Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Control of Nature

Rate this book
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, symmetrical, it could with equal speed travel in opposite directions. For some years, he had been planning a book about places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature, about (in the words of the book itself) "any struggle against natural forces--heroic or venal, rash or well advised--when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods." His interest had first been sparked when he went into the Atchafalaya--the largest river swamp in North America--and had learned that virtually all of its waters were metered and rationed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project called Old River Control.

In the natural cycles of the Mississippi's deltaic plain, the time had come for the Mississippi to change course, to shift its mouth more than a hundred miles and go down the Atchafalaya, one of its distributary branches. The United States could not afford that--for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and all the industries that lie between would be cut off from river commerce with the rest of the nation. At a place called Old River, the Corps therefore had built a great fortress--part dam, part valve--to restrain the flow of the Atchafalaya and compel the Mississippi to stay where it is.

In Iceland, in 1973, an island split open without warning and huge volumes of lava began moving in the direction of a harbor scarcely half a mile away. It was not only Iceland's premier fishing port (accounting for a large percentage of Iceland's export economy) but it was also the only harbor along the nation's southern coast. As the lava threatened to fill the harbor and wipe it out, a physicist named Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson suggested a way to fight against the flowing red rock--initiating an all-out endeavor unique in human history. On the big island of Hawaii, one of the world's two must eruptive hot spots, people are not unmindful of the Icelandic example. McPhee went to Hawaii to talk with them and to walk beside the edges of a molten lake and incandescent rivers.

Some of the more expensive real estate in Los Angeles is up against mountains that are rising and disintegrating as rapidly as any in the world. After a complex coincidence of natural events, boulders will flow out of these mountains like fish eggs, mixed with mud, sand, and smaller rocks in a cascading mass known as debris flow. Plucking up trees and cars, bursting through doors and windows, filling up houses to their eaves, debris flows threaten the lives of people living in and near Los Angeles' famous canyons. At extraordinary expense the city has built a hundred and fifty stadium-like basins in a daring effort to catch the debris.

Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking in his vivid depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those who would attempt to wrest control from her--stubborn, often ingenious, and always arresting characters.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1989

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

John McPhee

132 books1,500 followers
Princeton University and Cambridge University educated John Angus McPhee. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association since 1965 with the New Yorker as a staff writer. In 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 Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1968), Levels of the Game (1968), The Crofter and the Laird (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards. Selections from these books make up The John McPhee Reader (1976).

Since 1977, the year in which McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the bestselling Coming into the Country appeared in print, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published Giving Good Weight (collection, 1979), Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), La Place de la Concorde Suisse (1984), Table of Contents (collection, 1985), Rising from the Plains (1986), Heirs of General Practice (in a paperback edition, 1986), The Control of Nature (1989), Looking for a Ship (1990), Assembling California (1993), The Ransom of Russian Art (1994), The Second John McPhee Reader (1996), Irons in the Fire (collection, 1997), Annals of the Former World (1998). Annals of the Former World, McPhee’s tetralogy on geology, was published in a single volume in 1998 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The Founding Fish was published in 2002.


Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
1,977 (45%)
4 stars
1,677 (38%)
3 stars
569 (13%)
2 stars
110 (2%)
1 star
25 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 377 reviews
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,509 followers
December 1, 2018
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 volcanoes bubble, and that Los Angeles has random fires and mudslides. Yet I didn't know the science of it. As he always does, John McPhee here blends history, science, biography, anecdote and the occasional personal intrusion to explain it all. Man versus Nature. Who will win?


People settled in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They became thriving cities and important ports well before it became apparent there was a problem. The Atchafalaya (rhymes with jambalaya) runs roughly parallel to the Mississippi. It just lies there quiet and smooth. It lies there like a big alligator in a low slough, with time on its side, waiting--waiting to outwit the Corps of Engineers--and hunkering down ever lower in its bed and presenting a sort of maw to the Mississippi, into which the river could fall.

It is the Atchafalaya's raison d'être to capture the Mississippi. And it would, maybe already would have, if Nature was allowed to run its course. The Mississippi "is just itching to go that way," Congress was told in 1928. And if it did, well, New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be underwater and the Saints would be playing home football games about 150 miles to the west.

So they built levees, and then ever higher and higher levees. But the Atchafalaya is not going away, nor is its seeming purpose. Stay tuned.

