes. Mother Nature! That's McPhee's theme, one Tough Dame, for sure."

I don't mean to be disrespectful of McPhee's mom or Mother Nature. But if you're familiar with "Silk Parachute," as well as McPhee's The Control of Nature — and his many other pieces on things "natural" — I think you will understand my literary take. For I was detoured by a forest fire above Kamloops, BC, reading stylish sentences like these:

When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur. It is extremely difficult to single out one or two, impossible to remember any that exemplify the whole.

It has been alleged that when I was in college she heard that I had stayed up all night playing poker and wrote me a letter that used the word "shame" forty-two times. I do not recall this.

I do not recall being pulled out of my college room and into the church next door.

It has been alleged that on December 24, 1936, when I was five years old, she sent me to my room at or close to 7 P.M. for using four-letter words while trimming the Christmas tree. I do not recall that.

The assertion is absolutely false that when I came home from high school with an A-minus she demanded an explanation for the minus.

It has been alleged that she spoiled me with protectionism, because I was the youngest child and therefore the most vulnerable to attack from overhead — an assertion that I cannot confirm or confute, except to say that facts don't lie. John McPhee, 'Silk Parachute,' The Best American Essays, Robert Atwan, ed., New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, 118.

 · Peyto Lake, Alberta, Canada ·

Today my own memories are like those of my wife — but a road blur. But it's been alleged, as this photograph attests, that we've been traveling from the Icefields Parkway in Alberta to the Columbia Gorge in Oregon through worlds Nature is proud of. I'm not absolutely sure, of course, because we've not been everywhere, but our roads were surely good.

By the way, today would have been my Mom's 100th birthday and Mom and Dad's 61st anniversary. I thought you should know.


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