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.

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".


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.


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.

Todd Martin

In “The Control of Nature” John McPhee examines the human need to bend nature to its will and the attendant difficulties associated with such a task. Three examples are given:1 – A water control project on the lower Mississippi River and its distributary, the Atchafalaya;2 – The effort to control a lava flow in Iceland in 1973;3 – Projects to protect Los Angeles suburbs from debris slides.McPhee’s approach is an interesting one. Rather than inserting his opinions into the narrative, he acts as a passive observer describing each project in factual terms and allowing the individuals involved in the work to speak. He leaves it to the reader to come to their own conclusion, though it’s obvious that we might be in over our heads. Through the use of technology, humans have powerful tools with which to alter the environment and through determination and vigilance it is possible to alter nature’s course. But nature employs forces of its own and perhaps more importantly it is inexorable and has all the time in the world at its disposal. The reader is left with the distinct impression that it is only a matter of time, and that nature will ultimately overcome our tiny attempts to tame her, much to our dismay.

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.

Philip Demare

Think that the course of rivers is a static and unchanging thing. Maybe now, in the United States, but historically and in many parts of the world rivers change course all the time, especially after a flood. In fact in the United States, right up until nearly the turn of the century when rivers began to be damned and controlled, states often gained or lost land when a river cut across a loop after a flood and land that formerly was on one side of a river, was now on the other.In the first section John McPhee chronicles the army corps of engineers attempts to keep the Mississipi from finding a new outlet to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya swamp. The second section describes the battle of Icelandic colonizers of a nearby island Haimey to keep the island's erupting volcano from destroying its economically vital harbor.The third section describes the ongoing attempts of southen californians to expand out of coastal valleys and into the firestorm and landslide prone mountains of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains .


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.


A great way to ponder the arrogance of humankind


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!


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.

blue-collar mind

Well, if you have read my reviews, you know my middle-class connection to the New Yorker and its writers. The majority of my favorites wrote for the magazine (or currently write for it) and I assume this has to do with my teen discovery of the Algonquin Circle and its writers, and their politics and way of life.So, no surprise that John McPhee is another favorite..I think I have read all of his books, and this one is obviously dear to my brain and heart, as it does an admirable job explaining the relationship of the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi rivers, and the future of regions that bend nature to its control.You'll see my review of John Barry's Rising Tide in my list which to me is the best work on the control of the Mississippi River. So read that if you want to know what's happening in the middle of the country (and remind yourself why New Orleans must exist on one level- to maintain control and use of the river. You're welcome.)And then take time to learn about the Atchafalaya Basin. In order to understand what the life of the Mississippi is about, you have to understand its sister, the Atchafalaya River. Our state IS more than New Orleans; it's a system of waterways and sustainable entrepreneurs that use the waterways to supply the shipping and the fisheries that sustain much of the entire U.S.

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.

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.


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.

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