I never thought I’d learn something from dumping paint.

Once upon a time when I was living in Arizona, I decided to do the right thing and dispose of my cans left over paint. The Gila County dump had a special collection day for disposing of paint, so I arrived with my box of various cans. I had no idea how paint was disposed, but its chemicals, so I imagined some kind of special container.

As it turns out, the three men standing around a large open vat gave me a lesson. They do not dispose paint, they just dump all those cans of Violet Indulgence, Daytona Salmon, California Haze etc together to produce… grey. All of the variety of colors mix dumped together produce what I called Highway Gray. And they told me they use this lovely color to paint over grafitti on highway bridges etc. All the colors mix to neutral.

Despite all of the bemoaning death of the web and cries of enshittification (which I echo), still on an almost daily basis, I experience the weirdest kind of accidental connections, what I have always called web serendipity, that are seemingly statistically improbable. Stuff you could not generate from a mechanism that mixes all of the internet together to a vat of grey goo.

Now about John McPhee.

Paperback book titled Basin and Range by John McPhee sits on a wood grained table, three fingers of a hand vover the bottom part of the book
My photo of my own book, eventually to be uploaded to flickr to bear a CC0 license.

Sometime in my graduate school years in the Geology program at Arizona State University, I came across McPhee’s first book of geology and geologists, Basin and Range. It’s both an insight into the formations and landforms of the western US, a province in the sense of a region, a name for that topography used in Geology. But McPhee’s style is narrative through people, as he spends time in the field with geologists studying the region.

More storytelling than textbook. It’s about the people who make this their work, passion.

A morsel I always remember is McPhee’s describing that any time you see a golf course, its an effort anywhere in the world to replicate the geomorphology of Scotland.

I’ve had that book on my shelves a long time, but it might have been since the mid 1980s that I read it.

Books, like geology, sometimes just sit quietly for long stretches of time.

Yet, in one week, random links from two different social media entities, brought me back to the book. Both of these readings are from individual blogs. Both of them resonate with beautiful, crafted writing that is more than statistically stringing together text by some probability distribution. Both reference John McPhee.

First up is Death is a Feature by Doc Searls, that someone (maybe Tim Bray?) posted in Mastodon. Searls is in the class of early web wizards, maybe one of the first group of early bloggers.

As a great writer, notice the opening sentence (an exercise left for the one or two blog readers). It does not indicate where it is going.

The theme is that life, well and everything, comes from death:

To explain why life needs death, answer this: what do plastic, wood, limestone, paint, travertine, marble, asphalt, oil, coal, stalactites, peat, stalagmites, cotton, wool, chert, cement, nearly all food, all gas, and most electric services have in common?

They are all products of death. They are remains of living things or made from them.

Consider this fact: about a quarter of all the world’s sedimentary rock is limestone, dolomite and other carbonate rocks: remains of beings that were once alive. The Dolomites of Italy, the Rock of Gibraltar, the summit of Mt. Everest, all products of death.


He goes on to use a quote from McPhee’s Annals of the Former World that iron, the basis of the modern age, came from dead things, the very first life forms of anaerobic bacteria that added oxygen to the atmosphere, allowing dissolved iron elements to become oxidized to produce the banded iron formations from which the civilization is still building from. “More than ninety percent of the iron ever mined in the world has come from Precambrian banded-iron formations.”

I had never read Annals of the Former World, so I was curious (as I always do when I can hover a link and see where it goes), and aimed to find what would likely be this book on McPhee’s own site, see http://www.johnmcphee.com/annals.htm


That link lands you on one of thos domain squatting sites, with links to tempt you ro various click bait web pages under a domain parking sludge pile.

If I read Searls right, from this link death, there should be something that arises from it. I go looking.

He does not seem to have his own site anymore, the most common find is a page on his publisher’s site. I bust out the Wayback machine to see whither the johnmcphee.com site went. Sure enough, I can find around 2013, his domain was set to redirect to his current site at macmillan.com. Another domain of one’s own bit the dust.

I can find McPhee’s own site back around 2011, and the archive looks like it can be traced back to 2000, a very old school style site.

