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The Control of Nature

4.25 of 5 stars 4.25  ·  rating details  ·  2,599 ratings  ·  208 reviews
While John McPhee was working on his previous book, Rising from the Plains, he happened to walk by the engineering building at the University of Wyoming, where words etched in limestone said: "Strive on--the control of Nature is won, not given." In the morning sunlight, that central phrase--"the control of nature"--seemed to sparkle with unintended ambiguity. Bilateral, sy ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published September 1st 1990 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1989)
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If you asked me a week ago, or before I read this book, if I thought this would be a five star book I would have thought you were crazy. Her? This book? I would have probably told you I might never even read this book and that it made me bored to just read the copy on the back. And I can't even tell you why I started to read this. I was just sitting around my apartment, reading Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! , and I had about thirty pages left and I got restless and it was still light out, ac ...more
John McPhee is one of the greatest writers in America today, and this is a wonderful introduction to his work. The premise - humans constantly challenge nature, and may hold the upper hand for a while. But nature never gets tired, and can beat our best in the end. Moral - trying to control nature is risky business, and sometimes a very bad idea.
Bob Cipriani
John McPhee is an inspired observer, outdoorsman and a writer with ultimate mastery of the English language.

This is an extract from the jacket. "The Control of Nature is John McPhee's bestselling account of places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature. In Louisiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has declared war on the lower Mississippi River, which threatens to follow a new route to the sea and cut off New Orleans and Baton Rouge from the rest of the Uni
This book is a compilation of three extended essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker. In each of them McPhee examines a colossal problem, the grand engineering "solution," and the ongoing fall-out from the very human choices we make.

"Atchafalaya" deals with the attempt to control the flow of the Mississippi River in order to keep the majority of the stream moving through New Orleans. If left alone, the larger part would by now have diverted naturally, flowing through the Atchafalaya Ri
Christine Henry
His description of the larger ecosystem is very prescient. It was particularly chilling to read his description of the levee system in New Orleans before the Katrina Hurricane and see how precarious our engineering systems are. It has only strenghtened my belief that we put way too much faith in technological solutions to forces that humans cannot control. It is a humbling book, and good reminder that all actions have much larger reverberations than we often acknowledge.
Amber Foxx
This book is about people living in places where nature is in a state of constant change, and the extraordinary lengths they go to try to control the ultimately uncontrollable forces. It would be funny if it was fiction. A sheriff survives the inundation of his neighborhood by a massive debris slug only because it tosses him into the back of a pickup truck being carried along in the mud and boulders along with parts of houses. The absurdity of many of the eco-meets-ego situations reaches the Car ...more
A great way to ponder the arrogance of humankind
Crazy...crazy...what we think we can do to change the course of nature! In three long essays, McPhee exposes our insane overconfidence and ridiculous hubris, all to serve the short-term.

In the essays "Atchafalaya" and "Cooling the Lava", the rampaging Mississippi and flows of hot lava are temporarily diverted and held back.

The final essay, "Los Angeles Against the Mountains", is a classic. No longer will I worry about all the reports of total "disaster" in the media each year when the San Gabrie
Todd Martin
In “The Control of Nature” John McPhee examines the human need to bend nature to its will and the attendant difficulties associated with such a task. Three examples are given:
1 – A water control project on the lower Mississippi River and its distributary, the Atchafalaya;
2 – The effort to control a lava flow in Iceland in 1973;
3 – Projects to protect Los Angeles suburbs from debris slides.

McPhee’s approach is an interesting one. Rather than inserting his opinions into the narrative, he acts as a
John McPhee is one of my favorite authors and this book is one of his best. I have read it several times and just reread the Iceland chapter after visiting Heimaey in the Westmann Islands during my recent trip to Iceland. This is where in January 1973 a new volcano formed (Eldfell)and erupted for 5 months. The lava, as it began burying the town (400 homes were covered or destroyed)and was about to seal the harbor was stopped by spraying water on it. I can not tell you how dramatic a story this i ...more
As the 70's Chiffon commercial goes, "It's not good to fool Mother Nature"! John McPhee, award winning author of over 30 nonfiction works and contributing author to The New Yorker since 1963, would likely agree. His 1989 book, The Control of Nature is a series of three essays, each examining one example of humankind’s ambitious endeavors to control Mother Nature. McPhee opens with his essay entitled Atchafalaya, in which he examines the efforts to control the flow of the Mississippi. He goes on ...more
blue-collar mind
May 10, 2011 blue-collar mind rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: American Alligator bioregionalists, river people
Recommended to blue-collar mind by: Harold Ross
Well, if you have read my reviews, you know my middle-class connection to the New Yorker and its writers. The majority of my favorites wrote for the magazine (or currently write for it) and I assume this has to do with my teen discovery of the Algonquin Circle and its writers, and their politics and way of life.
So, no surprise that John McPhee is another favorite..