One of the reasons I read McPhee is for his humor, which can sneak up on you. In referencing The War of 1812, McPhee begins a sentence: When that unusual year was in its thirty-sixth month . . .

Cooling the Lava

I said above that sometimes people settle in a place for the view and you can see why folks are reluctant to leave Vestmannaeyjar, a town and archipelago off the south coast of Iceland:

Until, of course, this happens:

Iceland, I learned, is volcanic, a hot spot. Or, as McPhee writes: Iceland is the geologic chocolate shop of this minor planet.

But there's that view. So some people left, but others came back.

A lot of this section is about how Iceland tries to control the lava flow, shooting streams of water at it that works, sort of. It worked well enough that other countries brought the Icelanders in to see if they could help.

They couldn't help in Hawaii. There McPhee went, took the obligatory visits to Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Then he went to Kilauea and, after appropriate waivers, climbed to the top. McPhee wrote: Kilauea since 1983 has not been quiet for fifteen minutes.

I read the section on Kilauea, paused for a sip of red wine since it was handy, and heard my cellphone buzz with an alert: Kilauea had just erupted. My reading life gets spookier and spookier.

Anyhow, I also read McPhee because he just writes with a wide-angle lens. Speaking of Mauna Loa:

The long mountain is fifty miles long. Viewed from the edge of the ocean, it is an astonishing trompe-l'oeil, because it is so smoothly constructed that it appears in two dimensions and presents a deceptive depth of field. It looks like a low friendly hill, a singing dune, at worst a bald Scottish brae. You think, I'll run up there and have a look around before lunch. The long mountain is as high as the Alps. If it were dissected by streams--given promontories and reentrants, serrated by canyons, invaded by shadows--it might look something like the Alps. As is, it's just a massive shield, composed of chilled magma, looking the way the Alps would look if a dentist could repair them.

Los Angeles Against the Mountains

Fires and mudslides in Los Angeles are widely reported on (Oprah's house being front page news), but I never knew the particulars of why they happened. It turns out there are many factors, not excluding human foible.

Los Angeles sprawls. On one side is the Pacific Ocean, and on the other side is the San Gabriel Mountains. On these particular mountains is chaparral which will burn in large swaths. Humans are often the culprit. But when chaparral is consumed by fire it makes the ground essentially waterproof. Then it's a matter of waiting for the winter rains. Boulders come loose, join with mud, and trees and cars and parts of buildings in the way. It's not just the water. It's massive debris, filling swimming pools, garages and houses, and really spoiling the view.

This is a story of debris basins and other human attempts to stop the mountains. Because the people won't move. There's the view, and the celebrities, the money, and sometimes the seeming privacy. As one resident said, "If it gets where I can't pee off my front porch, I'll move."

Oh, and another reason I read McPhee is that he will not say smog. No. Instead he writes this:

The ascending effluents of the smelters, refineries, mills, and factories added a great burden to the marine fog layer--made heavier still as the work force moved about in cars. To describe this ochre cumulus, the world's shortest portmanteau word, which had been coined around 1905, was borrowed from London.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,109 reviews1,843 followers
July 31, 2011
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, actually it was about 7 pm, and it's summer so that meant I still had an hour or so of light, and it was nicer outside than it was in my stuffy apartment so I decided to go outside and read, but I got afraid that I'd zip through the not-so-hilarious re-tellings of bible stories and after standing in the middle of my apartment looking in every direction trying to figure out which book to read next, I just grabbed this one, I don't know why, partly because it was on one of my little cardboard shelves and it was easy to see from where I was standing and I thought I'm not going to care too much about this, I'll be able to give it away when I'm done! And it's only 272 pages long, with sort of big print! Let's go read about the control of nature.

But I was so young and foolish and stupid then, a week ago, last Sunday.

This book is so good!

I can't do any justice to the book by trying to explain what it is about.

If you goto this edition of the book you can read a fairly good description of what the book is about: here!

