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53 of 53 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars WARNING: Approach with care -- you'll be hooked.
A fairly detailed investigation and explanation of three locations where Man is attempting to prevent the course of Nature. The first, the attempt, so far successful, to prevent the Mississippi from changing its exit to the Gulf (it wants to go through the Atchafalaya River, substantially shorter and more attractive to the water), which change would utterly negate...
Published on August 19, 2000 by Elsie Wilson

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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit unfocused, but fascinating all the same
The message is the medium of The Control of Nature. In a series of three essays, each regarding a different geographical region, McPhee shows that in the war between man and nature it's a case of the humans on horseback facing a blitzkrieg of geological heavy artillery. What amazes McPhee, and thus what comes across to the reader, is the arrogant hubris of the people who...
Published on March 24, 2003 by Glen Engel Cox


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53 of 53 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars WARNING: Approach with care -- you'll be hooked., August 19, 2000
By 
Elsie Wilson (Aberystwyth, Cymru) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
A fairly detailed investigation and explanation of three locations where Man is attempting to prevent the course of Nature. The first, the attempt, so far successful, to prevent the Mississippi from changing its exit to the Gulf (it wants to go through the Atchafalaya River, substantially shorter and more attractive to the water), which change would utterly negate the entire economic geography of lower Louisiana. The second, the use of seawater pumped by the hundreds of thousands of gallons onto fresh, hot lava, to prevent said lava from overrunning and destroying the harbour and town of Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. The third, the ongoing attempt to preserve Los Angeles from the self-destruction of the San Gabriel Mountains. All three goals are fully understandable in economic terms; what is not so clear, at least with the first and third, is how long the effort can be kept up. McPhee makes a good case that in human times, not geologic, Nature will win in both cases. One leaves the book with a feeling of excitement and pleasure in the Icelandic battle, a wonder at the power of the Mississippi and the stubbornness of the Army Corps of Engineers, and a sense of amazement at the futility and blindness of people who continue to live under the San Gabriels and hold the City liable for their foolish choices.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unexpected learning experience, November 17, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
Having completed my Master's thesis on a 300 year flood, I picked up this book to read about Old River and the Corps' struggle to hold its position. However, I found myself even more fascinated with the struggle of the Icelandic people against essentially the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (good luck) and the head-in-the-sand mentality of Southern Californians when it comes to mudslides. McPhee is as artful in explaining geology as geology is complex. When I read his descriptions of complex geological situations put into simple terms, I smile, chuckle, shake my head, and read the line over and over. I just can't believe such complex concepts can be explained so simply using the same language I use everyday.
The man is good.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My first John McPhee...and definitely won't be the last, January 9, 2000
By 
Jvstin "Paul Weimer" (Twin Cities, MN United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
When I learned that John McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD, I blanched a bit at buying and reading that weighty tome. I wasn't sure about tackling it, no matter how highly recommended. Thus, I looked for a smaller volume of his to "test the waters" since I have never read anything written by him before.
I chose, almost at random, this volume, and fell in love with the man's work. McPhee definitely has a talent for writing, both in describing the often unusual people he meets in the three locales depicted, and his intelligent and witty turns of phrase.
This definitely won't be my last John McPhee book.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Engineering Thriller? You Bet!, February 2, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
The Control of Nature is a collection of three long esssays about people trying to engineer their way around forces of nature. The first one about control of the Mississippi river to keep it in the current streambed, the second about anticipating volcanic activity in Iceland and the last one dealing with the literal moving of mountains as Los Angeles population pressure pushes people to bulid in the San Gaberial Mountains of California.
McPhee, as always, tries to stay in the background and let the participants speak on the page, but there is no mistaking his memorably vivid descriptions of people or nature. His prose are first rate with an eye for compelling detail.
The book itself is a quick, thrilling read that leaves the reader with a better understanding of unsung heroes and follies.
My favorite McPhee. A warning about some of McPhee's other books: My eyes seem to always glaze over when I attempt one of his "rock talk" full length books on geology.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book -- needs maps!, November 5, 2005
By 
Julie Kimball (Boulder Creek, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
I first read Los Angeles Against the Mountains (3rd chapter in the book) in the New Yorker many years ago which is what drew me to the expanded book. It is rare that I remember a title, author and content for many years!

There is only one thing I can add to the reviews already given which is a suggestion to readers. The book would be greatly enhanced by maps of the Mississipi River, Iceland and even the LA area. For me, the book merits a second reading and I'll have maps in hand. While McPhee's writing creates wonderful images, it would be helpful to tie to those images and his messages to the physical realities.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars relevant to Katrina, September 25, 2005
By 
Oz Wizard (Palo Alto, CA, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
It is worth noting that the first third of this book is highly relevant to the recent Katrina experience. It discusses the manipulation of the Mississippi River system by the Army Corps of Engineers and various interests (oil and shipping). As the book explains, this hubris has resulted in a period of relative stability and attendant econonomic benefits, but has left Southern Louisiana an ecological "house of cards" whose condition is rapidly worsening. In the wake of Katrina there has been remarkably little discussion of this history of intervention and the threat it poses for the future. This book is a good place to get the story. But it was first published in 1989, so there's been a lot of water under Old River Control since then.

