The Control of Nature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

John McPhee’s books include three others—Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), and Rising from the Plains (1986)—about geological science and the people who make it. All three show his abilities as a creator of human portraits and as a translator of science into lay terms. The Control of Nature shows these same strengths. It is personalized geology emphasizing a human time scale. Its title comes from an inscription McPhee once saw on the University of Wyoming engineering building (“STRIVE ON-THE CONTROL OF NATURE is WON, NOT GIVEN”). Its unifying theme is the ambiguity inherent both in the phrase “control of nature”—is it nature’s control, or our control of nature?—and in the attempts by human societies to gain the upper hand in this interaction, which McPhee describes throughout in military metaphors. The Wyoming inscription by implication reinforces the biblical assurance of mankind’s dominance but revises the terms: Man has had to declare war on nature. There is throughout Mcphee’s narrative a sense of the apocalyptic, of an escalating risk in human endeavor and a reduced list of alternatives. Nevertheless, The Control of Nature is not a preachy or political book. McPhee speaks frequently of the roles of pure human stubbornness and ignorance, which make confrontations with nature inevitable, but he focuses mainly upon the scientists and engineers at the battlefront. He tries to modulate a double view of what he ambiguously calls the “heroic chutzpah” of mankind’s endeavors to maintain a status quo before the powers of an ever-changing nature.

In a brilliant stroke, McPhee chooses three front-line settings in the struggle:

“Atchafalaya” involves rivers of water; “Cooling the Lava” rivers of fire, and “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” rivers of stone. In one other book, Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), he divides a narrative into three parts, but in that case he has as a unifying device the life of a single protagonist. In The Control of Nature, he has no such convenience. Its unity is subtler, derived from his attitudes about human society’s need to exist in locales it should avoid or abandon. Investigating the motives as well as the actions of these battles, McPhee offers the hint that mankind is most itself when exhibiting a certain perversity, willing conflict rather than calm. He shows the irrational element in the service to which society has applied science, a view implicit in his description of the entire enterprise: “Human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods.” The implication of foolishness is balanced here by the classical, heroic setting, and all of it seems not very remote from the fatalistic and its attendant, comedy.

In “Atchafalaya,” McPhee outlines the utterly fantastic situation of the lower Mississippi River, where the “austere realities of deltaic geomorphology” require the river to abandon Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and a long list of petrochemical companies to follow the course of the Atchafalaya to a new gulf outlet a hundred miles west of the present mouth. Left to itself, nature would have accomplished the change by 1975. It is the job of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop geologic time at 1950, permanently apportioning one-third of the Mississippi’s flow to the Atchafalaya and two-thirds to the main channel. As the river rises higher, the Corps must raise levees already longer and higher than China’s Great Wall and maintain a complicated set of earthfill dams and gates at Old River Control, where there is no reachable bedrock. McPhee’s felicity with images gives the project a visceral quality: By the 1870’s, “even at normal stages, the Mississippi was beginning to stand up like a large vein on the back of a hand.” He also implies with medieval imagery that the advances of technology have only apparently modernized the essential conflict:

New Orleans has become a walled city, New Avignon, and Morgan City, the Cajun Carcassonne, is even more precarious. The master stream runs between twelve and twenty feet above the course to which gravity would feed it. In between, waiting for the flood that would disastrously reconfigure the landscape, is the Corps.

Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, McPhee’s narrative uses a river journey for its structure. He rides with Major General Thomas Sands and other interested persons aboard the Corps’ towboat Mississippi from Old River Control to Morgan City near the Gulf of Mexico. It is, in Sands’s words, “a floating convention,” a simultaneous engineering and political survey that gives McPhee the chance to allow many voices to speak: geologists, river pilots, engineers, fishermen, community leaders, and a poet who has written “about the oil industry and nature from an alligator’s perspective.” He includes asides on the history of European settlement, flood-control efforts, and local Cajuns. Significantly, there are no spokesmen for corporate industry, nor does McPhee enter the politics of ecological debate. His attraction is clearly to the natural world, but he does not ally himself with those attacking the Corps’ presence and reserves his only uncomplimentary characterization for one such warrior, Tulane Law Professor Oliver Houck, “who is a conservationist of the sunset school, with legal skills adjunct to the force of his emotion.” General Sands, in fact, speaks one of the level truths of the situation: “Man against nature. That’s what life’s all about.” A lesser but no less likable character, a Cajun named Norris P. Rabalais, speaks another truth: “[Mother Nature] has nothing but time.” McPhee allows many opinions to enter the narrative and makes no direct prediction about the final outcome of the battle against the river.

McPhee does, however, work hard to unravel predictable biases. The first concerns the Corps itself and its historical context. He takes pains to show that it is not actually a military organization (only ten of more than fourteen hundred employees of the New Orleans division are army) and did not pick this fight with the river (the French decision in 1718 to build New Orleans foretold the rest). Another is the common habit of reducing nature-control issues to a simple dialectic of conservation versus economic exploitation. The three million people who live downstream from Old River...

(The entire section is 2676 words.)