The easy response to just about any of the three stories that make up the basis for these essays (Man Versus The Mississippi River and it's natural inclination to 'move' to a more efficient route to the Gulf of Mexico and it's propensity to flood places like New Orleans, which is just asking for it; Man Versus slow moving lava and mountain (a fucking mountain, a moving fucking mountain on lava. And not an existing mountain, but a new mountain that didn't already exist, how awesome / twisted / mind bending is that? A big fissure opens in the ground, lava starts seeping out, big fire shit shoots into the sky some other geological stuff happens and from the side of a mountain comes another mountain that is moving and some guys with water pumps are trying to stop it) that are threatening to destroy a harbor on an Icelandic Island; and Man Versus millions of tons of rocks and boulders that come sliding off of mountains on the edge of Los Angeles when the conditions are right and destroy everything in their path), as I was saying, the easy response to these is 'well that's what you get for building / living there. But of course, like just about everything in life, when you start to find out more about the situation the easy response isn't so easy. Yeah, people don't need to have million dollar homes on the edge of mountains just waiting for the right combination of wildfire debris, big rains and loose ground from the very active mountains that are still in the process of rising to send rock slides, which can easily pull an automobile along with it, heading towards the expensive homes (and then these people, have the gall to try to sue for property damage they suffer, and sometimes apparently they even win (but sometimes rationality prevails and they don't and they are told, well you knew the risks)), but what do you do now that they are living there? And that they are living there and they are quite possibly extremely litigious? And then what do you think of the situation when you find out it's not just rich idiots living in those homes, but also pretty much the entire geology department of Cal Tech lives in this danger zone, the people who study what is going on here, and who know all of the dangers better than probably anyone else in the world, and they chose to live there. Can you imagine how great the area must be to knowingly risk having your home wiped out in seconds by raging rocks?

My favorite part of the book was the Volcano essay that made up the center of the book. It was just amazing, and it didn't even need to rely on some of the silliness that Americans provide with their 'I'm going to sue you!' mentality that the very excellent "Los Angeles Against the Mountains" essay had going on it (it was very very good besides some of the silly stories). I don't know who is reading this right now, but you should read this essay, it's called "Cooling the Lava" and I can't put into words how great I thought it was. I'm sort of a bit in love with volcanos after reading it. I'll even cut this review short so that you can go find a copy of this book, or the essay and read it, and hopefully you wont think I steered you too wrong.

The rest of this review would have just been gushing about how much I loved the book, or me saying something like "why are people in Los Angeles so dumb?!?", now go away and read the essay.
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews120 followers
September 7, 2018
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 mitigate against this, the Army Corps of Engineers has built several huge water exchangers that connect the two rivers under the theory that regulating the flow of Mississippi water into the Atchafalaya may forestall grand theft by the latter. As always, McPhee interviews just the right officials and employees at just the right time, and his descriptive similes are jewels: the spillway that transmits Mississippi water into the Atchafalaya goes "sideways, like grain squirting out of a burlap bag."

What do you do when red-hot lava from new or recent volcanoes threatens the nearest towns and cities? In Iceland, you pump literally millions of gallons of cold seawater on the magma, hoping it will stall into solid basalt and (eventually) stop the flow. In Hawaii, you try channelling, playing a dangerous game of curling to make the killer lava go somewhere slightly different than it had intended. This section is called "Cooling the Lava" and it is absolutely enthralling, as are the rugged academics, military folk and plain old citizens McPhee encounters in both places.

The third section shows the full power of civilization, bureaucracy and high technology against the San Gabriel Mountains -- in other words "Los Angeles Against the Mountains" -- and in spite of millions upon millions spent for retaining walls, dry reservoirs to catch rain-loosed mud and dislodged bolders, it remains to be seen who will eventually win. Why, oh why, do people insist on nesting just below these flaky mountains? One reason is to get above the smog zone, making it something that can be seen but not breathed: Recalling that Southern California smog has its origin in natural sea fog:

As you watch it from above through the morning and into the afternoon,
it turns yellow, then ochre, then brown, and sometimes nearly black --
like butter darkening in a skillet.

Verbally, McPhee is also no stranger to humor; lest I introduce spoilers I won't detail the jibes he gets off at one suburban Arby's, but watch out for them!

All three segments, and therefore all of The Control of Nature, come highly recommended. The actual circumstances may have changed since McPhee first wrote his articles that became this can't-put-down book; the author's richly compelling way with words hasn't.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,627 reviews326 followers
December 4, 2022
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', https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... . 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 a rule. (Definite exceptions for some!) But I'm a McPhee fanboy, so YMMV. But his description of the Atchafalaya River "Control" structure vibrating and humming in a flood, seemingly on the verge of failure.... Well, all these years later, it's still doing its job: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Riv...

