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Festive Serpents

My family and I share books. We trade, recommend, gush, argue, critique. There are a handful of books that my mom, dad, and I have read together. The list is longer, though, for books that just my dad and I have shared. There are a few authors we both revere and off the top of my head, that list includes Molly Gloss, Edward Abbey, and John McPhee.


It's McPhee who's on my mind today. I think we discovered him independently---Dad through finding him on a list of books about geology (one of his favorite subjects) and me through reading a listicle that featured his book Oranges. Dad read Basin and Range, I read Oranges. We traded. The rest is history and consists of us finding his other works in used bookstores up and down the east coast. Together we probably own about half his books now and that number is sure to grow.



When I was home for Thanksgiving, Dad lent me Rising from the Plains, the second piece in McPhee's Annals of the Formal World opus. I'm almost finished with it and let me state: I thoroughly enjoy McPhee but he's not an easy read. He's what I call a "sittin up" author. You gotta be sittin up and paying attention when you read his books.


Sometimes when I'm feeling disciplined, I'll write down words I don't know and copy turns of phrase that I find compelling or beautiful or funny while I read. Here's a sampling of what I've encountered so far in Rising from the Plains:

  1. autochthonous (adj): indigenous, native

  2. ananym (n): a pseudonym consisting of the real name written backwards, a type of anagram. (My name Anna wouldn't work here but McPhee's example holds water: there was a stagecoach station in Wyoming called Rongis, named by an employee whose name was Eli Signor.)

  3. rutilant (adj): having a reddish glow

The last item is a delightful description of ranch life in Wyoming at the turn of the 20th century:

"There was a pack of ferocious wolfhounds in the county, kept by another flockmaster for the purpose of killing coyotes. The dogs seemed to relish killing rattlesnakes as well, shaking the life out of them until the festive serpents hung from the hounds' jaws like fettuccine."

The term "festive serpents" to describe rattlesnakes was just too perfect, especially given the current time of year.


I have about 40 pages to go and my pen and notebook are at the ready to jot down other McPhee ephemera. I'll keep you posted.

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