The Control of Nature

John McPhee

Read February-March 2006

Driving east of Houston on I-10, some ways into Louisiana, you find yourself on one of the most remarkable stretches of highway anywhere. Several miles of causeway tread warily over a swamp of primeval appearance with pneumophora. Early enough in the day, you can see the mist rise off the water. It's a magical and humbling experience, this is, driving on this Atchafalaya Swamp Freeway intruding on the mouth of the Atchafalaya River. And yet, you know that as rivers go, this is but a bit player: after all, it's no Mississippi.

But it should be.

This, in a nutshell, is the focus of the first third of this magnificent book by John McPhee. All the standard McPhee elements are here: crusty characters, immersive experiences, the patient unraveling of madness, and brief paragraphs whose ideas begin in the Rockies and end in the Gulf of Mexico. McPhee calmly dissects the history of human intrusion on the Mississippi river, a story of bravado, hubris, anxiety, temporary (and fleeting) victories, and even bathos: an entire Greek tragedy, and more, of emotions is in these lean pages. McPhee cannot say something once; rather, he will say it over and over, changing his tone just a little each time, until the crescendo reaches a din that leaves you with the (unfair) impression that no rational human could have failed to notice this accretion of evidence. On such stuff is his genius based.

There are, to be sure, small triumphs in this attempt to control nature, such as Eads's remarkable system of jetties at the river's mouth. In McPhee's hands, however, this triumph is not merely a harbinger of defeat but an index of the magnitude of failure that will follow. He is also the master of small discharges of tension: for instance, after an extensive discussion of the effluents along what he calls the American Ruhr (a dated metaphor, to be sure, but a powerful one nonetheless), he points out (p. 61) that New Orleans has won a drinking water taste test. But before the reader can ponder whether to laugh or cry, he's hammering away again, calling that city a New Avignon accessed by ``an interstate that jumps over the walls'' (p. 63).

Nowhere is McPhee more prescient than in this remarkable passage:

Hurricanes greatly advance the coastal erosion process, tearing up landscape made weak by the confinement of the river. The threat of destruction from the south is even greater than the threat from the north. (p. 63)
But the fate of New Orleans is only a small diversion from his documentary indictment of the Army Corps of Engineers, so he says nothing more of this matter. But it just goes to show that the greatest observers of the human condition do not need hindsight.

All this draining tension, and you're only a third of the way into the book. The second passage is control of an altogether more desperate kind: the use of millions of gallons of seawater to arrest a lava flow from destroying a valuable Icelandic harbor. This discussion alternates with an exploration of the active state of the Hawaiian islands, an exposition of flows that don't simply decimate cities but literally build hills atop them. Ever mischievous, however, McPhee cannot help informing us that Pliny probably died not from lava but from girth. There's a tabloid interleaven into this book.

And so on to our third theme, and what more ridiculous a setting than LA? I recall my first flight into LA: a bowl formed of steep mountains, with a white clam-chowder in the middle. I searched and searched for the city, until my neighbor informed that it was right there under the chowder. But not even that can prepare you for the onslaught McPhee has in store: routine floods in the homes of those who live on the sides of the San Gabriel range, but floods not of water but of mud, rock and gravel. Families who were pushed to their ceilings by these floods; families who designed their garages to accommodate them; families who grew accustomed to opening one end of the house when the floods came knocking at the other. Is he, like, yanking our chain? And when he does decide to consult a geologist—this is McPhee, so he walks into Caltech and asks to meet with a geologist, any geologist—they direct him to the inimitable Lee Silver, he of NASA astronaut training fame. How much preparation do you need to be lucky?

The Control of Nature is what you get when a great writer runs with scissors. It is a book of strange beauty and quirky humor that demands profound introspection. It is work of the very highest order, and will not quickly leave you. My thanks to two fine readers, Bob Prior and John Hughes, who each independently pointed me to it in the very same week—the week after Katrina flooded New Orleans.