As are the debris basins above LA, which need periodic cleanout, And the mudslides still happens, sometimes with tragic results. So the book is a little out of date, but well-worth reading. Recommended.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
January 11, 2016
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, an enlightening look at the history of flooding in New Orleans, an appreciation for the significance of the Atchafalaya, and a look at the geology and natural processes in effect in Los Angeles.Overall, the information presented in The Control of Nature is very interesting. Considering that it was published in 1989, and that I was unaware of the specifics involved, it has clearly not become common knowledge, and thus retains a bit of freshness. It might be nice to see a follow-up by the author, particularly as applied to the Mississippi and Los Angeles issues, in light of events since publication. I confess that I did not look for such, and it may well be out there.

While the information in the book was interesting, it seemed to me that the writing was less so. McPhee offers a host of local personalities to illustrate the impact of these issues on people, and generically that approach is sound. Yet, the impact of that approach was minimal. I never felt that his portrayals went beyond what one might find in newspaper reportage of the day. One need not make characters come alive as a good novelist might, but his portrayals rarely rose above the mundane.

I thought the book would have profited from the inclusion of illustrations. There is a brief section in which drawings are shown of structures no longer present in Iceland, but they added little.
Profile Image for J.S..
Author 1 book52 followers
February 12, 2020
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 centuries, but that has the unintended effect of just sending more water to those who live further downriver. The Army Corps of Engineers built and maintains a river control structure that particularly protects those living in the Atchafalaya and New Orleans area, and keeps the end of the river from moving to another place.
Atchafalaya. The word will now come to mind more or less in echo of any struggle against natural forces—heroic or venal, rash or well advised—when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods... I put [a green-and-white sticker that said “ATCHAFALAYA”] in a window of my car. It has been there for many years, causing drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike to veer in close and crowd my lane while staring at a word that signifies collision.

— When the ground split open and started spewing red-hot lava into the sky above Heimaey, the largest island of Vestmannaeyjar in Iceland, some were more worried about protecting the harbor than the homes. When the lava flow started getting close, they began spraying water on it in an attempt to halt it in its tracks. But the lava had to go somewhere.
Even in something as primal as a volcanic eruption, the component of human interference could apparently enter the narrative and, in complex and unpredictable geometries, alter the shape of succeeding events. After the human contribution passed a level higher than trifling, the evolution of the new landscape could in no pure sense be natural. The event had lost its status as a simple act of God. In making war with nature, there was risk of loss in winning.

— The San Gabriel Mountains on the east side of Los Angeles are some of the steepest in the world due to plate tectonics. But in addition to earthquakes, the residents have to deal with fires and floods. And not just floods of water, but debris flows full of boulders, some larger than cars.
“It’s a fantastic place to be in a storm. You hear a sound like giant castanets—boulders clicking together. They’re not pebbles. And there is a scent, which is absolutely heavenly, of the crushed chaparral plants. It’s so fragrant and beautiful it’s eerie to have it associated with something so terrifying. And, God knows, it is terrifying.”

Although the book is a bit dated (first published in 1989), it's still a very interesting read. John McPhee has a clever way with words and it's kind of a pleasure to read, but he's also rather long-winded and frequently sarcastic. He often seems to disparage people for living in such places, even using the word "dingbats" in a couple of odd places. But he also seems to recognize the beauty of these locations. Overall, the book was an enjoyable read and fascinating to consider the power of nature, especially in the face of our hubris to try to modify and control it. However, throughout the book, I couldn't help but think of a quote from Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum theory, who reminds us that we are part of nature, too:

“In classical physics, science started from the belief—or should one say, from the illusion?—that we could describe the world, or at least parts of the world, without any reference to ourselves.”
Profile Image for Jim.
77 reviews255 followers
August 5, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,272 reviews556 followers
December 23, 2018
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 composites of fall out in the land masses themselves are excellent. (City building on deltas with changing tributary accesses and silt build ups to water flow % of the entire system, volcanic hot spots of earth spheres, mountainside "view" buildings on ranges facing a salt sea; those 3 exact posits and the engineering "used" answers here. SO far!)

It only lost a star on the intense engineering particulars and past name drops to all their uses, as this can get quite dry after so many pages. But their names should be far more well known than they are.