I think I have read all of his books, and this one is obviously dear to my brain and heart, as it does an admirable job explaining th
Eric Althoff
The rivers WILL rise, the lava WILL burn, the mountains WILL crumble. So sayeth author John McPhee in his three-part reportage of man's attempts to control, divert or redirect nature's plans. His travels take him to the Mississippi Delta, where engineers have manufactured an artificial flood control to maintain the Ole Man in its present course rather than what the river wants to do: take over the neighboring Atchafalaya channel, thereby forever bypassing the river commerce hubs of Baton Rogue a ...more
Oct 31, 2007 Liz rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
This is one of my favorite works by John McPhee. It precedes his series on North American earth sciences by a few years, but deals with some of the same themes. It is typical of his style, in that he tries to understand a science or field of study by getting to know people who are practicioners in said field. His books become just as much about them as their work.

the Control of Nature is a meditation on the efforts of man to control and manipulate his environment on a grand scale. These monument
McPhee is a master at bringing science and geology down to earth. In this book of three essays, he talks about man's effort to contain water or lava when it wreaks havoc. He is factual but entertaining, lightening explanations with fitting anecdotes. McPhee is one of my favorite New Yorker writers.
Joseph Gendron
I read this 1989 copyrighted book quite some time ago but had to pick it up again to re-read the section entitled "Atchafalaya" given the current events along the Mississipi River. It was delicious as ever and full of facts about the long history of man against nature along the lower Mississippi. One of these days, it will be nature's turn again but in the meantime, it is an admirable story of the efforts of the Corps of Engineers to control the relentless force of the Mississippi. I will/have r ...more
Mark Noble
I reread John McPhee’s Control of Nature last week. He is one of America’s best essayists and when he is writing about geology and nature he is at the top of his game. I first read McPhee when Annals of the Former World was published in 1998. This was a compilation of five previously published books about geology. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. I was hooked. I began reading from his long list of already published books. Control of Nature was one of the first I came across. I vividly remember ...more
Alex E
May 09, 2014 Alex E added it
In John McPhee’s, “The Control of Nature,” (1989) he writes about “places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature” and how the quest to posses control over nature is not an easy one (McPhee). “The Control of Nature” is a compilation of three comprehensive essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker. In each of them McPhee looks at an enormous problem, attempt at human control, and the ongoing fall-out from the very human choices society makes on a regular ...more
I’ve read this before. I wanted to re-read his essay about Los Angeles’ mudslide control after driving around in the foothills above my mom’s house with my husband. We passed many concrete basins meant to contain debris slides, and I'd tell him those were for WHEN – NOT IF – the winter rains bring mudslides. My mom’s in no danger, way down in the valley, but yikes, I wouldn’t want to live in one of those canyons. Also essays about Mississippi flood control and volcanoes in Iceland. Anyway, it’s ...more
Andrew Updegrove
Mar 01, 2014 Andrew Updegrove rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone
Shelves: non-fiction
I've read all of McPhee's work, and this one continues to be a favorite. In each of the book's three essays (as usual, they appeared first as stories at The New Yorker), McPhee describes a Quixotic effort to contain an inexorable force of nature. In one, villagers bearing fire hoses seek to stop lava from a new volcano from engulfing their homes and harbor on an Icelandic island.

