The Control of Nature

by John McPhee
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Last Updated on June 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 375

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2676

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 Control represent a variety of conflicting interests connected with recreation, big business, and much in between. Above all, there is the issue of choice: Three million people cannot easily be moved, and the river must be made to flow in its present course for as long as possible. McPhee is quiet in the prophetic mode, though the choice to feature his ride on the Mississippi down the Atchafalaya can be taken as a hint. The eponymous Mississippi will someday flow that way, too.

After water, McPhee brings fire. “Cooling the Lava” concerns the sudden volcanic eruption in 1973 on Heimaey, one of the small Vestmann Islands off Iceland. In this instance, the control of nature means the saving of the port and town from lava flowing out of a large vent half a mile away. He communicates a knowing respect for these people, who inhabit Atlantic islands as his own ancestors did—The Crofter and the Laird (1970)—and who live “in the endless presence of disaster.” The decision by one Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson, a physicist trained in Copenhagen by Niels Bohr, to spray water on molten lava in order to stop its flow is at first ridiculed by his fellows as pissa a hraunid (“a hraunid” meaning “on the lava”), but it initiates a strange conflict. Men hose down fresh lava in a dense fog while molten rocks belched from the vent crash at random around but never on them. Iceland’s one television channel broadcasts nineteen hours per day from cameras fixed on the scene. The campaign is coordinated from Iceland’s National Emergency Operation Center; an underground command post designed for nuclear war use. The town and port are saved, but the island’s beautiful pastures and some of its most beautiful buildings are covered by square miles of new lava.

Yet McPhee’s account of “The Battle of Heimaey” has a more static quality than the complicated campaign against the Mississippi River, perhaps because he investigates the events more than a decade after the fact, because he is outside his own culture, and because his characters are no longer actively involved in the skirmish and speak about memories rather than immediate experiences. The townspeople and volunteers from the main island spray sea water, cool the lava, and impede the flow, but the frightening power of the eruption dwarfs human effort, and when the event stops, no one can say for sure whether the outcome is other than nature’s own doing. There is always something of the apocalyptic in volcanic eruptions, and apocalypses can be compelling reading, though not so compelling, perhaps, as the stories of their approach. This one gave no sign of its coming.

Restricted in dramatic flair by the material at hand, McPhee infuses additional energy into his account by introducing two comparisons: eyewitness accounts of Pompeii, and his own visit to Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. From the former, there is the knowledge that Pliny the Elder, rushing toward the erupting Vesuvius, probably died of cardiac arrest brought on by excitement. A twentieth century geologist calls it “red-rock fever.” McPhee, walking on a new slope of Kilauea, describes the symptoms:It was also hot, particularly where a tube lay below and molten lava was running there. We came to a skylight and inched toward it. Steam swirled above it but did not close off the view of the racing orange currents of an incandescent river. By an order of magnitude, this was the most arresting sight I had ever seen in nature. The time spent gazing into it could not be measured.

Quite literally in the light of this experience, those who dared to spend weeks spraying the lava on Heimaey take on a kind of heroism. By contrast, the gigantic volcanoes of Hawaii have engendered human passivity before Pele, the goddess who controls their flow. Yet something in the contrast between the size of the respective mountains—Hawaii’s Mauna Loa at well over ten thousand feet, Heimaey’s Eldfell at about seven hundred—makes the Icelandic saga seem like a mere skirmish. McPhee presents Iceland and Hawaii as twins, the two most active volcanic regions on earth, but whereas the immediacy of his Hawaiian experiences adds energy to the chapter, the Hawaiian scale does not. The heroic Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson himself makes no claims at all, “the assertion that people can stop a volcano being hubris enough to provoke a new eruption.” The terrible reality of the Icelandic scene is the inner world of fear, the knowledge common to all that the earth might suddenly open with a glow beneath one’s feet, or bed. On that subject, McPhee’s characters are reticent.

The title “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” prepares the reader for McPhee’s emphasis upon military terminology in rendering the relationship between the most notorious example of suburban sprawl and the continent’s fastest-rising and most rapidly disintegrating mountain front, the San Gabriels. He calls himself a “foreign correspondent covering the battle” occurring in a Los Angeles environment “no less hostile than appealing.” Along its fifty-mile front with the mountains to the north, the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for “rear-guard defenses” against an enemy that can push millions of tons of “chunky muck” and roll ten-foot boulders miles into its swimming-pool bejeweled settlements, leaving what looks like the “track of the Fifth Army.” There is more than a little of the macho travel writer in this approach.