It will be a losing battle. Nature has far more time on the job.
Profile Image for Bryan--The Bee’s Knees.
407 reviews56 followers
May 30, 2018
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 have peripheral experience: in Atchafalaya, McPhee describes the efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the Mississippi River contained within its traditional courses, and in Los Angeles Against the Mountains. the efforts of the L.A. County Flood Control District to keep the San Gabriel Mountains from squashing Los Angeles into a molehill. I don't know whether working on the Mississippi River (currently) or living near Los Angeles (about the time McPhee was writing this) should have made me more interested or less, but the truth is I found it hard to pay attention. That I had nothing at all similar to the experiences related in Cooling the Lava, where Icelanders saved their town by spraying water on a lava flow that threatened their town, didn't seem to make much difference though--I still had a hard time maintaining interest.

I can't think of any good reason this should be so--McPhee is a good writer. Not too clever, slyly humorous on occasion but not to the point of overdoing it, informative and exhaustive; I can't point to anything that's wrong here. So I'm going to chalk it up to wrong book at the wrong time. That I found his book Looking for a Ship fascinating tells me that I'll still give McPhee plenty of other chances.
Profile Image for Christine Henry.
39 reviews3 followers
June 4, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Dave.
1,121 reviews28 followers
November 18, 2018
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 around Los Angeles—was particularly disturbing today.
2 reviews
February 24, 2009
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 United States. Icelanders confront flowing red lava in an attempt to save a crucial harbor. In Los Angeles, basins are built to catch devastating debris flows from the San Gabriel Mountains.

Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies 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 wrest control from her stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters."

John's books frequently appear serialized in the New Yorker. Over the years I've read all of his 29 books. Many of his books like 'Basin to Range' are slow, many would consider them dull" because they're primarily about geology. But individually and collectively they're my favorite books and I reread them on a regular basis.

They're intensely interesting: 'Coming into the Country' is a collection of stories about the people of Alaska (way pre Sarah Palin), Informative to a fault: 'Oranges'
and wonderfully absorbing, his newest, 'Uncommon Carriers'.

'Uncommon Carriers': Again an overview: "Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the
French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the “tight-assed” Illinois River on a “towboat” pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being “a good deal longer than the Titanic.” And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839.

Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author’s warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character." I enjoyed this book so much that I tried to read just a few pages a day to make it last, reading other books the rest of the time

His little book, 'the making of a bark canoe' is classic McPhee. Full of painstaking detail about one young man's obsession with making authentic bark canoes, with simple tools, and canoeing trips with him to test them.

John McPhee is an avid outdoorsman. It permeates his books.

His books grown on one, become old friends and companions in life. A calm accurate, enthralling and literate observer of the worlds he discovers for the rest of us. Perhaps the best counter to too much fast and electronic information that I know of in out interactive, online, plugged in world, which I love also.

Profile Image for Amber Foxx.
Author 13 books67 followers
September 15, 2014
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 Carl Hiaasen level, except these stories don’t take place in Florida. And they are real.
Written in 1989, Control of Nature analyzes the economic, social and geological forces behind three man-vs.-nature struggles: the attempt to force the Mississippi River to behave in the way that permanently settled human communities want it to, and not to change course when it naturally would have done so; the fight to cool a lava flow in Iceland and save a fishing harbor; and the most absurd of all somehow, Los Angeles Against the Mountains, the persistence of people living in the eroding and also rising San Gabriels, where the combination of tectonic forces lifting the mountains and erosion and fire on their slopes leads to a constant flow of rocks toward LA. Big ones. Tons of them.
The most depressing section was about the Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina made it all too clear how vulnerable people are when they live in places where only many man-made interventions have enabled them to be there—where it would be an entirely different ecosystem and landscape if left alone.
As we know from the story of post-Katrina New Orleans, some people go back, though lot of people didn’t. On the island in Iceland where the volcano erupted, a lot of people didn’t go back, either, but many did. McPhee does a good job of getting the points of view of the people who choose the risk. Some people have no choice—they were born in a threatened place and don’t have the means to move, but others build or buy expensive homes on the slopes of unstable mountains. He finds experts on the geology of the San Gabriels who consciously live right in the path of potential debris flows, as well as real estate agents who blithely talk their way around the risk, reassuring potential buyers more than they ought to be reassured. McPhee’s interest in the human beings involved as well as the earth makes him a great story-teller. A little distractible, a little inclined to collect as many anecdotes as possible, but never dull. He can make alarming and complex scientific material readable without making it any less alarming. The issues are not old. I did a little research before writing this review. People studying the Old River Control structure where the Atchafalaya is being—for now—prevented from capturing the Mississippi still say McPhee’s article that was the basis for this book is the best thing ever written on the topic. Debris flows are still endangering California towns. People still live where nature could cover them up with water, lava or rocks on short notice, and they love those places or need them economically. Taxes pay for the structures that make it possible for them to be there, and for the recovery when disaster strikes. Decide what you think about that, after you read this book.
Profile Image for Scott.
263 reviews19 followers
July 23, 2010
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 River to the Gulf of Mexico, shortening the river's route to the Gulf, but destroying the economy of South Louisiana in the process. As this was written about 20 years ago, the modern reader cannot help but consider what has happened to New Orleans in light of Hurricane Katrina, and see the numerous warning signs that everyone has been aware of for decades.