In another, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tries to stop the Mississippi river, which has gradually risen into the
If you haven't read any of John McPhee's work and you like: nature, great writing, interesting topics, a darned good nonfiction read -- then you must read his work. For years McPhee wrote for The New Yorker and much of his work was later expanded and made into full-length books. He is considered one of the pioneers of "creative nonfiction," and, oh, has won four Pulitzer Prizes. Many of his greatest works were written in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but don't let that daunt you -- the work holds up br ...more
He gives three in-depth examples of where man is controlling nature. His first example is about the Mississippi & how we've been redirecting its course for decades. He explains in detail the reasons for it & brings home how difficult the job has been. His writing is excellent. He personalized the struggle for me. I really got a feel of it in an interesting factual way.
I read this collection of 3 long essays for the last, "Los Angeles Against the Mountains". That essay is mostly about the San Gabriel Mountains, the proximity of communities, and the debris basins. It is also about the whole ecology of fire/flood/debris there.

Others might find the first essay, about the levee system in the lower Mississippi of Louisiana, of interest.

But at times it seemed to be only a collection of factoids collected together into an essay. Plus it is 3 essays on 3 places, so
I think what I appreciated most was the author's suggestion that we can't really control nature but at best can try to find some balance with it. I'm thinking in particular of the third essay in which he writes how more nomadic groups could move to accommodate/adapt to environmental and seasonal changes, but attempts at permanent settlements in dangerous paths are pretty much doomed. The first essay, about the Mississippi, I found very scary, and I wondered how this knowledge could be related to ...more
I must say, I expected this book to be a bore. Was I wrong! It was really very fascinating as it told the stories of three battles with nature. First of McPhee's books that I have read, certainly will look at more now.
May 03, 2014 RoyalSoulGypsy rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Fellow earth-nerds
Recommended to RoyalSoulGypsy by: Dr. Matt Miller (Geographer Professor)
Shelves: earth_nerd
The three sections of this book describe the great expense of human effort, money and problem solving spent to force nature to do mankind's bidding in three different areas of the U.S.

Although McPhee's reporting seems thorough and non-biased, I was left with a head-shaking, disgusted, disbelief that humans could be so hubristic as to believe their actions were justifiable and that nature could be 'conquered'.

Despite my negative feeling about the outcome, I am grateful this book was an assigned
This book was my introduction to John McPhee, and it was certainly a good one at that. McPhee is a wonderful writer--his style is simple and unpretentious, but his passion and his sense of humor are palpable and real. The various chapter subjects are clearly ones that McPhee loves and finds fascinating, but what I loved is that his narrative gives a sense not only of McPhee's love of nature and the natural sciences, but also his total respect and enthrallment for and with the people he encounter ...more
Bob Stocker
The Mississippi River periodically overflows its banks. Lava from a volcano in Iceland threatens to bury a town and fill its valuable harbor. The San Gabriel Mountains are sliding into Los Angeles taking cars, houses, and sometimes even cemeteries along with them. In The Control of Nature John McPhee describes attempts to deal with these situations. Louisianians build levees to keep the Mississippi in its banks. Icelanders spray the lava front with water in hopes of solidifying it to create a da ...more
Pat Cummings
When Hurricane Katrina was still just a Weather Channel threat predicted to strike the historic city of New Orleans, and orders for evacuating the city were still days in the future, my thoughts turned to an already-stressed structure located several hundred miles upstream of New Orleans at the distributary channel of the Atchafalaya with the Mississippi River.

The Old River Control structure was built over fifty years ago (forty-plus years before Hurricane Katrina) by the U.S. Army Corps of Engi
Glen Engel-Cox
The message is the medium of The Control of Nature. In a series of three essays, each regarding a different geographical region, McPhee shows that in the war between man and nature it's a case of the humans on horseback facing a blitzkrieg of geological heavy artillery. What amazes McPhee, and thus what comes across to the reader, is the arrogant hubris of the people who feel that nature can be controlled. One essay is about the Mississippi river, and how it has been channeled by dikes and levee ...more
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UB Libraries Book...: The Control of Nature Discussion 12 6 Oct 29, 2014 05:02AM  
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
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“Despite the recurrence of events in which the debris-basin system fails in its struggle to contain the falling mountains, people who live on the front line are for the most part calm and complacent. It appears that no amount of front-page or prime-time attention will ever prevent such people from masking out the problem.” 2 likes
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