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


As the 70's Chiffon commercial goes, "It's not good to fool Mother Nature"! John McPhee, award winning author of over 30 nonfiction works and contributing author to The New Yorker since 1963, would likely agree. His 1989 book, The Control of Nature is a series of three essays, each examining one example of humankind’s ambitious endeavors to control Mother Nature. McPhee opens with his essay entitled Atchafalaya, in which he examines the efforts to control the flow of the Mississippi. He goes on and depicts a heated battle between some Icelanders and devastating flows of lava in his second essay appropriately titled Cooling the Lava. He concludes with his essay called Los Angeles Against the Mountains, which, as some may have cleverly deduced from the title, is about the ongoing efforts to preserve Los Angeles from the shifting the Santa Gabriel mountains. There is no question that McPhee is a master story teller and is capable of conveying complex material in a way that an average person can understand. However, some readers may find McPhee’s organizational strategy confusing. Each of the three broad essays is cut into segments. He uses these divisions as transitions between different stories, therefore the content of one section may seem completely unrelated to the one that followed. Oftentimes he will jump around to different places and different periods of time. He did so to analyze a situation from multiple perspectives allowing the reader to see the events that caused the dilemma to develop, how it affected different regions, and what new problems have developed once the original one was resolved. While they do make it hard to follow at times and does slightly impact its readability, his many different anecdotes did serve the important purpose of adding depth to his point. Overall the benefits of his choice largely outweigh the costs.Although the topic of the first essay is indeed the threat of the Mississippi changing course, the purpose of the essays as a whole is not to merely recount the tale but to use it as a tool to teach the world a lesson. Rather than tell people that there are dangers to living on this planet, something most people already know, he chooses to warn the world of the unforeseen consequences of our actions.As seen throughout his book, just as people thought the primary concern had been addressed, a whole slew of other factors that were once overshadowed came into play. Some outcomes can be predicted but many, usually the negative ones, arrive unexpectedly or worse, go unnoticed. Having written these remarkable works many years after these problems were discovered and dealt with, McPhee attempts to remind the public that while it seems Mother Nature may have gone down this round, this is no time for complacency, because she is nowhere near being out for the count. And furthermore, it brings us to ask the question: Is it in humanity's best interest to ultimately win? Like a child poking an anthill, humans seem to have had no idea of the vastness that lay beneath the tiny earthly mound to which we devoted all of our attention. So, perhaps McPhee's central point was not the about the conflict itself between man and nature, but rather the underlying effects humans have that exacerbate the conflict. This period of mass global warming are perfect examples of how human actions such as CO2 emissions, pollution and habitat destruction can have devastating consequences and shows that even in times of peace, McPhee’s argument still holds true.


In the fine McPhee tradition, this was great. A compilation of three essays which appeared originally in the New Yorker about humanity's attempts to (more or less successfully) control nature. The first is about the changing course of the Mississippi River and Army Corps-led attempts to keep the river in place (which is not what it wants to do and historically not what it has done). McPhee has a reverence for nature but is fascinated by our attempts to mess with it. I put myself in that camp as well, so this book was right up my alley. I bought it for the Mississippi River essay, but the other two were actually just as good if not better. The second essay is about volcanic activity in Iceland (and Hawaii) and human influence on flowing lava. The third is about the San Gabriel mountains outside of LA and ridiculous choices we have made to build in their alluvial fans, putting thousands and thousands of people in a major geologic danger zone, and the attempts to protect lives and property as the shattered mountains continue to rise and quickly crumble down around and through these communities.Awesome book, can't recommend it enough.


John McPhee examines, in three lengthy essays, three situations in which humans have placed themselves uncomfortably at odds with natural processes. In each, people have used vast resources to prevent nature from interfering with their lives and profits. McPhee treats all these issues fairly, never hinting that the people doing these things are at all stupid or stubborn or unreasonable even, showing the reader a bit of why these are sympathetic causes. The dignity of all involved shines through in McPhee's portrayal. McPhee also gives excellent explanations of the interesting geological and engineering phenomena described, which, of course, is really what we all want to know about. Control of Nature reminds us of the precarious and very often antagonistic relationship humans have with their environments - and more importantly, though McPhee barely touches on this, the harm we can inflict on them. What McPhee does address is the way this environmental damage comes back in turn to damage human societies.


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.

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.


A great way to ponder the arrogance of humankind

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?


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’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.


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.


