By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

4. Silk Parachute, by John McPhee, pp. 118-163

Silk Parachute"Under the Cloth" and "My Life List"
The first of these essays, "Under the Cloth," is about McPhee's daughter Laura and her photographic collaborator Virginia Beahan and their work with a cumbersome but classic Deardorff camera. They have been working together since 1987.

It's a slow and painstaking process, with the additional restriction that both women are perfectionists. "If they ... open the shutter once, they consider the day successful." But they have won great acclaim: "Work they did in Iceland is owned by, among other places, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art." They met in a photography class at Princeton, and both now teach at various institutions.
These are people whose act takes a long time to get them together. The light is right for them twice a day, and they never choose dawn. An exception once probed the rule, and the exception's name was Sierra Nevada, which rises like a trapdoor and faces east, where the sun never sets. If the Sierra wall is to be seen in raking light, it has to be at dawn. Laura and Virginia saw rusted relics of a nineteen-forties Japanese American Relocation Center lying in desert sage below the loftiest mountain majesties in the contiguous United States. [above] They got up in the dark, grumbling, fuming, and set up the Deardorff on the fruited plain.  
 The Deardorff is expensive: "Laura's and Virginia's is forty years old. Its present value is about two thousand dollars. Its lenses cost a thousand dollars apiece. The film costs about ten dollars a sheet." No wonder they don't take a lot of pictures. Plus, as a landscape camera, which is what they use it for, it's not exactly convenient: "With the tripod and extra lenses, the whole apparatus weighs more than fifty pounds, and the ground over which they have backpacked it has included sharp lava." The film has to be loaded in complete darkness. But the biggest challenge is wind. McPhee helped them on a shoot in New Jersey (below).
I found myself thinking, correctly, that I would be far more comfortable if we were doing this in Alaska. New Jersey's wet cold can shrink marrow. The camera on its tripod was shaking like a tree. Much of the waiting was for a moment of relative calm. The moment finally came, and while Lara and Virginia held taut the dark cloth like a shielding banner, Laura counted "a thousand one, a thousand two," and on up as the film took in the light, and she inserted, between counts, gratuitous information for me: "Color film prefers to be overexposed." I prefer not to be and was absorbing nothing.

 Exposures are so long that moving objects, such as people, don't register on the film. On a shoot in Las Vegas, Virginia was trying to shoo people away from walking in front of the camera while they shot an artificial volcano at a casino. "She failed to see an infiltrating Asian tourist, who reached the camera and stared straight at it from a distance of ten inches.... Shutter open, the camera went on looking at the volcano. The exposure was such a long one that the man did not show up in the picture."
The one problem with this intriguing essay is that the book contains none of their photographs, which is why I've borrowed some.

"My Life List" is a behind-the-scenes piece about all the weird things that McPhee has eaten in his career, though he begins by acknowledging that his accomplishments are nothing compared to his fellow New Yorker writer, Ian Frazier (whom he knows as Sandy). "He it was who improved his understanding of wild trout by filling his belly with brown-drake mayflies, chewing thoughtfully while they fluttered on his tongue ('If you're into mayflies, it's hard to eat just one')." He has eaten grizzly bear, which he preferred to moose, and in the article he wrote noted, "if a bear should ever wish to reciprocate, it would only what I deserve."

The most charming part of this essay, however, is his account of working with William Shawn, the fastidious New Yorker editor, who kept turning down McPhee's requests to write about Alaska "because he didn't want to read about any place that cold." McPhee finally wore down Mr. Shawn, but included in his story the fact that "the forest Eskimos of that region valued as a great delicacy the fat behind a caribou's eye." On the trip, one member of the party brought along a supply of Pop-Tarts which, because they didn't have a toaster, they ate cold. Which led McPhee to ask in his manuscript: "To a palate without bias -- the palate of an open-minded Berber, the palate of a travelling Martian -- which would be the more acceptable, a pink-icinged Pop-Tart with raspberry filling (cold) or the fat gob from behind a caribou's eye." He turned in the story and waited for Mr. Shawn's reaction.
If he had an aversion to cold places, it was as nothing beside his squeamishness in the virtual or actual presence of uncommon food. I had little experience with him in restaurants, but when I did go to a restaurant with him his choice of entrée ran to cornflakes. He seemed to look over his serving flake by flake to see if any were moving. On the Shawn proof, beside the words quoted above, he had written in the wide, white margin -- in the tiny letters of his fine script -- "the pop tart."
Somehow, McPhee also persuaded Mr. Shawn to let him write about Carol Ruckdeschel, who studied -- and sometimes ate -- roadkill. Again, McPhee,, who had decided not to lead the story with his account of eating weasel, waited anxiously for his editor's reaction, which was: "Well, I liked your story ... No. I didn't like your story. I could hardly read it. But that woman is closer to the earth than I am. Her work is significant. I'm pleased to publish it." As for weasel: "The taste ... was strong and not unpleasant. It lingered in the mouth after dinner. The meat was fibrous and dark."

A couple of weeks ago, the Food Network show "Chopped Champions" had four chef contenders prepare an appetizer featuring mountain oysters. One of them didn't know until he unwrapped the package that the oyster he was anticipating was a bull testicle. McPhee has eaten them, too, and he mostly avoids the obvious jokes, except to remark that they were somewhat like "grilled macho chicken hearts. I did not get up from the table prepared to screw my weight in wildcats."

He has eaten puffin, about which he tries to forestall "hostile correspondence" over his audacity in eating what "are regarded as adorable birds," by pointing out that "Iceland has more puffins than Frank Perdue had chickens in his lifetime." So he ventures to say of the three smoked puffin breasts he ate, "Their taste was an almost exact cross between corned beef and kippered herring."

He once tricked his children, who "were on the approximate level of William Shawn as venturesome eaters," by serving them mooseburgers. "When they reached for more burgers, I told them they were eating an Alaskan moose. ... A few of them still talk to me."

He goes foraging with Euell Gibbons, the naturalist who is now mostly remembered for TV commercials for Grape-Nuts, but who was actually a respected authority on edible wild plants. The impression is that McPhee came away from the trip hungry. He orders rattlesnake -- having never seen one in the wild, despite efforts of herpetologists to lead him to their habitat -- in a restaurant in Denver to which he is accompanied by his grandchildren. "I still have the check: '6 sarsaparilla. 1 rattlesnake.'" And he ends by adding "bee spit" to his "life list," though it's actually bottled "synthetic hornet juice -- Vaam brand, available only in Japan."

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