On occasion I write a review of a book I’ve read several years earlier. While I prefer to have a book fresh in my mind, there are only so many books I can read at once and there are numerous reads that are worth writing about. As a result, this is more of a reflection than a pure book review.
As I read the first of a five part series on NPR that dealt with fire suppression in the west, I couldn’t help but think about John McPhee’s 1989 book, The Control of Nature. This is not the first time his work has popped up in my mind or conversation. In fact, I reference it about as often as any other work I’ve read. Numerous articles I’ve written for the site have alluded to it as well, including one dealing with flooding in China and Pakistan a few years back and one from last year about levees and long term planning.
McPhee looks at three situations in which man had attempted to control the flow of “earth materials.” The first scenario considers the Army Corps of Engineers and their straightening of the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge so that it flows through New Orleans, in large part because the port there. As was seen in Hurricane Katrina, levees failed to hold back water that invariably would have found its way to low lying areas. As Hurricane Isaac crossed into the Gulf of Mexico recently and talk of levees once again filled the airwaves, I was brought back to The Control of Nature. McPhee’s treatise is informative, not judgmental. He points out the clear discontinuities between man’s actions and what might be called nature’s will.
In addition to the Mississippi Delta and the straightening of the river, McPhee also delves into the mountainsides around Los Angeles and lava flows of Iceland. In both instances, like the Mississippi scenario, man has attempted to stop the natural movement of the earth’s surface. McPhee does not pass judgement in the book, but he paints an extremely unflattering picture of humankind’s attempt to control nature.
While the details are not as fresh in my mind, McPhee’s point rings true – as true as ever. These three case studies of man’s outright manipulation of nature should be taken as a primer on what not to do. Working with nature will move us forward. Working to control of nature will only serve to keep it at bay for so long.