I read this collection of 3 long essays for the last, "Los Angeles Against the Mountains". That essay is mostly about the San Gabriel Mountains, the proximity of communities, and the debris basins. It is also about the whole ecology of fire/flood/debris there. Others might find the first essay, about the levee system in the lower Mississippi of Louisiana, of interest. But at times it seemed to be only a collection of factoids collected together into an essay. Plus it is 3 essays on 3 places, so it misses the cohesiveness of most of his other books. And they lack the personality of people like the Love family in "Rising from the Plains", which helped the reader strongly identify with the more scientific parts of the book/essay. Still, like all McPhee, worth a read - especially for people in LA (the city) or LA (the state).


As a former Earth Science teacher I found this book terrific! If I had been a complete lay person though, I think it might have been somewhat daunting. It is basically three books in one; each with the thesis that Man Vs. Nature is a drastically unbalanced contest. The issue of flood control, levees, Atchafalaya/Mississippi, etc. along the Gulf Coast is covered first. This is an old book, pre-Katrina, and I was reading it as Hurricane Gustav threatened that area. I wished he had written a post-Katrina edition. I also wished for an index in the back, and wished I was traveling with a dictionary! But the stories themselves are wonderful, even when the language or technical explanations get a little confusing!The second part involves another thing I used to talk about in Earth Science, the battle between an important Icelandic fishing harbor and an explosive volcano. Again, I knew a little about this case, but the "inside scoop" was fascinating. It puts Iceland high on my list of places I would like to visit!The third part was the part I was least familiar with, and thus, the part that I found most interesting. With Los Angeles growing exponentially, houses are now right up in the mountains. McPhee explains exactly how and why wildfires, heavy rains, and steep slope equals disaster for Southern California. The entire book raises and re-raises the issue: Is it right for tax payers/ government entities to spend millions upon millions to finance the poor (or at least questionable) decisions of the few? If you are at all interested in science, I highly recommend this book even with its failings!


This book was my introduction to John McPhee, and it was certainly a good one at that. McPhee is a wonderful writer--his style is simple and unpretentious, but his passion and his sense of humor are palpable and real. The various chapter subjects are clearly ones that McPhee loves and finds fascinating, but what I loved is that his narrative gives a sense not only of McPhee's love of nature and the natural sciences, but also his total respect and enthrallment for and with the people he encounters along with it. This book is a study of rocks and heat and hubris and perseverance and lava and passion and humility and mud and futility and acceptance. It's good stuff.


As always, McPhee is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to review. In these chronicles, based both on narrative and on interviews, McPhee's big theme is ambition (a good thing), hubris (no problem, simple answer), and willful ignorance.McPhee talks about three major `wars' against nature - the effort to keep the Mississippi River running through New Orleans, the semi-successful effort in Iceland to keep a volcano from filling in a critical harbor, and the ludicrous attempt to prevent fire and flooding from destroying the east side of Los Angeles. In each of these, the threats are portrayed as utterly real and frightening, the science is lucid without being boring or full of jargon, and the people speak for themselves.If you ever wanted to change the inevitable force of geology by piling up sandbags, stop a lava flow by spraying water on it, or keep your house from being filled with boulders and sand (debris flow) - this book will be a lesson on fighting rear guard actions against enemies that will, eventually, win.

Howard White

John McPhee is arguably America's best prose stylist and nature writer. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker magazine, McPhee writes evocative, layered essays that capture the imagination and educate at the same time. The Control of Nature (published in 1989) deals with three of humankind's attempts to control nature: The Mississippi River and delta; lava flows off the coast of Iceland; and the fires and mudslides in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. Particularly interesting to me was the ongoing work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rein in and redirect the Mississippi River above New Orleans. It's a cautionary tale involving well-meaning technocrats, venal state, local, and federal politicians, Cajuns, economists, and Louisiana port officials. Key to the essay is the Old River Project, a dam-levee-lock created by the Army Corps as a means of preventing the Mississippi from doing what it wants to do naturally...which is change its main channel to the Atchafalaya River, one the Mississippi River's deltaic arms (technically known as a distributary) flowing west of the current main channel. Given its druthers, Ole Man River would have done this long ago, and by doing so bypassed New Orleans and its international port completely--an economic disaster for NO and much of America's global shipping and trade. The question is: How long can we prevent the Mississippi from doing what it has done dozens of times since the end of the last ice age? ( And, moreover, is vital to the health and ongoing restoration of the delta and its wetlands.) The answer is probably decades, maybe half a century, unless the Old River Project is hit with a perfect storm: record floods from a watershed that drains more than two-thirds of the contiguous 48 states and a Katrina-like hurricane. A great read if just a bit chastening.

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