"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.
My Mom grew up in Los Angeles and would go skiing and camping in the San Gabriel Mountains, back in the 1930s and 1940s. I read the third chapter of _Control_ staying with her, which gave us a lot to talk about. She pulled out her map of Los Angeles, which gave me a visual aid to understand the placement of all the towns McPhee mentions. The general shape of the area was just how I envisioned it from the book, but the order of towns wasn't made clear in the book - not that it really made a difference.
The first chapter, on the Lower Mississippi levees etc., is much the longest of the three. The second chapter is on the pumping of sea water onto a lava flow in Iceland, to save a key fishing harbor.
I love to learn. McPhee makes learning a great joy. What a gift!
It's interesting stuff, the discussion of three attempts by humanity to freeze geology into a certain shape:
* the flow of the Mississippi,
* the lava flow of some volcanoes in Iceland, and
* the flow of rocks down from the San Gabriel mountains in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately the book really could have done with tighter editing.
About a third of it is random filler, stuff he noticed while interviewing and walking around the relevant areas. (For example the description of a few days spent with the crew of a crawfish boat in the Louisiana bayou added
absolutely nothing to the description of the Mississippi control.)
Apart from the writing, I found the book ultimately deeply unsatisfying.
The author repeatedly throws his hands in the air and says "Silly people, how can you control nature", but what does he propose as an alternative?
In the first place people have to live somewhere, and there are precious few places to live that don't suffer from some natural disaster or other.
In the second place, the issue is not some sort of perpetual control till the end of time. A better interpretation would be that people are trying, on a case by case basis, to ameliorate the situation and the fact is that, in spite of his carping, they've largely succeeded.
Rather than simply saying that building near the Mississippi is dumb because the river is inevitably going to change its course, I'd prefer a cost-benefit analysis that runs the numbers. Of course there is a risk, and of course controlling the river costs money, but there are also benefits. It's not a priori obvious to me that the risks are so extreme and the benefits so marginal that the project makes no sense.
Finally I should add that I did find the section on rocks flowing into Los Angeles from the mountains very interesting. As someone who lives in the shadows of these mountains but who'd never heard of this before, I was naturally fascinated to learn about this. Any Angeleno should definitely read this essay, even if the other two are ignored.
And THAT is pretty much what this book is about.