McPhee creates a kind of antipastoral, not a new theme in Southern California. Nathanael West worked it in The Day of the Locust (1939). Years later, Joan Didion, in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook” (1965-1967), spoke strongly against the notion of that city as a pacific and Mediterranean paradise. McPhee documents the violence of the landscape in great geologic detail, creating drama by compressing space and time to expose the processes of change behind nature’s apparently calm facade. He creates a sometimes surreal picture of “a metropolis that exists in a semidesert, imports water three hundred miles, has inveterate flash floods, is at the grinding edges of two tectonic plates, and has a microclimate tenacious of noxious oxides,” a city that extends into a mountain range that is three thousand feet higher from base to summit than the Rockies and that sheds an average of seven tons per acre per year onto the land below. The mountains keep falling, and Los Angeles keeps encroaching. McPhee returns many times to the irony of that juxtaposition, for the theme of California craziness touches all sorts of jealousies and fantasies in other American regions.

The flood motif of “Atchafalaya” and the fire of “Cooling the Lava” are brought together in “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” where they are symbiotic. The San Gabriel Mountain ecosystem is for McPhee a kind of devil’s pastoral whose strangeness cannot be overemphasized. On its steep slopes “blossoms of the Spanish bayonet [standi up like yellow flames,” and there are seeds here that will not germinate and buds that will not sprout except after fire. The dominant chaparral plants “are full of solvent extractives” and have “in common an always developing, relentlessly intensifying, vital necessity to burst into flame.” Fire sears the soil, creating a hydrophobic skin below the surface; localized, prodigious rainstorms “mystically, unnervingly always” deluge “the watersheds most recently burned.” The consequent debris flows, as much as six hundred thousand cubic yards in one storm, rush down the ravines, first picking up boulders, and later automobiles, until they resemble “bread dough mixed with raisins.” Fire and water combine to produce these rivers of stone, inspiring some of Mcphee’s most carefully worked rhetoric. The scale and force of the processes he describes threaten to render mankind quite irrelevant, an idea more forcefully implied here than in the Louisiana or Iceland stories.

As if this wondrous antipastoral part of California were not strange enough, mankind has flouted the devil and in the process has created a settlement of equally bizarre qualities. McPhee’s narrative vignettes emphasize how quickly the landscape has been changed from expanses of orange groves and ranches to smoggy suburbs where descending streets act as debris- flow channels, some lined with walls “like medieval facades to an open sewer.” Builders continue to “borrow” sites from the San Gabriel front, “a practice known as mountain-cropping,” while realtors maintain a studied ignorance of the odds that insurance rates make plain. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in constructing debris basins deep in the mountain canyons, crops miles of erosive roads from the slopes. Back in town, even those who have had their homes torn apart or flooded to the ceilings with muck will not abandon the cool heights. More than in the other two narratives, McPhee’s generosity is strained here by the hubris he sees. That Los Angeles, having exhausted its alternatives, must now truck the debris back into the mountains, is the final absurdity, and his chosen denouement. The enigmatic climax comes just before, however, when McPhee asks geology professor Leon Silver of the California Institute of Technology, “Why does anyone live there?” Silver replies, “They’re not well informed. Most folks don’t know the story of the fire-flood sequence. In fact, most of the Caltech geology department lives on the mountain front.”

In all three sections of The Control of Nature, McPhee emphasizes that social and psychological pressures largely determine where human habitation spreads and holds. The individuals and institutions dealing with the resulting piecemeal problems never receive his censure, his implication being that they have no choice but to act. The larger picture he presents, however, is daunting: Mankind is pushing nature on all fronts, expecting the gods to surrender, and there is a very dark comedy in that prospect.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

Booklist. LXXXV, March 1, 1989, p.1053.

Hungry Mind Review. November, 1989, p.21.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, April 15, 1989, p.606.

Library Journal. CXIV, April 1, 1989, p.108.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 30, 1989, p.4.

National Review. XLI, June 2, 1989, p.54.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, August 6, 1989, p.1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, March 31, 1989, p.52.

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