The second tale is of Heimaney, an island off the coast of Iceland, where a volcanic eruption threatened the best harbor for fishermen in the south of the country. By earnestly pumping water onto the lava, people were able to influence the flows and save much of the harbor. The town survived, battered and uneasy in the shadow of a brand new volcanic mountain.

In "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," McPhee provides an account of the debris flows that threaten much of the metropolitan area's hills through the natural cycles of fire and flood. It is clear that the man-made "solutions" and continued land development have created situations where debris flows can be much more hazardous. It is also clear that, even among those who should know better, the lure of living above the smog is nearly irresistible.

This would be an excellent book for a discussion group composed of engineering students. It also should be required reading for civic leaders. The author makes clear that more intelligently planned development requires a better understanding of the competition between the land and its natural systems and the desires of humans. It is also clear that the economic and human costs of ignoring Mother Nature continue to plague our societies.

Profile Image for Eric Althoff.
124 reviews20 followers
February 10, 2010
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 and New Orleans. It should come as no surprise--especially given the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina--that the attempt has been...less than all-successful. Written in 1989, this story especially resonates with what came only 16 years later for the Delta...and WILL come again.

Then McPhee travels to Iceland, where an erupting volcano's lava flow threatens to fill in an important fishing harbor, following the brave (or vain) fight by the Icelanders to cool the lava flow before it completely destroys the economic center of their country.

And lastly, to my adopted town Los Angeles, where the San Gabriel Mountains continue to crumble as plate tectonics push them up vertiginously and unstably, causing "debris flows" for those brave/foolish/enterprising folks who build homes in the canyons--and right in the firing line of the mudslides.

This is a fascinating, humbling and frequently amusing read, almost classically Greek in its depictions of humankind's Sisyphusian efforts to circumvent God and Nature's plans and the inevitable disasters that follow. I live in Pasadena, at the very foot of the San Gabriels, right in the line of fire. And perhaps it is Providential that in a few short days I will travel to New Orleans...perhaps more keenly aware, as I sleep (and drink) of the dammed (and damned) river ready to swallow, at some indeterminate date, the neo-French settlement once and for all.

It WILL happen.

Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,027 followers
September 18, 2008
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.
Profile Image for Susan.
397 reviews88 followers
February 19, 2019
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, the river wanted a new outlet to the Gulf and would have found it in the Atchafalaya River, a faster route because of the gradient and because it was the shortest route. It was predicted to happen naturally by 1991. But if it had, the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, to say nothing of the industry which had been built up around them would have been cut off. And the Atchafalaya Swamp country (Cajun country) would also be changed. So the Corps of Engineers, beginning in the Sixties built a flood control structure that was designed to send no more than 30% of the water down the Atchafalaya while the rest was directed down the “old route”.

On an Icelandic island which was essentially a fishing community, a new volcano sprouted and seemed about not only to engulf the town but to destroy the harbor, a harbor from which fisherman caught a major portion of Iceland's main export, fish. Eventually they tried using water from high powered hoses to cool the lava flow and direct it away from the harbor. Much of the town was inundated, but the harbor was saved, even though it ended up with a new volcano on its edge.

In Los Angeles, people began to move to the hills in front of the San Gabriel Mountains and the more the hillsides were built up and the more people moved to the hills, the more disastrous floods and debris runs caused death and destruction. The cause was pretty complex. The chaparral would burn and become water proof. Then when winter rainstorms came, the water would not soak into the ground but cause floods and debris runs. Whole trees and huge boulders would rush down the mountain taking with it anything in the path: whole automobiles and other large objects from the highest homes and picking up more as it went. The solution was debris fans which channeled the debris to pickup points from which the city hauled it away, millions of tons.... these debris fans were pretty successful but there was no dissuading people from buying or building in the hills, higher and higher into the hills. Because these debris runs occurred infrequently and residents for the most part didn’t understand the conditions that made them possible, the danger was not taken seriously enough.

