November 21, 1977 12:00 PM

by John McPhee

In this, the most ambitious and by far the longest of any of his 13 books (Oranges, The Curve of Binding Energy), John McPhee explores the 375 million acres of wilderness called Alaska. “The question is,” says one Alaskan, “what is to be the fate of all this land?” Writing with typical grace and fine attention to detail, McPhee looks for answers canoeing down a wild river above the Arctic Circle, accompanying a committee in search of a site for a new Alaskan capital, and living with extraordinary people “in the country” (as the frontier of the Upper Yukon is called). While McPhee’s brief for the preservation of Alaska’s awesome natural beauty is clear—the book teems with vivid encounters with grizzlies, caribou, salmon and wolves—his most passionate case is for human ecology: the protection of the bush pilots, fur trappers and gold miners who find sanctuary in the state. “There is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go,” McPhee argues. “People are mentioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska.” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10.95)

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