The Control of Nature

ISBN: 0374522596
ISBN 13: 9780374522599
By: John McPhee

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About this book

The Control of Nature is John McPhee's bestselling account of places where people are locked in combat with nature. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strageties and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her - stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters.

Reader's Thoughts

Alex E

In John McPhee’s, “The Control of Nature,” (1989) he writes about “places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature” and how the quest to posses control over nature is not an easy one (McPhee). “The Control of Nature” is a compilation of three comprehensive essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker. In each of them McPhee looks at an enormous problem, attempt at human control, and the ongoing fall-out from the very human choices society makes on a regular basis. The first essay of the three essays is called "Atchafalaya," which portrays the battle to control the flow of the Mississippi River. McPhee calmly dissects the history of human intrusion on the Mississippi river. For more than a century, humans have tried to direct the river. But each small success has had its cost, and each cost has argued for more control until the entire drainage south of Cairo, Ill., has become damaged. I enjoyed this essay because I could connect with the topic because I live near the Mississippi River and I found it particularly interesting learning about how it influences other states it passes through. McPhee conveys that control must be achieved over the river in order to keep most of the stream moving through New Orleans. The second essay is titled “Heimaney,” which is an island off the coast of Iceland. The island, pronounced, “hay may,” meaning “home island” is “the only place in the archipelago populated by human beings”. The island experiences a volcanic eruption that threatens the prize harbor for fishermen in the southern part of the country. Water was intensely pumped onto the lava in a way that allowed some level of influence over the flow to direct it away from the harbor. The third and final essay titled "Los Angeles Against the Mountains". McPhee undertakes the tricky topic of over development in Los Angeles, California one of the United States’ highest-populated cities. In the essay he focuses on the current debris flows that threaten much of the metropolitan area’s hills through the natural cycles of flood and fire. He talks the rare, serious rainstorms that have been growing in intensity recently, “some of the most concentrated rainfall in the history of the United States have occurred in the San Gabriel Mountains. The oddity of this is about as intense as the rain” (McPhee, 214). McPhee makes it clear that human engineered “solutions” or “quick fixes” are part to blame for creating the exact situations that make debris flows more dangerous to inhabitants.

Aaron Arnold

As far as I'm concerned Encounters With the Archdruid will always be my favorite work of his, because of the fascinating interaction between the characters in that book. McPhee really let their personalities take center stage there, and while The Control of Nature features excellent writing as usual, the focus is more on geological features than people. Since people are on the whole more interesting than rocks, this book suffered a little in comparison, though thanks to McPhee's tremendous talents he's still able to bring his locations to life. The Control of Nature is divided into 3 sections, and the overriding theme can be summed up as "people dealing with the consequences of building things where they shouldn't". Humans have tried to force rigid order on restless nature with dams, basins, and barriers since the beginning of recorded history, of course, but the stakes have only gotten higher over time, and our collective efforts to impose our will on the elements is plenty fascinating here even if the characters within the book are not.The first, longest, and best section recounts the history of the Army Corps of Engineers' struggles to tame the mighty Mississippi, with particular concern for the mounting danger posed by the Atchafalaya River and its increasingly attractive drainage basin. Over the centuries, people have built quite a civilization in one of the most frequently flooded swamps in the world, and it is the Corps' thankless task to protect that civilization, building ever-higher levees, locks, and dams in what frequently looks like a self-defeating enterprise. It seems almost impossible to balance the often-incompatible needs of the various interest groups of farmers, fishermen, and city dwellers as the Mississippi tries to flood and shift the way it's been doing since time immemorial. The inherent drama and hubris in the idea of containing a river like that from going where it wants is masterfully explored, and these lessons of the limits of simply piling up earthworks are more relevant than ever in the post-Katrina era.The second section is about Iceland's and Hawaii's struggles with volcanoes. While both island groups are essentially at the complete mercy of the lava gods, Iceland's more defiant attitude towards its eruptions makes for the bigger share of the section. The main action of the story is the struggle to save the harbor of Heimaey, a fishing village, from a lava flow via the high-tech method of pointing a bunch of water hoses at the lava to cool it down, plus building channeling barriers. It works. Iceland is right over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which guarantees it plenty of exposure to eruptions, and residents are constantly faced with the paradoxes inherent in residing on land that suffers from constant threat of immolation. I was surprised by how effective their "pour water on the lava" tactics were in the small scale, but sometimes there's only so much about millions of cubic meters of lava you can do. Hawaii has a much more fatalistic attitude, the reasons for which are not fully explored.The third section focused on Los Angeles' debris flows, which I hadn't realized was among the major hazards they had (at least compared to things like earthquakes), but it seems that the gradual elimination of natural fires in the chaparral scrub of the hills has generated an unhealthy cycle of brush accumulation --> incredible fires --> heavy rains --> mudslides. I found the people in this section the least sympathetic for some reason - somehow I can understand poor shrimpers living in Louisiana swamps despite the hurricanes and floods, or fishermen building on volcanic islands regardless of the occasional eruption, but a bunch of rich people building expensive houses in vulnerable arroyos and canyons leaves me feeling like they should know better, especially when the city governments have to build a bunch of catchment dams that the same people complain about constantly. Either live in the city or live in the woods, but that kind of halfway "naturish" development is a big drain on civic resources and is begging for the kind of disasters on display here. Is it hubris, or just dumb?

