The Control of Nature Analysis
by John McPhee

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The Control of Nature Analysis

The Control of Nature by journalist and nonfiction writer John McPhee was originally published in book form in 1989. It consists of three main sections, each of which initially appeared as a long essay in The New Yorker magazine. It is a work of creative nonfiction rather than a scientific study, distinguished by its lyrical and descriptive style.

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The inspiration and title for the book was an inscription on the engineering building at the University of Wyoming reading "Strive on—the control of Nature is won, not given." Seeing the inscription gleaming in the sunlight made McPhee think about situations where humans were engaged in major struggles against nature. His three main sections are extended descriptions of three specific twentieth-century examples of this struggle, two in the United States and one in Iceland. The chapters blend historical information, interviews, and elaborate descriptions of people and places.

The first case is the work of the US Army Corps of Engineers on controlling the course of the Mississippi River. Had the ACE not intervened, the river would have shifted course to drain through what is now the Atchafalaya River. McPhee discusses the massive intervention at a location known as Old River Control to prevent the course of the river from shifting to preserve New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and commercial shipping. Written before the great floods of 1993 and Hurricane Katrina, this chapter warns about how these interventions might lead to massive flooding, identifying consequences that have now occurred.

The second section of the book discusses efforts to divert lava flows from a harbor on the island of Heimaey, Iceland, after the January 1973 eruption of Eldfell. This was achieved by spraying seawater on the lava to cool it down and solidify it. The islanders then creatively began to tap the hot interior of the lava for geothermal energy. In contrast to the ACE approach of controlling nature by brute force, the Icelandic experiment shows an example of how to work creatively with natural phenomena, turning what could have been a major disaster to humanity's advantage.

The final section discusses how Los Angeles has built extremely expensive basins to catch debris from the San Gabriel Mountains in order to preserve and continue to build luxury homes in areas prone to mudslides.

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 entire section is 3,096 words.)