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The Control of Nature by John McPhee
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The Control of Nature (original 1989; edition 1990)

by John McPhee

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1,1391612,325 (4.23)31
"The Control of Nature" is John McPhee's bestselling account of places where people are locked in combat with nature. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strageties and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her - stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters.… (more)
Member:jSummer
Title:The Control of Nature
Authors:John McPhee
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1990), Paperback, 272 pages
Collections:Your library
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The control of nature by John McPhee (1989)

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Control of Nature by John McPhee is a 272 page book that consists of three essays McPhee wrote on man's attempts to thwart Mother Nature. They were initially published as New Yorker essays and gathered into this book. Two of the essays seem to highlight the folly of such actions and the third applauds the heroism, foresight, and organization of man while pointing out the futility of these efforts. It is amazing how relevant this 30 year old book still is for the reader.

The first essay is about the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. The first point in the essay is that this river is really the Mississippi River - or would be if man left nature to make the decision. The floods of the 20th century have all been about the river finding the path of least resistance to the Gulf of Mexico and man's attempts to keep that from happening in order to preserve the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge and the petrochemical corridor between the two. It is clear what McPhee and most of the residents of Louisiana think of this and they are at opposite ends of the scale. The Louisianans want to keep the river where it is so that they can continue to farm, fish, and carry on as close to what they think is natural as long as possible. In telling the story McPhee makes the folly of that line of thinking very visible.

The second essay is about a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1973. This was a continuation of the eruptions in the late 1960's that saw the birth of several new islands in the North Atlantic that included the famous island of Surtsey. In this essay, written at some point in the 1980's, McPhee chronicles the attempts of the Icelanders to save the harbor of their town and keep it from filling up with lava. What they did was cool the lava enough to change its course a few miles and thus save the harbor. In exchange they sacrificed half of the town to the lava. McPhee juxtaposes this eruption with that found on the island of Hawaii and the result is fascinating reading. The Icelanders are a pragmatic bunch and they know that there is a high likelihood that there will be another eruption that will probably destroy the harbor and they know that nature has all the time on its side, but for now they are content.

The third essay is an examination of the fire and mudslide disasters that plague the area around Los Angeles, California. There is a detailed description of the climate and the rainfall patterns. Included in this is an explanation of the infamous Santa Ana Winds and the propensity for them to dump millions of gallons of water into the San Gabriel mountains. There is a geological description of the San Gabriels and why they are the fastest growing mountains in the continental U.S. and how this contributes to the problem of cycle of fire and mudslides. There is also a detailed description of the plants that grow in the semi-arid desert, called the Chaparral. These plants keep the loose soil in place and keep the mountains from sliding. However, they are very flammable. The properties that keep them alive are the ones that make them susceptible to fire. The mudslides are the main thrust of this essay and the descriptions of the events being examined are riveting and full of interesting characters and ecological positions and so very relevant to the events of this last month. ( )
  benitastrnad | Sep 28, 2020 |
Another John McPhee classic! Simple geological stories exquisitely explained. The Mississippi River, Iceland, Hawaii and lava flows, and finall debris flows from the San Gabriel Mtns. outside Los Angeles. All confronted by man in full hubris mode. Finished the book while in Cusco, Peru....will leave it here. ( )
  untraveller | Dec 28, 2018 |
The hubris of mankind is amazing and sometimes they win for a while. The book is a fascinating description of three stand offs, the Mississippi River, an Icelandic volcano, and the San Gabriel Mtns by Los Angeles. ( )
  snash | Feb 13, 2017 |
It's incredible the lengths people will go to.

And THAT is pretty much what this book is about. ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
Reading a 20 year old discussion of the lower Mississippi levees and the Atchafalaya flood basin as the crest of this year's flood slowly moved south along the Mississippi gave the first essay in this collection an eerie relevance. McPhee's second essay, about lava flows and eruptions in Iceland and Hawaii, also caught my attention, since we live in sight of Mt. Baker, an active volcano. The final essay explores erosion, ecology and Los Angeles. Very interesting reading. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John McPheeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Krupat, CynthiaBook and cover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Olafsson, GudjonIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Three hundred miles up the Mississippi River from its mouth -- many parishes above New Orleans and well north of Baton Rouge -- a navigation lock in the Mississippi's right bank allows ships to drop out of the river.
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"The Control of Nature" is John McPhee's bestselling account of places where people are locked in combat with nature. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strageties and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her - stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters.

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