Fascinating book. Published in 1989. We still hear of these awful floods and debris runs in LA, though I never realized there was more to it than floods. The Mississippi has not deserted New Orleans though the ecological problems there make one wonder. Vestmannseyjar has not been overcome with lava and evidently Hawaii has learned some from their example. I’d love to have a 2019 update on these projects.
293 reviews2 followers
August 20, 2019
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 finds a steeper path to the gulf, and the river's course changes.

Around 1950, scientists realized that the Mississippi was getting ready to relocate a few hundred miles west. That would have left New Orleans without a port or drinking water. Ditto Baton Rouge. The Army Corps of Engineers was directed to make sure that didn't happen. They have succeeded (for now) but with an unending comedy of fixes to fixes to fixes. For example, they might build a three foot levy to prevent flooding. But the former flood plain, denied water and sediment, subsides. So the levy now has to be six feet or nine feet to keep the river in its banks. That it does, but... unintended consequences follow.

2. A volcano in Iceland erupted. The lava flow threatened to fill in Iceland's only southern port. Civil defense authorities fought the lava flow by pouring millions of gallons of water on the leading edge of the lava. The idea was to cool it enough to harden and form a dam, stopping the lava from overflowing the port. Did it work? Well, there's still a port there. But the town got wiped out by the redirected lava.

3. The San Gabriel mountains in southern California are having a growth spurt. They are thrusting up at a lightning pace, at least in geologic terms. Boulders become exposed to the elements and gravity. Periodic wild fires turn the mountainsides into playground slides. When a heavy rain comes, debris flows (like wet cement spiced with Volkswagen-sized boulders) slide down the hills and invite themselves into the homes at the bottom of the mountains. Engineers design basins and drainage canals to catch the debris flows, but they need to be emptied continuously, and where do you put this stuff?

The author has a dry sense of humor and resists the urge to be snarky. His point is clear: If it's human ingenuity against nature, put your money on nature.
Profile Image for Steve.
60 reviews3 followers
February 24, 2017
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 like to see what living on the edge is like in such exotic locations as Louisiana and Los Angeles (what!).

I thought this book was quite fascinating - the two U.S. locations that were explored were quite eye opening. I thought I was pretty well aware of what's going on nationally, but some things just slip past. The story about the islands off the coast of Iceland was also nice, McPhee gave a good description of the mentality of Icelanders. Collectively, I think the three stories paint a diverse picture of peoples' attempts to "improve" their surroundings for material gain, but they're lacking something.

As I read this book, it became very evident that they have been published serially (in the New Yorker) and the three sections of the book were not really tied together in any direct way (besides the obvious thematic connection). It just struck me as a somewhat lazy thing to do after putting together all the research on each of the individual bits. That aspect doesn't take away from the purpose of the book, but it's a missed opportunity to add more analysis for readers who have missed the original publications. Speaking of analysis, if you're looking for a strong opinion on the various projects that are discussed, you'll have to look somewhere beyond this book. This is not exactly a detraction: McPhee provided a fair amount of evidence to describe each of the projects and the effect on the relevant communities. You can make up your own mind on the value of the engineering efforts, and will have a good starting point if you'd like to go deeper in any of these areas. That said, simply by writing these books McPhee expressed his own opinion on the apparent follies awaiting nature to take its course.

As you may have gathered by now, this review has purposefully skirted the actual contents of the book. This is not because there's nothing to discuss, but rather the story is better told by McPhee than me. It's an entertaining book that delivers exactly what I expected from the title and cover. Could it have done more? Sure. Was it worth going through? I think so.
Profile Image for Betawolf.
372 reviews1,471 followers
September 21, 2019
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 human settlements. The continued existence of New Orleans and Morgan City can be largely attributed to the bloodyminded struggle of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been wrestling with the Mississippi River for decades in an effort to prevent it from going where it will, eventually, go.

