Making Silk from Chalk: John McPhee's SILK PARACHUTE

Matthew Clark

To gauge a writer, one might consider his or her ability to transform something ostensibly banal, like chalk, ordinary blackboard chalk, ordinary calcium carbonate, ordinary grape-growing stuff, into something interesting. Unsurprisingly, to read John McPhee’s most recent collection of essays, Silk Parachute, is to marvel at the way he elicits a temperament the opposite of boredom. “Season on the Chalk” begins on the River Thames at Gravesend, with McPhee’s grandson, Tommaso, appearing “out of somewhere” with a broken river stone and writing one letter on the revetment: R. A revetment is a barricade. “Somewhere” is McPhee, and more generally, any author.

The nature of this other locale of interest, this “somewhere,” is explored in each of Silk Parachute’s essays—about long-exposure photography, golf, food, fact-checking, chalk—and it’s what keeps me (a diehard McPhee fan) more than superficially engaged. At the end of the title essay, the book’s binding metaphor describes young McPhee in the possession of a little silk parachute.

If you threw it high into the air, the string unwound and the parachute blossomed. If you sent it up with a tennis racquet, you could put it into the clouds. Not until the development of the multi-megabyte hard disk would the world ever know such a fabulous toy. Folded just so, the parachute never failed. Always, it floated back to you—silkily, beautifully—to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard—gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.

On the first day of McPhee’s post-grad year at Deerfield Academy, an English teacher finds McPhee gazing at the sky. “In the extended indolence of the grass,” McPhee writes in the essay “Warming the Jump Seat,” the teacher “recognized essence of writer.” In “Rip Van Golfer,” as reporters congregate in the flat screen TV–filled Media Center at the 2007 US Open, McPhee, lolling under a tree, recalls collecting extra points kicked through the rain at a Princeton football game. In the university press box, McPhee writes, he saw people “up there with typewriters, sitting dry under a roof in what I knew to be heated space. In that precise moment, I decided to become a writer.” It’s worth noting that McPhee spends most of his time out of the Media Center and on the course; that’s what makes him so compelling. He goes to where the story is—the oak-shade comprehends the whole back nine—and one imagines him there in his “extended indolence,” figuring out exactly what the story is and where the interest lies. Holding to the gunwales of a flipped canoe, in the essay, “Swimming With Canoes,” McPhee writes that he was “invisible to the upside, outside world,” a place familiar to those who earn their keep building “rib and planking exoskeletons” out of words.

And man, can McPhee write a sentence. Purple his prose is not. Tasting wines on the British chalk, McPhee hints at language’s intoxicating pleasure. “For my part, I am not ejecting a whole lot of what I am sipping, and I am getting a little drunk.” One imagines him squishing and gargling each phrase. Walking the South Downs Way, McPhee reflects:

To the Anglo-Saxons a weald was a woodland and a mountain was a dun. Words that were good enough for Caedmon and Bede are not for recycling now. So the Downs are up and the Weald is down.

On the chalk, McPhee’s traveling companion is a buddy from his Deerfield days. “His full actual name is Harold Granville Terence Payne Doyne-Ditmas.” He’s Hal to McPhee and, instead of raining cats and dogs, Hal says, “raining stair rods.”

“What a peculiar expression, methinks,” McPhee thinks. 

While indicting wit, declarative confidence, and punctuating rhythm help drive “Season on the Chalk,” style alone can’t propel Silk Parachute’s longest essay. A kind of lacrosse tutorial, “Spin Right and Shoot Left” begins with atypical melodrama, “You’re on defense, zone defense… The coach is yelling… There is no open man… Are you playing basketball?” This will not be the last rhetorical question of the essay; they blip like cheap slides in a PowerPoint presentation. “Really?” McPhee asks. “Really,” he answers. The history of lacrosse and the intricacies of pocket webbing are the kinds of thing we’ve come to expect and enjoy in a McPhee piece, but “Spin Right and Shoot Left” lacks a central character or compelling narrative. Thirty pages into the essay, beside a list of more than fifty-five schools represented at a lacrosse camp, I write, “Why is this interesting” and find myself unable to answer. In high school, McPhee’s lacrosse coach gave him some advice about learning the game, all-around good advice: “All you need to be is inn-terr-esst-edd.” 

But how interest is created is oftentimes a mystery.

What inn-terr-essts me is McPhee at his writerly best: a scene from “Season on the Chalk.” Leaving the Grotten Saint Pietersberg, a chalk mine thirty-five meters below the earth’s surface, observe McPhee, the aging author of twenty-eight books, with his family. Extinction chases immortality. Questions go unanswered. And the humor’s light as McPhee considers the practice of writing, both absurd and necessary.

Livia: “Why was granddaddy writing all those notes?"  
Martha: “Ask him?”  
Livia: “Granddaddy, why were you writing all those notes?”  Scandinavian, blond, beautiful beyond reason, as swift of mind as she is beautiful, etcetera, etcetera. Livia is nonetheless not yet in the first grade. She will not know Maastrichtian time. In explanatory dialogue with her, who could use a term like Cretaceous Extinction, let alone trace the Upper Chalk to the end of Cretaceous time?
Granddaddy: “Well, Livia, let’s see. You’ve heard of dinosaurs, right?"
Livia (evenly): “Yes.”
Granddaddy: “They got bigger and bigger, and there came a time when they all disappeared from the earth. Right?”
Livia: “Yes.”
Granddaddy: “Have you ever wondered what killed them?”

Matthew Clark works as a carpenter in Laramie, WY.  He is writing a collection of portraits that consider what it means to know someone.

Silk Parachute
John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
$25 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-374-26373-7
240 pages