Review: The Control of Nature

The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature by John McPhee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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