2. The people of Iceland went to war with a volcano and, acting as foot soldiers for the sea, won.

3. By any traditional reckoning, Los Angeles has clearly been condemned by several deities. I knew wildfires were an issue there, but I didn't realise that a lot of the explosively flammable brush actually renders the ground below a shallow layer hydrophobic, contributing to massive debris flows that attempt to sweep away or at least bury most of the city (which also sits on top of a massive tectonic faultline). You could feel McPhee's jaw dropping as he spoke to people who brushed off the suggestion that their house could quite probably be washed away by gigantic debris swells.

Profile Image for cassady.
21 reviews
January 13, 2023
3 stories of human attempts to tame the forces of nature as we build our towns and cities in volatile geologic zones. humans survive and thrive in louisiana parishes with certain floods as the mississippi morphs with the atchafalaya. humans fight lava floes from icelandic volcanoes with cool water and see their geography completely altered within weeks. and stubborn los angelenos keep putting houses up in regular paths of destruction, suing cities when those houses are engulfed in debris flows.

"Atchafalaya. The word will now come to mind more or less in echo of any struggle against natural forces- heroic or venal, rash or well advised- when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods."
Profile Image for Mitchell.
32 reviews12 followers
November 23, 2017
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
Profile Image for Chase.
86 reviews
March 28, 2023
What a fun and entertaining book! The writing style is oddly disjointed and given to digression, but it makes for an enjoyable read. The writing style felt really familiar and it turns out I’d already read the essay about the San Gabriel Mountains, so it was really fun to find more work by the same author.
26 reviews
June 28, 2020
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, will become more intense throughout the century.
Profile Image for Drew.
168 reviews4 followers
May 25, 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 happens. Progress in the narrative is slow. Ffs, one of the chapters is about changing the flow of a river. I don’t think anyone could make that interesting in writing. Certainly not when the subject of the writing is the actual changing of the river, and not a fully fleshed-out person we can relate to.

Poorly executed, sad to say.
Profile Image for Becka McMorris.
57 reviews
November 21, 2022
Required class reading - only one of the three essays was actually enjoyable for me (the Iceland one). The Atchafalaya essay in particular was hard to read. A pretty informative book but not particularly interesting
1 review
May 19, 2012
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 and depicts a heated battle between some Icelanders and devastating flows of lava in his second essay appropriately titled Cooling the Lava. He concludes with his essay called Los Angeles Against the Mountains, which, as some may have cleverly deduced from the title, is about the ongoing efforts to preserve Los Angeles from the shifting the Santa Gabriel mountains.
There is no question that McPhee is a master story teller and is capable of conveying complex material in a way that an average person can understand. However, some readers may find McPhee’s organizational strategy confusing. Each of the three broad essays is cut into segments. He uses these divisions as transitions between different stories, therefore the content of one section may seem completely unrelated to the one that followed. Oftentimes he will jump around to different places and different periods of time. He did so to analyze a situation from multiple perspectives allowing the reader to see the events that caused the dilemma to develop, how it affected different regions, and what new problems have developed once the original one was resolved. While they do make it hard to follow at times and does slightly impact its readability, his many different anecdotes did serve the important purpose of adding depth to his point. Overall the benefits of his choice largely outweigh the costs.
Although the topic of the first essay is indeed the threat of the Mississippi changing course, the purpose of the essays as a whole is not to merely recount the tale but to use it as a tool to teach the world a lesson. Rather than tell people that there are dangers to living on this planet, something most people already know, he chooses to warn the world of the unforeseen consequences of our actions.
As seen throughout his book, just as people thought the primary concern had been addressed, a whole slew of other factors that were once overshadowed came into play. Some outcomes can be predicted but many, usually the negative ones, arrive unexpectedly or worse, go unnoticed.
Having written these remarkable works many years after these problems were discovered and dealt with, McPhee attempts to remind the public that while it seems Mother Nature may have gone down this round, this is no time for complacency, because she is nowhere near being out for the count. And furthermore, it brings us to ask the question: Is it in humanity's best interest to ultimately win? Like a child poking an anthill, humans seem to have had no idea of the vastness that lay beneath the tiny earthly mound to which we devoted all of our attention. So, perhaps McPhee's central point was not the about the conflict itself between man and nature, but rather the underlying effects humans have that exacerbate the conflict. This period of mass global warming are perfect examples of how human actions such as CO2 emissions, pollution and habitat destruction can have devastating consequences and shows that even in times of peace, McPhee’s argument still holds true.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 377 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.