The Control of Nature

by John McPhee

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Control of Nature by John McPhee is a nonfiction collection of three essays dealing with humanity’s attempts to control natural processes. Originally appearing as separate pieces in The New Yorker magazine, The Control of Nature was published in book form in 1989.

The idea for the collection began in 1980, when McPhee took his daughter on a canoe trip down the Atchafalaya River, a trip he recounts in the book's first essay, "Atchafalaya." McPhee's daughter was fascinated by the works of Walker Percy, a deeply philosophical novelist who was born in Alabama but spent most of his life in Louisiana. During the trip, McPhee also traveled aboard a towboat with the Army Corps of Engineers and investigated their monitoring of river flow in southern Louisiana—specifically, their attempts to keep the portion of the Atchafalaya flowing into the Mississippi in precarious balance via project Old River Control—and the threat posed by flooding both to the local ecosystem and the cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Morgan City.

The second essay in The Control of Nature, "Cooling the Lava," deals with the threat of volcanic eruptions and lava flows on Heimaey, one of Iceland's tiny Vestmann Islands. When the Eldfell volcano erupted on Heimaey in 1973, a physicist named Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson initiated an attempt to curb the flow of lava by spraying seawater on it. While the lava eventually stopped flowing, allowing the island's harbor to be saved, no one could be quite sure if this was the result of human effort or natural processes. McPhee also discusses efforts on Hawaii to cool the flow of lava from Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano.

The third essay in the book, "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," provides a look at the debris slides from the San Gabriel Mountains that threaten homes in suburban Los Angeles. These rivers of muck, released into the streets when rainstorms follow on the heels of wildfires and flow through steep ravines, are then hauled back into the mountains by the US Army Corps of Engineers in what seems a distinctly Sisyphean struggle. Still, the local residents refuse to give up the shade of the rapidly crumbling San Gabriel range.

McPhee’s work on these essays placed him in front of locals, non-locals, engineers, scientists, and governmental bureaucrats. The whole adventure was steeped in money, power, conflict, death, and destruction. McPhee was not shy about exposing humanity’s hubris when it came to harnessing the forces of nature, nor its resilience in the face of constantly looming threats.

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