Eric Ruark

This is the book that inspired my cross-country bicycle trip back in the early 90s. I wanted to see some of the sights the McPhee wrote about especially the dam on the Mississippi that kept the Mississippi from changing course. When I got there, the folks at the dam were very friendly and accommodating. When I told them about the McPhee boo, they sat me down and showed me the same videos that they had shown him. I'm glad I got there.


My godfather Uncle Lou once had a vision of driving from Colorado to St. Louis, dropping his speedboat into the Mississippi River, and then riding down the Mighty Miss through the Mississippi Delta and into the Gulf of Mexico, at which point he would speedboat over to the Florida Keys, sell the boat, and then live on the island for the time being. As grand a vision as this, it was good that he didn't. Had he read this book, Uncle Lou would have known the danger lurking in the Mississippi Delta: namely, the Old River structure and the Atchafalaya River. John McPhee explains in great detail why it would be dangerous to try to coast down to the Gulf. He also shows how humans have attempted to control the Mississippi Delta, to battle nature in order to maintain New Orleans. (The book was written in the late 80s, but there are foreshadowings of what will eventually happen there in 2005.) The other two sections of the book are just as impressive and frightening: Icelanders battling volcanic explosions with water and foolish Los Angeles types attempting to live on mountains where debris flows occur on a regular basis. This is another great book by John McPhee about nature and how humans attempt to thwart it or conquer and appropriate it.


All of us try to assert some kind of control over nature. On Saturday I cut my grass and edged my lawn. I'm forever pulling or otherwise trying to kill various weeds, which I sometimes simply consider to be any plant growing where I don't want it. All my efforts at control never amount to more than holding actions.This seems to be the theme of McPhee's book. He chronicles three spectacular "holding actions" in this book. The first is the effort to keep the Mississippi River on its current course and within its banks with higher and higher levies. The river in fact "wants" to divert into the Atchafalaya, which would take it away from New Orleans. This is a costly holding action--control efforts have eroded delta wetlands that protect from storm surges during hurricanes (remember Katrina?) and created a levy system where most New Orleans residents look up to see riverboats passing their city.The second control effort occurred in a village in Iceland trying to save its harbor and fishing industry from volcanic lava flows through cooling and diverting it with large amounts of sprayed water, laughed at as basically "pissing on the flow". Yet, while portions of the town were lost, they succeeded in diverting enough of the flow to save their harbor--this time.The last is the ongoing efforts to control flammable chapparel and debris flows when this burns off in the San Gabriel mountains above Los Angeles, even as people build homes on the hillsides and in the canyons. Despite the presence of catch basins and waterways, debris flows carry away homes and everything else in their path when fires are followed by rains.One asks, why would you live beside a river that floods, a volcano that erupts, a mountain that slides? It seems that so often it comes down to a combination of believing we can control nature, that disaster can't happen to us, or simply an unwillingness to learn from the past. This last was illustrated amusingly in one passage where an LA homeowner says, "Part of my house was destroyed in 1969 but I am confident it won't happen again" (pp. 246-7). McPhee then notes that the man was a professor of history at Caltech!In sum, McPhee summarizes both the greatness of human ingenuity and human hubris. Perhaps I shouldn't assume a tornado will never hit and think more about where we would shelter in our wood frame house that would be little more than toothpicks in the path of such a storm. Just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't seems one message of this book.

