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The Control of Nature

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  3,987 ratings  ·  340 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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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, ...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
Peter Tillman
Dec 03, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Angelenos
His account of people 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,
Feb 12, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
From time to time all hell will break forth from the mountains. To the question “Why, then, do people live there?” the answer seems to be that... they would rather defy nature than live without it.

This is a very interesting book that looks at three different locations where people have tried to “control nature” and live where history and perhaps common sense says they probably shouldn't:

— The Mississippi River has an enormous flood plain. People have been building levees for at least a couple of
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
Bryan--Pumpkin Connoisseur
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
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.
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.
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
Sep 18, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1paper, 2non-fiction
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. ...more
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
Neil Pierson
Aug 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ironically named book that recounts three episodes where humans have tried to resist the mighty forces of nature:

1. It's a natural phenomenon for a river to change course. Natural or man-made obstructions come and go, but the water still has to get from here to there. About every 1000 years, the mouth (outlet) of the Mississippi River changes course. Silt builds up and begins to slow the flow into the Gulf. A slower flow deposits more sediment, and the process accelerates. Eventually, the water
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
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature, nonfiction
McPhee is dazzling here, with three detailed articles on mankind's most audacious attempts at fighting the titanic forces of nature. McPhee mixes big-picture exposition with archive material and quotes from personal, on-site interviews, always lively and often playful. Through it all he combines a stunned amazement that we dare even attempt this with some serious respect for the people that do it. Takeaways:

1. Southern Louisiana is actually constitutionally opposed to permanent, earthbound huma
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 ...more
I had to read excerpts for a college class, but never read the full book. I didn't care too much for the writing style. Regardless, this book has a lot of lessons that are just as relevant to consider today.

I'm especially interested in the story about the Mississippi. Controlling the river; altering its natural movements and progressions; levees and other structures contributing to flooding; and so much more. I think issues at the intersection of politics and the environment, especially water,
Yoni Weil
Jan 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
turns out it is possible and also easy
May 24, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: on-my-shelves, 2019
DNF: boring. I might have read 1/3 of it, then started skipping ahead in hopes that one of the other sections of the book would grab me.

This read like an extremely long National Geographic article. I have nothing against NatGeo, and in fact, that’s probably not a good comparison. NatGeo articles are generally pretty engaging.

I think the larger idea of man-against-nature is compelling, but the book likes to wade into the minutiae and just kind of be there for pages upon pages. Nothing much happe
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.
NOLaBookish  aka  blue-collared mind
Aug 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: American Alligator bioregionalists, river people
Recommended to NOLaBookish 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
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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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55 likes · 9 comments
“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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