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.”