Joseph Gendron

I read this 1989 copyrighted book quite some time ago but had to pick it up again to re-read the section entitled "Atchafalaya" given the current events along the Mississipi River. It was delicious as ever and full of facts about the long history of man against nature along the lower Mississippi. One of these days, it will be nature's turn again but in the meantime, it is an admirable story of the efforts of the Corps of Engineers to control the relentless force of the Mississippi. I will/have read, just about everything by John McPhee and next on my re-read list is the "Annals of the Former World".


Entertaining read. I would recommend to nature buffs, engineers, and fans of history and John McPhee in general.McPhee examines 3 long wars against the inexorable advancement of nature (in reverse order):3. Los Angeles' struggle to contain the rapid erosion of the San Gabriel mountains. The focus is debris flows; the conditions that produce them; and the approaches to mitigation, ranging from debris basins and dams, to the Sisyphean stupidity of trucking the alluvium back onto the mountain. Themes include the short memory and perhaps willful blindness necessary to populate an area plagued by wildfires, debris flows and earthquake. A memorable illustration of the deranged strabismus of the foothill vicinities were the protests against the unsightly protective basins, the "chicken little" derision of the township's exhortations to undertake private protective measures, and then the abrupt about-face after the inevitable debris flow with a (successful!) lawsuit of negligence brought against the same town that tried to warn them.2. The massive Icelandic water-pumping and lava-cooling operation, to avert the destruction of the port of Vestmannaeyjar following the volcanic eruption at Haiemaey. A memorable image is that of the bundled, spraying infantry; boots burning on tenuous, shifting sheets of just-cooled lava; hazed in blinding fog; flanked by tanks, hoses and trucks; advancing, retreating, and dodging the occasional incoming "bomb," rocky watermelons belched high into the air, whistling down on their positions like one of Wile E. Coyote's failed roadrunner traps.1. The Old River flood control structure, built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to prevent the capture of the Mississippi river by its distributary, the Atchafalaya - and inevitable economic doom that the avulsion of the Mississippi would deal on downstream river-dependent industry, esp. New Orleans. Some side-trips include crawfishing with Cajuns, and the building of Louisiana on a swamp.


Another classic by McPhee. This is a collection of three different stories involving man confronting and trying to reshape large scale natural processes. The first is about the Mississippi River delta. Everybody is familiar with the levee system around New Orleans, but the system is much larger than I realized. It actually helps keep the river in its current course, as the river naturally wants to drain into the Atchafalaya river at this point, thereby bypassing Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The second part is about a volcanic eruption in Iceland and how the government tries to change the lava flow to keep an important port open. The final essay is about the San Gabriel Mtns in Los Angeles and the debris and mudslides that come off the mountains into populated areas. McPhee has found three fascinating subjects and writes about them in typical great style.


I'm a sucker for writing about settlements and environments meeting and clashing, so I was probably an ideal audience for this. All three chapters - about the Mississippi, about a volcano in Iceland, and about my own home turf in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains - suggest something about the immense scale of these features that makes our attempts to engineer safe havens seem nearly sublime. It's clear that most of our battles cannot be won, and yet to settle almost anywhere involves these kinds of challenges and compromises. It's also clear that collective memory is self-serving: it doesn't matter how many times someone points out that a canyon house is in the direct historical path of fire (Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear) or that the river stones it's built of came right off the mountain in a rockslide; people will just keep on building there and hoping for the best.

Bob Cipriani

John McPhee is an inspired observer, outdoorsman and a writer with ultimate mastery of the English language. This is an extract from the jacket. "The Control of Nature is John McPhee's bestselling account of places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature. In Louisiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has declared war on the lower Mississippi River, which threatens to follow a new route to the sea and cut off New Orleans and Baton Rouge from the rest of the United States. Icelanders confront flowing red lava in an attempt to save a crucial harbor. In Los Angeles, basins are built to catch devastating debris flows from the San Gabriel Mountains.Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters."John's books frequently appear serialized in the New Yorker. Over the years I've read all of his 29 books. Many of his books like 'Basin to Range' are slow, many would consider them dull" because they're primarily about geology. But individually and collectively they're my favorite books and I reread them on a regular basis.They're intensely interesting: 'Coming into the Country' is a collection of stories about the people of Alaska (way pre Sarah Palin), Informative to a fault: 'Oranges'and wonderfully absorbing, his newest, 'Uncommon Carriers'. 'Uncommon Carriers': Again an overview: "Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of theFrench Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the “tight-assed” Illinois River on a “towboat” pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being “a good deal longer than the Titanic.” And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839.Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author’s warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character." I enjoyed this book so much that I tried to read just a few pages a day to make it last, reading other books the rest of the timeHis little book, 'the making of a bark canoe' is classic McPhee. Full of painstaking detail about one young man's obsession with making authentic bark canoes, with simple tools, and canoeing trips with him to test them.John McPhee is an avid outdoorsman. It permeates his books.His books grown on one, become old friends and companions in life. A calm accurate, enthralling and literate observer of the worlds he discovers for the rest of us. Perhaps the best counter to too much fast and electronic information that I know of in out interactive, online, plugged in world, which I love also.

