"Traced from a map, the Coal Line has the raceme structure of a bluebell or a lily of the valley, as dainty an image as nature can provide for a stem whose flowers are coal mines." —John McPhee
John McPhee is necessarily read with a dictionary at hand. Encountering a sentence like the one above, the mind eddies—why the overlay of botanical beauty on this most man-made thing, the industrial train track with its multiple spurs for gathering its dark cargo? And what is this "raceme"?
Raceme is a noun, from the Latin racemus, bunch of grapes: "a simple inflorescence... in which the flowers are borne on short stalks of about equal length at equal distances along an elongated axis and open in succession toward the apex." Simple, indeed. Webster's injunction to "see INFLORESCENCE illustration" is irresistible. Here one is rewarded with diagrams of nine kinds of inflorescence, one a menorah, one a silver lamé Christmas tree, one wheaty, several that would not be out of place growing from the head of an especially cute cartoon alien. The names of these forms—among them corymb, umbel, panicle, cyme—each dangle their own lovely digression. Dulcet spray of flower compared to coal train's dilatory, dirty path: John McPhee, ladies and gentlemen. All aboard.
John McPhee reads from Uncommon Carriers at Central Library (1000 Fourth Ave, www.spl.org for info) on Mon June 26, 7 pm, free.