Detail and Imagery in "The Crofter and the Laird"

Kevin Zimmer '02, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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John McPhee revels in using microscopic, seemingly inconsequential details in his romanticized portrayal of Scottish peasants on the island of Colonsay. Consider the following passage where McPhee describes the hard-working attitude of Donald Gibbie:

He made the best break, the best seam, and the straightest furrow. Now he patterns his field in long, perfectly matching lines. Behind him, settling in white rows on the freshly turned, dark-brown earth, seagulls gather at a banquet of grubs and worms-- a sight that is not extraordinary even in the heart of the mainland, for the sea penetrates Scotland so deeply on all sides that farmers and crofters in far-inland glens can scarcely break the soil before the furrows behind turn white with gulls

In this contrast of the flawless symmetry of Donald Gibbie's plowing with the frenzy of seagulls, McPhee intimately connects this man's labor with his natural surroundings. Why choose such a high level of detail in describing this event? Is he calling attention to the beauty of everyday work in a rural paradise? Or is there an underlying motive for sharing this trivial episode? How does McPhee's sparse, visually-oriented imagery compare with D.H. Lawrence's florid word-painting?

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April 2002