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The Control of Nature

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  3,530 ratings  ·  307 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
Hardcover, First Edition, 272 pages
Published August 16th 1989 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1989)
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Michael Lewis "The Control of Nature" is non-fiction. filtered through John McPhee's encyclopedic mind, which gives it a depth of literary reference lacking in most…more"The Control of Nature" is non-fiction. filtered through John McPhee's encyclopedic mind, which gives it a depth of literary reference lacking in most non-fiction works. (less)

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4.24  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,530 ratings  ·  307 reviews

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May 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
There are three extended essays herein about disparate places where humans insist on settling, sometimes - oftentimes - just for the view; but the land has a different idea. Man and his abode face disaster in these stories. Man could move, of course; and some do. But others try to control nature. As if. One real river pilot - meaning not Mark Twain - is quoted here: Mother Nature is patient. . . . Mother Nature has more time than we do.

I knew, of course, that the Mississippi floods, that volcano
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although these three extended essays all ran in the NEW YORKER magazine nearly 30 years ago, they retain the power to educate, amuse, and shock, and all show John McPhee, master of nonfiction, at his best. "Atchafalaya" details the growth of the still little-known waterway that runs roughly parallel to the Mississippi and -- here's the real shock -- might someday "seize" the mainstream of the mighty Mississip', leaving towns like Baton Rouge and New Orleans high and dry, without outlet. To mitig ...more
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
Dec 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Outstanding vintage information and assessments. Top notch explanations of complex and never ending attempts (3 different scenarios) to fool Mother Nature.

This was a 5 star for the complicated science of delta and river system silt constructions, for me. Knowing the area and the reality, I never truly understood major aspects of the Mississippi River and its lower reaches particularly. I do now.

All 3 posits of peoples' will over reality dire physical positions in nature from engineering to the
I don't know if it was a function of the wrong book at the wrong time, but I found myself often getting bored with this effort of John McPhee's from the late 80s. I always gave McPhee credit for being able to make a wallpaper seminar given in northern England sound like the high point of a trip to Europe, but in The Control of Nature, a book about things decidedly more interesting than wallpaper, I found my mind kept wandering.

It may not have helped that for two out of his three subjects, I hav
Peter Tillman
Dec 03, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Angelenos
His account of living in the San Gabriel canyons, above Los Angeles, is classic -- and scary. But almost everyone he talked to who lived there found the risks worthwhile. Including the Caltech geologists, who certainly knew what they were getting into.

For a real review, I liked Will Byrnes', . I liked the book more than he did, and found McPhee's portrayals of the geologists & engineers accurate and sympathetic. These aren't colorful personalities, as
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.
Nov 27, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A great way to ponder the arrogance of humankind
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Great writing as usual by John McPhee. I got a little bogged down in the middle with the Icelandic names and lava issues, but the strong characters in the other two chapters bring the book’s theme out vividly. And troublingly.

McPhee is careful not to imagine that control of nature is ever complete. The first chapter, written in the 80s about the levees and locks north of New Orleans, has the memory of Katrina looming over it. The last chapter—on the landslides, floods, and fires in the mountains
Bob Cipriani
Feb 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Amber Foxx
Aug 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 23, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-tech
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
Eric Althoff
Jan 26, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Christine Henry
Jun 04, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fabulous book. Science, history, human intransigence, classical references and beautiful sentences. I’ve liked everything McPhee writes even if I knew nothing of the subject and had never considered it interesting enough to get informed.

This books is three essays on human attempts to control nature, not just for the fun of it but to solve a problem where nature caused humans difficulty mainly because it disrupted they way humans were already interacting with nature.

In the Mississippi example, th
Feb 23, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The effort involved in moving a powerful river, steering a volcanic eruption, or challenging gravity's hold on a mountain is clearly documented and described by McPhee's engaging - albeit dry - narrative. This is a fun book to read if only to get a sense of what huge projects people will embark on to protect their way of life. It's a shame that the projects are ultimately useless because the scale that nature operates on simply dwarfs what civil engineering can handle. Read this book if you'd li ...more
Nov 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Okay, so maybe I only read the first section ("Atchafalaya"), because its what I have time for and its the only bit that's relevant to my work right now, but it really is one of the most outstanding pieces on the relationship between humanity and water I've had the opportunity to read. Highly recommend
Mar 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
required reading for the syllabus
by the end i realized i was marking pages where McPhee's writing style was particularly corny, but when i went through once i finished i had still dogeared many more pages that made me laugh than cringe
do you have a connection to louisiana, iceland, hawaii, or los angeles? rivers, mountains, oceans, volcanoes? do you feel something when it rains? *flaming lips voice* do you realize that crazy weather event that changed life in [place on earth where you don't live
May 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
The Control of Nature by John McPhee

I will admit right off I am a fan of the writings of Mr. McPhee. I have read many of his books and articles over the years and each time I set down to imbib some of his writings I know I am in for a treat! He is a great author, one who deals with diverse topics, but finds a way to distill information into just plain great story telling,
This current book is about our efforts to exert control over nature, an area where we venture time and again, often with hubri
Eliot Peper
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Control of Nature by John McPhee is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction that brings to life people battling the Mississippi, Icelandic volcanoes, and the San Gabriel Mountains in order to protect and expand their cities and settlements. Filled with fascinating natural history, well-drawn characters, and heartbreakingly precise metaphors, McPhee reveals the creativity and hubris that lie at the heart of our ceaseless grappling with Mother Nature.
blue-collar mind
Aug 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: American Alligator bioregionalists, river people
Recommended to blue-collar mind by: Harold Ross
Shelves: grassroots-stuff
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
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
Jun 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Oct 31, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 18, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
John McPhee captures the immutable power of the earth like none other. Strangely enough, his essays are so detached, bemused. Adding to the infuriation is that they were mostly written decades ago, so his scientific experts are all bearded backcrountry men.

The Control of Nature is 3 separate and quite enjoyable long essays, each with strong narratives. I enjoyed the middle tale (about Icelandic lava) the most.
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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
“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.” 3 likes
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