The Control of Nature

by John McPhee

Rating: ★★★★

McPhee is dazzling here, with three detailed articles on mankind's most audacious attempts at fighting the titanic forces of nature. McPhee mixes big-picture exposition with archive material and quotes from personal, on-site interviews, always lively and often playful. Through it all he combines a stunned amazement that we dare even attempt this with some serious respect for the people that do it. Takeaways:

  1. Southern Louisiana is actually constitutionally opposed to permanent, earthbound human settlements. The continued existence of New Orleans and Morgan City can be largely attributed to the bloodyminded struggle of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been wrestling with the Mississippi River for decades in an effort to prevent it from going where it will, eventually, go.

  2. The people of Iceland went to war with a volcano and, acting as foot soldiers for the sea, won.

  3. By any traditional reckoning, Los Angeles has clearly been condemned by several deities. I knew wildfires were an issue there, but I didn't realise that a lot of the explosively flammable brush actually renders the ground below a shallow layer hydrophobic, contributing to massive debris flows that attempt to sweep away or at least bury most of the city (which also sits on top of a massive tectonic faultline). You could feel McPhee's jaw dropping as he spoke to people who brushed off the suggestion that their house could quite probably be washed away by gigantic debris swells.