The Control of Nature

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The Control of Nature


Book excerpt

By: John McPhee

Date: 1989

Source: McPhee, John. "Atchafalaya." The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989.

About the Author: American author John McPhee (1931–) has written more than twenty nonfiction books, many of them notable contributions about humans and their interaction with the environment, since 1965. A native of Princeton, New Jersey, he attended both Princeton University and Cambridge University before embarking on a career in journalism with Time magazine. Two of his books, Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy, were nominated for National Book Awards. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977 and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World, his collected writings about geologists and their work.


English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote, "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." John McPhee's The Control of Nature describes and implicitly questions the struggle to control nature that, once started, cannot be abandoned without grave consequences. The Control of Nature consists of three separate essays. The first, titled "Atchafalaya" describes an attempt to keep the Mississippi River in a channel that it no longer wishes to occupy. The second and third essays, titled "Cooling the Lava" and "Los Angeles Against the Mountains" describe the efforts undertaken to divert a lava flow headed for a town on the Icelandic island of Heimaey and engineering solutions to the deadly debris flow in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California.

If nature were to have its way, the Mississippi River would abandon its current channel and bypass New Orleans. Its flow would be captured by the nearby Atchafalaya River, which lies lower than the Mississippi and would have provided a more efficient path to the sea. There is nothing unusual about this, for it is the way that rivers work over centuries and millennia. The economic effects of a stream captured by the Atchafalaya, however, would be devastating. New Orleans and the string of petrochemical plants stretching upriver would lose their fresh water supply, their access to the open ocean, and their river access to the rest of the United States.

"Atchafalaya" is primarily about Old River Control, a massive dam-like diversion structure 300 miles (483 kilometers) upriver from New Orleans. Named for a river channel connecting the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, Old River Control was designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the proportion of the Mississippi flowing into the Atchafalaya is maintained at its 1950 level, in effect freezing the dynamic river system in time. The proportion of flow being diverted from the Mississippi had been steadily increasing since the middle of the nineteenth century and had reached 30 percent by 1950. Without intervention, the Atchafalaya would have eventually captured the entire flow of the Mississippi and diverted it away from the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In "Atchafalaya," McPhee also elaborates upon the precarious position of New Orleans next to a river that should not be flowing where it is. The city lies in a topographic bowl lower than the bodies of water that surround it, which are kept at bay by a complicated system of levees that require constant maintenance. He goes on to explain how the containment of floodwater to benefit commerce and reduce flood damage has starved coastal regions of sediment and decreased their ability to buffer hurricane storm surges.


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McPhee's description of New Orleans was remarkably prescient in light of the levee collapses and catastrophic flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005. Beyond that, however, all three sections of the book speak to the broader issue of the wisdom of attempting to control nature. Some would argue that a decision to battle nature on the scale of Old River Control should be couched in terms of hubris, not wisdom, because the river will ultimately win. All it will take is a lapse in maintenance or a series of events not imagined by the engineers, or perhaps something as simple as the passing of time. If the Mississippi cannot flow through the Old River channel into the Atchafalaya, it will find somewhere else.

Viewed in retrospect and with a modern understanding of geologic processes, one might argue that New Orleans should never have been built or at least not allowed to grow into a major city. Likewise for homes in the unstable mountains surrounding Los Angeles and the unnamed Icelandic town on the erupting volcanic island of Heimaey. But, once cities have begun to grow it is not easy or even desirable to stop the process, let alone reverse it. It would be practically impossible to close down and relocate major cities susceptible to flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and other hazards. The economic and cultural benefits of a thriving city, moreover, may outweigh the costs of possible future catastrophies. Although the control of nature may be a losing proposition in the long run, in many cases there may be no other practical choice.



Reuss, Martin. Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800–1995. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.

Web sites

Center for Land Use Interpretation. "Old River Control Structure." 〈〉 (accessed January 30, 2006).

O'Brien, Greg. Mississippi History Now. "Making the Mississippi Over Again: The Development of River Control in Mississippi." 〈〉 (accessed January 30, 2006).

U.S. Geological Survey. "Geologic Hazards Team." 〈〉 (accessed January 30, 2006).

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