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The control of nature (1989)

por John McPhee

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1,3931913,678 (4.24)39
"The Control of Nature" is John McPhee's bestselling account of places where people are locked in combat with nature. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strageties and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her - stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters.… (mais)
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Mostrando 1-5 de 18 (seguinte | mostrar todos)
This book is AMAZING so far and I am about on page 50. I am so glad he has written another several feet of books that I can start next.... ( )
  caedocyon | Mar 6, 2024 |
7/8/22
  laplantelibrary | Jul 8, 2022 |
As far as I'm concerned Encounters With the Archdruid will always be my favorite work of his, because of the fascinating interaction between the characters in that book. McPhee really let their personalities take center stage there, and while The Control of Nature features excellent writing as usual, the focus is more on geological features than people. Since people are on the whole more interesting than rocks, this book suffered a little in comparison, though thanks to McPhee's tremendous talents he's still able to bring his locations to life. The Control of Nature is divided into 3 sections, and the overriding theme can be summed up as "people dealing with the consequences of building things where they shouldn't". Humans have tried to force rigid order on restless nature with dams, basins, and barriers since the beginning of recorded history, of course, but the stakes have only gotten higher over time, and our collective efforts to impose our will on the elements is plenty fascinating here even if the characters within the book are not.

The first, longest, and best section recounts the history of the Army Corps of Engineers' struggles to tame the mighty Mississippi, with particular concern for the mounting danger posed by the Atchafalaya River and its increasingly attractive drainage basin. Over the centuries, people have built quite a civilization in one of the most frequently flooded swamps in the world, and it is the Corps' thankless task to protect that civilization, building ever-higher levees, locks, and dams in what frequently looks like a self-defeating enterprise. It seems almost impossible to balance the often-incompatible needs of the various interest groups of farmers, fishermen, and city dwellers as the Mississippi tries to flood and shift the way it's been doing since time immemorial. The inherent drama and hubris in the idea of containing a river like that from going where it wants is masterfully explored, and these lessons of the limits of simply piling up earthworks are more relevant than ever in the post-Katrina era.

The second section is about Iceland's and Hawaii's struggles with volcanoes. While both island groups are essentially at the complete mercy of the lava gods, Iceland's more defiant attitude towards its eruptions makes for the bigger share of the section. The main action of the story is the struggle to save the harbor of Heimaey, a fishing village, from a lava flow via the high-tech method of pointing a bunch of water hoses at the lava to cool it down, plus building channeling barriers. It works. Iceland is right over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which guarantees it plenty of exposure to eruptions, and residents are constantly faced with the paradoxes inherent in residing on land that suffers from constant threat of immolation. I was surprised by how effective their "pour water on the lava" tactics were in the small scale, but sometimes there's only so much about millions of cubic meters of lava you can do. Hawaii has a much more fatalistic attitude, the reasons for which are not fully explored.

The third section focused on Los Angeles' debris flows, which I hadn't realized was among the major hazards they had (at least compared to things like earthquakes), but it seems that the gradual elimination of natural fires in the chaparral scrub of the hills has generated an unhealthy cycle of brush accumulation --> incredible fires --> heavy rains --> mudslides. I found the people in this section the least sympathetic for some reason - somehow I can understand poor shrimpers living in Louisiana swamps despite the hurricanes and floods, or fishermen building on volcanic islands regardless of the occasional eruption, but a bunch of rich people building expensive houses in vulnerable arroyos and canyons leaves me feeling like they should know better, especially when the city governments have to build a bunch of catchment dams that the same people complain about constantly. Either live in the city or live in the woods, but that kind of halfway "naturish" development is a big drain on civic resources and is begging for the kind of disasters on display here. Is it hubris, or just dumb? ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Control of Nature by John McPhee is a 272 page book that consists of three essays McPhee wrote on man's attempts to thwart Mother Nature. They were initially published as New Yorker essays and gathered into this book. Two of the essays seem to highlight the folly of such actions and the third applauds the heroism, foresight, and organization of man while pointing out the futility of these efforts. It is amazing how relevant this 30 year old book still is for the reader.

The first essay is about the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. The first point in the essay is that this river is really the Mississippi River - or would be if man left nature to make the decision. The floods of the 20th century have all been about the river finding the path of least resistance to the Gulf of Mexico and man's attempts to keep that from happening in order to preserve the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge and the petrochemical corridor between the two. It is clear what McPhee and most of the residents of Louisiana think of this and they are at opposite ends of the scale. The Louisianans want to keep the river where it is so that they can continue to farm, fish, and carry on as close to what they think is natural as long as possible. In telling the story McPhee makes the folly of that line of thinking very visible.

The second essay is about a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1973. This was a continuation of the eruptions in the late 1960's that saw the birth of several new islands in the North Atlantic that included the famous island of Surtsey. In this essay, written at some point in the 1980's, McPhee chronicles the attempts of the Icelanders to save the harbor of their town and keep it from filling up with lava. What they did was cool the lava enough to change its course a few miles and thus save the harbor. In exchange they sacrificed half of the town to the lava. McPhee juxtaposes this eruption with that found on the island of Hawaii and the result is fascinating reading. The Icelanders are a pragmatic bunch and they know that there is a high likelihood that there will be another eruption that will probably destroy the harbor and they know that nature has all the time on its side, but for now they are content.

The third essay is an examination of the fire and mudslide disasters that plague the area around Los Angeles, California. There is a detailed description of the climate and the rainfall patterns. Included in this is an explanation of the infamous Santa Ana Winds and the propensity for them to dump millions of gallons of water into the San Gabriel mountains. There is a geological description of the San Gabriels and why they are the fastest growing mountains in the continental U.S. and how this contributes to the problem of cycle of fire and mudslides. There is also a detailed description of the plants that grow in the semi-arid desert, called the Chaparral. These plants keep the loose soil in place and keep the mountains from sliding. However, they are very flammable. The properties that keep them alive are the ones that make them susceptible to fire. The mudslides are the main thrust of this essay and the descriptions of the events being examined are riveting and full of interesting characters and ecological positions and so very relevant to the events of this last month. ( )
  benitastrnad | Sep 28, 2020 |
Another John McPhee classic! Simple geological stories exquisitely explained. The Mississippi River, Iceland, Hawaii and lava flows, and finall debris flows from the San Gabriel Mtns. outside Los Angeles. All confronted by man in full hubris mode. Finished the book while in Cusco, Peru....will leave it here. ( )
  untraveller | Dec 28, 2018 |
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John McPheeautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Krupat, CynthiaBook and cover designerautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Olafsson, GudjonIlustradorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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Three hundred miles up the Mississippi River from its mouth -- many parishes above New Orleans and well north of Baton Rouge -- a navigation lock in the Mississippi's right bank allows ships to drop out of the river.
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"The Control of Nature" is John McPhee's bestselling account of places where people are locked in combat with nature. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strageties and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her - stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters.

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