I have only read the first third of this one, but McPhee's books are always crisp, well-written, informative, authoritative, entertaining, and balanced (sometimes to a fault). This one is no exception.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nature Bats Last, February 24, 2006
By 
James D. DeWitt "Alaska Fan" (Fairbanks, AK United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
This is among my favorite McPhee books. Not only does he bring his superb skills at description, characterization and narrative flow to these three linked stories; he manages to set out a subtle subtext without ever being explicit.

In a lot of ways, humanity's history on this planet is a struggle against nature. McPhee focuses here on three instances of modern struggles against geologic forces. River flooding, and in particular the channel of the lower Mississippi River; volcanism, and in particular lava flows in Iceland and Hawaii; and erosion, and in particular mass-wasting in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles.

The message in each case is that mankind can triumph - or at least cope - in the short term, but in the long term, the natural forces will prevail. The Mississippi River will change its channel, despite the sometimes arrogant, sometimes defensive efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lava flows will eventually overwhelm Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. The naive and credulous Angelenos who build their homes in the steep valleys of the San Gabriels, despite the mudflow management efforts of the County, are eventually doomed. Nature bats last. The rabbit runs for his life; the coyote runs for his supper. The Corps has to succeed each time; the Mississippi only has to succeed once.

McPhee is far too good a writer to ever come out and say this. Instead, he reports what he has seen and what he has been told and lets his narrative convey his points. That reporting is simply brilliant. As I have argued in other reviews, McPhee is America's greatest living expository writer. This is one of his best books.

Highly recommended.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars McPhee: Nobody does it better, March 8, 2002
By 
Jerald R Lovell (Clinton Township, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
At the start, I must confess that I am a John McPhee fan, commencing with "Coming into the Country" and proceeding through books on oranges, birchbark canoe making, atomic bombs as propulsion devices, etc. His books on America's geology are excellent. Even so, I like this one best.
McPhee has the apparently inexhaustible ability to take sometimes dry textbook subjects and give them a human touch, much in the manner of the late George R. Stewart. This was especially borne out in McPhee's discussion of what is probably a vain attempt, in the long run, to control the lower Mississippi River.
After reading this book, I happened to travel to Natchez, Mississippi, and went on down to see the Old River Flood Control Structure. Having read McPhee aided me considerably in understanding this herculean endeavor. McPhee demonstrated a similar excellence in writing about the landslide problem in Los Angeles.
True enough, McPhee's book includes few graphs, charts, or photos. However the excellence of his descriptive prose obviates any claim that the informative nature of the text is somehow meaningfully diminished. Buy it. Read it. Keep it. You'll be glad you did.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit unfocused, but fascinating all the same, March 24, 2003
By 
This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
The message is the medium of The Control of Nature. In a series of three essays, each regarding a different geographical region, McPhee shows that in the war between man and nature it's a case of the humans on horseback facing a blitzkrieg of geological heavy artillery. What amazes McPhee, and thus what comes across to the reader, is the arrogant hubris of the people who feel that nature can be controlled. One essay is about the Mississippi river, and how it has been channeled by dikes and levees to stay on the course that it has been set on since the early part of this century, although anyone can see that it is in its nature to change course. Essay two is about the lava flows in Iceland, where the engineers used the cooling power of the sea to divert the flow from a township--at least for now. And, last, McPhee covers the shifting mountainsides of southern California--not the mud of the beach homes, but the Santa Gabriel mountains which are so geologically new that the rocks that they consist of are more akin to sand. In each essay, the humans have fought the battle to a draw, but the enemy is worse than any evil fantasy. Nature is unsleeping, its forces are legion, and each battle it suffers no losses. The expense, in both money and lives, of trying to withhold the inevitable seems to doom the humans to lose. But they do not give up.
It's not that I do not like McPhee. On the contrary, I find his subjects fascinating, and his writing vivid. I just expected something more tight and focused.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More riveting than most best-selling thrillers, October 3, 1997
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This review is from: The Control of Nature (Paperback)
Writing at the peak of his form, McPhee carries us to the front lines of the still-raging battle between man and nature. Unflinchingly honest yet unashamedly editorial, these three long stories (they're far too engrossing to be labelled mere essays) pit relentless nature against upstart mankind in a clash of wills reminiscent of Greek tragedy. What emerges are tales of determination, folly and grim triumph; a modern mythology where nature supplies the gods and man plays himself at his imperfect best.
McPhee doesn't just write about science, he writes about people who apply and sometimes defy science in their struggle to control nature and protect themselves from the inevitable. Blending the best of Sunday-paper feature writing with the drama and penetrating insight of a fine novelist, his style is instantly addictive and immensely appealing. Timely in its science yet timeless in its depiction of the nature of man, "The Control of Nature" is exemplary writing and classic McPhee.
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The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature by John McPhee (Paperback - September 1, 1990)
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