Weekend reading: John McPhee, plus an appreciation by Carl Zimmer

Among nonfiction scribblers, John McPhee comes as close as anybody to being universally, unequivocally admired. Read him over and over and you keep finding new things to appreciate. So your weekend read for today—and it might take you all weekend, since the piece runs 28,000 words—is McPhee’s “Atchafalaya” from 1987. Chew this morsel, which is the lead:

Three hundred miles up the Mississippi River from its mouth—many parishes above New Orleans and well north of Baton Rouge—a navigation lock in the Mississippi’s right bank allows ships to drop out of the river. In evident defiance of nature, they descend as much as thirty-three feet, then go off to the west or south. This, to say the least, bespeaks a rare relationship between a river and adjacent terrain—any river, anywhere, let alone the third-ranking river on earth. The adjacent terrain is Cajun country, in a geographical sense the apex of the French Acadian world, which forms a triangle in southern Louisiana, with its base the Gulf Coast from the mouth of the Mississippi almost to Texas, its two sides converging up here near the lock—and including neither New Orleans nor Baton Rouge. The people of the local parishes (Pointe Coupee Parish, Avoyelles Parish) would call this the apex of Cajun country in every possible sense—no one more emphatically than the lockmaster, on whose face one day I noticed a spreading astonishment as he watched me remove from my pocket a red bandanna.

“You are a coonass with that red handkerchief,” he said.

The story’s excellence is enough to commend it to your attention, but today we have the added benefit of a little appreciation from Carl Zimmer, posted by Nieman Storyboard. Here’s a bit of Zimmer has to say:

I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come. In “Atchafalaya” he smoothly slips away from his journey down the Mississippi to recall earlier experiences–flying over the river, running lines with a Cajun crawfisherman.

Have a good weekend. Don’t miss the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday.

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