The Control of Nature by John McPhee

The Control of Nature is a history and non-fiction book written in 1989 by John McPhee. The novel is a combination of three essays which attempt to deal with universal themes such as human efforts to effect, direct or thwart natural processes. McPhee’s writing comprises of “Atchafalaya,” “Cooling the Lava” and “Los Angeles against the Mountains.”  The three essays primarily focus on water whereby fundamentally in two of the cases water is an adversary while in the third case it is an ally (Alwynne, 64). In “Atchafalaya,” the focus is on the attempt of the United States Army Corps of Engineers to control the directional flow of the Mississippi River through curbing it from altering its course. Consequently displaying water as an adversary due to the failed attempt while in “Cooling the Lava” water as an ally in the case of Heimaey residents in Iceland who used water to spray on volcanic lava which saved their harbor. Lastly, in “Los Angeles against the Mountains” water as a rival focus on the residents of the San Gabriel Mountains whose failed attempt to curb the destruction of their houses by debris flows. Therefore, human vanity, rivers’ ambivalent nature and American’s relations to the land are the key concepts in a link to the essays which need some more evaluation.

Concerning “Atchafalaya,” McPhee displays human vanity since the efforts of the US Army engineers to manage Mississippi River’s course. During the mid-19th Century, the Atchafalaya River erosive nature threatened to take charge of the course of Mississippi River. Notably, the rise in the ability to get erosive of the Atchafalaya River around the 1940s enabled it to capture the Red River (Alwynne, 64). Consequently, the fear of the US army based on Mississippi River losing its course got based on facts which prompted them to try and regulate the river’s lower course. Significantly, residents living on the lower side of the river depended on the water which made the engineers develop the Old River Control Project which got completed in the year 1963(Alwynne, 64). The aim of the project was flood control through setting up of locks which were to allow boats to maneuver between the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya-Red River. Also, the building of the ten miles floods way to link to regulate the flow of Atchafalaya through the diversion of some of the floodwater of the Mississippi River thus maintaining its course. “The United States Congress opted that ‘the distribution of the flow of the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya Rivers is in great proportions, therefore, should get regulated (McPhell, pg. 11). The act proved that its man’s nature to go against nature and that is what life is.

Since the project allowed the engineers to control the systems of the rivers they were supposed to bring in balance because of the competing interests between users. For instance, the shrimp fishermen and the craw fishermen where the craw fishermen lobbied for more water because of the distributary mashes while the craw fishermen lobbied for less water. The failure of the project struck due to the acts of only focusing on political problems rather than technical issues (Giroux, 64). Other bizarre results of the Old River Control Project jotted by McPhee included issues such as how the Mississippi River flows amid the levees which are meters higher than the landscape and how the Atchafalaya marshes silt up spreading by the floodwater on the subsiding scene causing erosion on Louisiana coastal regions. Therefore, “Nature in this state became the state’s enemy” (Alwynne, 6). The failed attempts to build a practical project sympathetically illuminates how humans trigger their malfunction through destructive actions targeting God’s acts and nature. Hence human vanity is illuminated.

The second essay by McPhee, “Cooling the Lava” displays water as a friend to the American people. In the year 1973, the residents of Heimacy, which is the largest island of the Vestmannaeyjar in Southeast coastal region of Iceland attempted to thwart Eldfell lava from not only annihilating Heimacy but also clogging of the harbor. The efforts combined to prevent such destruction was made by the townsfolk and volunteers who used fire hoses and water pumps to pour seawater on the lava. However much of these collaborative efforts seemed motivational, the central government was skeptical of these operations. The residents who participated in these attempts despite the government’s fatalistic attitude hoped to solidify the lava and develop a barrier that the lava could flow behind (Alwynne, 64). Aside from that Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson, a physicist native of Iceland believes that ceasing lava flow is possible through cooling and the implementation of his notion gets reflected upon by McPhee during the February 1973 attempt by Heimacy residents to do precisely that. The fact that Heimacy residents did use water to come up with a solution on how to save their land showed the relationship with the land.

Finally, in the last essay, “Los Angeles against the Mountains” the primary focus by McPhee is on the debris flow of San Gabriel Mountains which is an island in Los Angeles. The destruction caused by these flowing debris from the mountains included the fires flowing via flammable shrubs which covered the slopes of the mountain hence creating the removal of the ground cover. According to McPhee, 10% of these fires get triggers from lightning and the major part caused by humans (Alwynne, 64). Considering the vegetation found in chaparral regions, they aid in suppressing and thwarting debris flows through their adaptability feature of burning for around forty years. However, over time the accumulation of this burned anchoring vegetation eventually forms highly flammable material. Consequently, causing occasional rain falls in the mountains from the bare slopes dripping in canyons (Alwynne, 65). Los Angeles built around 120 dams in valleys which were to curb clogging of the channels that replaced the natural drainage system in the accumulated areas. The dams on the Los Angeles River made its bed and banks concrete which caused the boulders not to run producing strange sounds during the 1934 floods. The recurrence of scenarios of the failures of the debris-basin system to regulate the falling mountains proved that no amount of attention thwarts such people from tampering with the ambivalent nature of rivers.

Conclusively, the human nature, ambivalent nature of rivers and the relationship between humans and land after the Civil War gets displayed in the three essays written by McPhee. Water gets illustrated as simultaneously as a valued resource, hence human’s ally and destructive resource thus human’s rival. The themes bring up contentious issues of not only geomorphological aspects but also the technical aspects. McPhee reveals that social projects are directly related to economic and political agendas and that environmental concepts get politicized. Evidently, projects string along both costs and repercussions as displayed in “Atchafalaya,” “Cooling the Lava” and “Los Angeles against the Mountains” in the book The Control of Nature by McPhee. Therefore, the book describes human nature to interfere with nature as what life is.



Beaudoin, Alwynne. Book Review: “The Control of Nature” by John McPhee. Geology. 20. 64-65. (1991).

McPhee, John. The Control of Nature. Macmillan. (1989).