Erica Mukherjee

"Some work of noble note, may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods," said Ulysses to his aging crew. The works of men that strove with Gods is the subject of John McPhee's The Control of Nature. In three case studies - the Atchafalaya region of the Mississippi River, the lava flows of Iceland, and the mudslides of the San Gabriel Mountains - he demonstrates what happens when humankind tries to control nature.John McPhee is a prize-winning author who has written over thirty books about science and nature. He tells a good story, but his prose sometimes gets in the way of the action. And the tales he is telling are the stuff of big-screen action thrillers. In the first section, Atchafalaya, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying to keep the Mississippi River within its banks. Historically, the river has jumped from channel to channel once every thousand years or so in an attempt to find the most convenient route to the sea. If it were to jump again, both Baton Rouge and New Orleans would become just a watery memory. So the Corps built a system of concrete dykes and diversions that are all that is standing between flood control and inundation. McPhee intimates that this fragile system may last a day, a year, or a hundred years, but, in the end, the mighty Mississippi will be controlled by no man. The same holds true for the lava and the mudslides. In both cases, the forces of nature are stronger than any man-made edifice. On top of that, they are more unpredictable than any man-made plan. What keeps the people alive who live at the edge of the wilderness is nothing more than blind luck. Despite the fatalistic message of this non-fiction book, the story is still riveting. It takes the reader to places she may have never been and introduces her to a wide cast of characters, some of whom have dedicated their lives to controlling nature and others who have decided to let nature take her course, come what may. The book can be considered a companion piece to more theoretical works, such as James Scott's Seeing Like a State or Robert Josephson's Industrialized Nature. Though the theory is not explicitly written into The Control of Nature, the unpredictable outcome of planned environmental engineering projects is evident throughout the text. The three sections stand alone as individual stories, making for shorter, more digestible bites. Overall, a recommended read for someone looking for a story about the ongoing battle between men and Gods.


I’ve read this before. I wanted to re-read his essay about Los Angeles’ mudslide control after driving around in the foothills above my mom’s house with my husband. We passed many concrete basins meant to contain debris slides, and I'd tell him those were for WHEN – NOT IF – the winter rains bring mudslides. My mom’s in no danger, way down in the valley, but yikes, I wouldn’t want to live in one of those canyons. Also essays about Mississippi flood control and volcanoes in Iceland. Anyway, it’s great.

Christine Henry

His description of the larger ecosystem is very prescient. It was particularly chilling to read his description of the levee system in New Orleans before the Katrina Hurricane and see how precarious our engineering systems are. It has only strenghtened my belief that we put way too much faith in technological solutions to forces that humans cannot control. It is a humbling book, and good reminder that all actions have much larger reverberations than we often acknowledge.


This book is a collection of three pieces essaying to answer why people choose to stay and fight against nature when a rational person would pick up their bags and move. I found the first chapter, covering the Army Corps of Engineers taming the lower Mississippi river, very dull. The last chapter, on Los Angeles vs. rockfalls out of the San Gabriel mountains, was more interesting. The middle portion, on the people of Vestmannaey Jar against a volcano, was absolutely amazing. Maybe it was because this portion of the book was about a specific event, or maybe it's the fact that a few hundred villagers and engineers successfully fought off a volcano. I'd say the book is worth a read just for the account of the eruption on Vestmannaey Jar.[return]My edition (paperback) didn't have any maps in it. All three portions of the book would have been easier to understand with maps. In the internet age maps are a click away, but it would have been nice to see the progression of the Atchafalaya or the lava flows.


I must say, I expected this book to be a bore. Was I wrong! It was really very fascinating as it told the stories of three battles with nature. First of McPhee's books that I have read, certainly will look at more now.

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