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The Control of Nature

4.24 of 5 stars 4.24  ·  rating details  ·  2,257 ratings  ·  190 reviews
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 wr ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published September 1st 1990 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1989)
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Best Science Books - Non-Fiction Only
145th out of 800 books — 1,915 voters
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Community Reviews

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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, act ...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
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
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
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
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
Apr 20, 2010 Adam rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Adam by: Andrew Knudsen
John McPhee examines, in three lengthy essays, three situations in which humans have placed themselves uncomfortably at odds with natural processes. In each, people have used vast resources to prevent nature from interfering with their lives and profits. McPhee treats all these issues fairly, never hinting that the people doing these things are at all stupid or stubborn or unreasonable even, showing the reader a bit of why these are sympathetic causes. The dignity of all involved shines through ...more
Howard White
John McPhee is arguably America's best prose stylist and nature writer. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker magazine, McPhee writes evocative, layered essays that capture the imagination and educate at the same time.

The Control of Nature (published in 1989) deals with three of humankind's attempts to control nature: The Mississippi River and delta; lava flows off the coast of Iceland; and the fires and mudslides in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles.

Particularly interesting to me
Will Byrnes
McFee looks at three huge public works project, the damning and redirectioning of the Mississippi via ongoing construction, primarily by the Army Corps of Engineers; attempts in Iceland to redirect the flow of large volumes of lava away from a town by spraying massive amounts of water at the flow edges; and coping with massive debris flows in Los Angeles, as the San Gabriel mountains that abut the city both rise and crumble.

Information here includes some history of the US Army Corps of Engineers
In the fine McPhee tradition, this was great. A compilation of three essays which appeared originally in the New Yorker about humanity's attempts to (more or less successfully) control nature. The first is about the changing course of the Mississippi River and Army Corps-led attempts to keep the river in place (which is not what it wants to do and historically not what it has done). McPhee has a reverence for nature but is fascinated by our attempts to mess with it. I put myself in that camp as ...more
Sep 30, 2013 Bob rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: science
All of us try to assert some kind of control over nature. On Saturday I cut my grass and edged my lawn. I'm forever pulling or otherwise trying to kill various weeds, which I sometimes simply consider to be any plant growing where I don't want it. All my efforts at control never amount to more than holding actions.

This seems to be the theme of McPhee's book. He chronicles three spectacular "holding actions" in this book. The first is the effort to keep the Mississippi River on its current course
Erica Mukherjee
"Some work of noble note, may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods," said Ulysses to his aging crew. The works of men that strove with Gods is the subject of John McPhee's The Control of Nature. In three case studies - the Atchafalaya region of the Mississippi River, the lava flows of Iceland, and the mudslides of the San Gabriel Mountains - he demonstrates what happens when humankind tries to control nature.

John McPhee is a prize-winning author who has written over thirty books
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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.” 1 likes
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