The Control of Nature, by John McPhee
[Note: Attention, my friends from Louisiana and Los Angeles, I wish you to read this book review and comment, as I have some questions relating to these areas as they are discussed in the book.]
As a former resident of Los Angeles, this is the sort of book that makes me gravely concerned, though not the first book I have read recently to do so  . The biggest complaint I would have about this book is that it is named incorrectly. Called The Control Nature, this book and its three interrelated stories would better be called Desperate Rear Guard Actions Against Nature, as that phrase better captures the struggles of mankind against the force of rivers, volcanoes, and gravity in three parts.
This book covers three attempts to control the wild forces of nature, all of which are scary and traumatic stories. The first third of the book discusses the
almost certainly possibly futile attempts of the U.S. Corps of Engineers to prevent the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana from capturing the flow of the Mississippi and leading it to change its course down past Morgan City and leaving Baton Rouge and New Orleans as abandoned ruins next to a backwater bayou creek. Needless to say, neither the residents of Louisiana nor the United States government at large find that an acceptable option, so they have installed nearly a billion dollars worth of flood control measures on the Old River to prevent nature from having its way, waiting for the hundred year flood and hoping that the system holds tight.
The second part of the book examines the desperate attempts by a town in Iceland called Vestmannaeyjar to cool the lava of a new volcano to preserve the harbor of their city, the only harbor on that side of Iceland. The attempt was mostly successful, but the cost was serious, especially given that the stalemate was only due to the fact that a heroic effort was undertaken and the lava flow was itself a slow flow, only a small portion of which attacked the town. Areas like Hilo in Hawaii with larger volcanoes and faster flows are out of luck trying to stop the lava themselves.
The third part of the book examines the costly and seemingly quixotic attempts by the Los Angeles area to stop the rockfalls from the San Gabriel Mountains from destroying massive amounts of property the pleasant and beautiful towns of Azusa, Pasadena, Glendora, Sunland, Pomona, and so on, towns where I have spent many days and where many of my own friends have lived, towns built on alluvial fans carried by streams and rivers from rapidly rising and disintegrating mountains that I have personally hiked for geological studies. The book seems to take special pleasure in showing the obduracy of the citizens of these towns in living in harm’s way without any sense of historical memory, as well as insulting the honor of realtors who sell property in these areas who say that the debris basis make such property “safe.”
It may seem strange that someone like myself born in Western Pennsylvania may feel such a fondness for studying the Mississippi, but it ought not to be. In my family’s small farm a small creek I dammed up as a child and modestly called “Nathan’s Creek” flows just outside of our property lines into Sewickley Creek, which flows into the Youghiogheny River (where ancestors of mine hid out to escape the U.S. Army trying to take them to Oklahoma), which meets the Monongahela River at McKeesport, where I was born, which in turn meets the Allegheny River in the center of Pittsburgh to form the mighty Ohio, which flows past cities like Cincinnati to meet the Mississippi River and flow down to the Gulf of Mexico. So many aspects of my life are interconnected through that complex and massive river system.
The book as a whole prompts a reader, especially one with a strong interest in engineering, to think deeply and soberly about the attempts made by mankind in recent decades to thumb its nose at Creation, to seek to control it, to believe that the forces of the world are under our feet and that the earth is a prostrate victim helpless to resist our demands. It seems as if we are inviting judgment in some of the aspects explored in this book, whether it is by putting ourselves in dangerous locations for our own selfish benefit, insisting that other people subsidize the risks and dangers of living in floodplains or alluvial fans of unstable fault-ridden mountain systems, or by presumptuously claiming to have control over the threatening forces that quite naturally result from putting ourselves in harm’s way like that. The warning bells ring and the unhappy thought comes that someday we will be held accountable for our actions, and that we will be shown not to be in control of nature at all. That day of reckoning can only be seen as a disaster that lurks as deadly as the sword of Damocles. I pray that I may be found worthy to escape that dark day. The issues discussed in this book, at any rate, are not something I can view with as much detached humor and schadenfreude as the author shows, almost gleefully mocking the folly of the engineers who have claimed to control nature in this book.