While John McPhee was working on his previous book,Rising from the Plains, he happened to walk by the engineering building at the University of Wyoming, where words etched in limestone said: "Strive on--the control of Nature is won, not given." In the morning sunlight, that central phrase--"the control of nature"--seemed to sparkle with unintended ambiguity. Bilateral, symmetrical, it could with equal speed travel in opposite directions. For some years, he had been planning a book about places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature, about (in the words of the book itself) "any struggle against natural forces--heroic or venal, rash or well advised--when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods." His interest had first been sparked when he went into the Atchafalaya--the largest river swamp in North America--and had learned that virtually all of its waters were metered and rationed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project called Old River Control. In the natural cycles of the Mississippi's deltaic plain, the time had come for the Mississippi to change course, to shift its mouth more than a hundred miles and go down the Atchafalaya, one of its distributary branches. The United States could not afford that--for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and all the industries that lie between would be cut off from river commerce with the rest of the nation. At a place called Old River, the Corps therefore had built a great fortress--part dam, part valve--to restrain the flow of the Atchafalaya and compel the Mississippi to stay where it is. In Iceland, in 1973, an island split open without warning and huge volumes of lava began moving in the direction of a harbor scarcely half a mile away. It was not only Iceland's premier fishing port (accounting for a large percentage of Iceland's export economy) but it was also the only harbor along the nation's southern coast. As the lava threatened to fill the harbor and wipe it out, a physicist named Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson suggested a way to fight against the flowing red rock--initiatingan all-out endeavor unique in human history. On the big island of Hawaii, one of the world's two must eruptive hot spots, people are not unmindful of the Icelandic example. McPhee went to Hawaii to talk with them and to walk beside the edges of a molten lake and incandescent rivers. Some of the more expensive real estate in Los Angeles is up against mountains that are rising and disintegrating as rapidly as any in the world. After a complex coincidence of natural events, boulders will flow out of these mountains like fish eggs, mixed with mud, sand, and smaller rocks in a cascading mass known as debris flow. Plucking up trees and cars, bursting through doors and windows, filling up houses to their eaves, debris flows threaten the lives of people living in and near Los Angeles' famous canyons. At extraordinary expense the city has built a hundred and fifty stadium-like basins in a daring effort to catch the debris. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking in his vivid depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those who would attempt to wrest control from her--stubborn, 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.