My link chasing deflects from the brilliant read the Searls provides, he takes us on his own McPhee-ist tour of more geologic examples of how much of our world has come from what died, and a pessimistic view of how the “modern” world seems to be just burning itself out.

On the economic side, we spend down the planet’s principal, and fail to invest toward interest that pays off for the planet’s species. That the principal we spend has been in the planet’s vaults for millions or billions of years, and in some cases cannot be replaced, is of little concern to those spending it, which is roughly all of us.


I leave it to any readers left to find the strong closing. This man can write, in colors that are far from Highway Goo Gray.

So I had that one nice throwback to McPhee. I thought I was done.

But then, for some reason I fail to remember, I actually logged back into Twitter (the platform I will only call Twitter), I think because I got a notification of a DM from my good friend Antonio (ciao! I owe you a reply!). I hardly look there any more, I just log out and leave it.

As weird luck goes, I spotted in my timeline (I guess the algorithm can deliver, but I wont give it credit), I saw a tweet (that’s what they are) from Nate Angell referencing maybe what is one of the most brain stirring bits of writing I have looked at in a while. This is On Opening Essays, Conference Talks, and Jam Jars by someone named Maggie Appleton, with an alluring subtitle “How to open pieces of narrative non-fiction writing, conference talks, and sticky jars”.

Again, and fitting her concept, the opening grabs me in:

Most of the  narrative non-fiction opinion pieces I read online do not grip me in the first sentence. People often start pieces somewhere sensible, but boring. Like the chronological start of a story.

The beginning is almost never the most compelling or important part. It’s just the bit you thought of first, based on your subjective chronology.

Or far worse, people begin at The Beginning Of Time. Invoking paleolithic people is an overplayed way to convince us your topic is cosmically important.

Another bad way to start a piece of writing is with a statement of what you’re going to write about, followed by a definition.

“Bad” is obviously subjective and contextual here. I find up-front outlines and definitions dull for narrative non-fiction writing. But they’re standard practice for technical documentation and academic papers. Signposting what you’re going to write about is good, but starting with an exhaustive list of definitions is extremely boring.

To be clear, I make these mistakes too. I am a mediocre opener trying to become a good opener. Opening well isn’t just about snapping up someone’s attention and keeping them reading for a few lines. You can’t write good openings without having good ideas, good arguments, good structure, and good storytelling skills. Everything hangs off that starting point, so it’s worth learning how to nail it.


When I went to grab a quote, I swore I would not grab a swath, yet I did anyhow. Each of those “…” in my quote above is an example Appelton includes, and what makes her argument strong is the clear examples and non examples of “good openers”.

And she hits as well on openers for presentations, yup.

This all flickers back to the days when I did stuff on digital/web storytelling and made so much of the power of the opening.

If you are amongst the dwindling few who do not want to outsource their writing chops to ChadGPT I can’t urge you enough to stop reading my ramblings, and bookmark, absorb, and share madly this essay. It has something for everybody.

And then Appleton brings in John McPhee. Just a mention, a link to his Draft No. 4 On the Writing Process

The long-awaited guide to writing long-form nonfiction by the legendary author and teacher.

Draft No. 4 is a master class on the writer’s craft. John McPhee shares insights he has gathered over his long career, and has refined while teaching at Princeton University, where he has nurtured some of the most highly regarded writers of our time. He discusses structure, diction and tone, observing that ‘readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones’. This book is a vivid depiction of the writing process, from reporting to drafting to revising—and revising and revising.

I feel now I need to fill out my John McPhee shelf, because Basin and Range has some good company out there.

This all would not have been rekindled if not for two acts of link curiosity, and as usual, following the links upstream.

McPhee’s writing, Searls’ writing, Appleton’s writing… all rise above the cruft of investing in Highway Grey for a world of much richer colors. Oh if you want a sample of McPhee’s craft, some university student somewhere probably has a PDF tucked away in their web directory.

Thanks, weird internet happenstance.

Featured Image: I could not find a photo I took when I turned in my paint, so I found my own photo from a time I did use gray paint on my old deck.

Paint Tools
Paint Tools flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as @cogdog@cosocial.ca

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