The Control of Nature

Rising Tide talks about the consequences of a disastrous engineering decision to control the Mississippi by means of levees alone, ignoring spillways and reservoirs to take overflow. The flood control contributed to the severity of the 1927 Great Flood. But John Barry’s book doesn’t cover the broader consequences of Mississippi flood control.
The Control of Nature, a 1990 book by by John McPhee, tells part of that story. McPhee writes about the massive project to prevent the Mississippi from jumping over to the Atchafalaya River, which has a steeper and shorter path to the sea. In the process, he describes how flood control prevents the replenishment of soil. Without the floods, the land sinks, and coastal wetlands are lost to the sea.
The Atchafalaya story is one of three stories in McPhee’s book about efforts to control nature. In Hiemaey, Iceland, residents pumped cold seawater on a volcanic lava flow, and diverted enough of the flow to save their town.
In the third story, McPhee writes about the efforts Los Angeles County to prevent the San Gabriel mountains from sliding into the valley. The County builds debris dams to catch the overflow, and carts it away. Some of the debris is ground and taken to the beaches, since the interruption of the mountain’s erosion prevents the natural replenishment of beach sand.
There is a recurring cycle of fire on the dry, steep, rocky mountainsides, followed by debris slides. The current fires in the San Gabriel foothills will likely be followed by debris slides that destroy houses in the foothills.
Many residents are newcomers who don’t remember the debris slide five or ten years ago, and don’t know about the risk. But even geologists at California State Politechnic University and county workers who clean up after debris slides live in the foothills. The risk of a catastrophe in two or five or ten years is not enough to scare them away from the clean air and quiet of the mountainside canyons.
McPhee’s zoom-out geologic time perspective lends a philosophical air to these stories, although he does not turn explicitly to philosophy, psychology, or politics. In all of these cases, nature is going to win out in geologic time. The Mississippi River is going to keep jumping beds, as it has every few thousand years. The volcanos are going to keep erupting and building mountains. And the San Gabriel Mountains are going to keep on rising, and keep on eroding into fans in the valley.
Through some combination of intelligence, persistence, hubris, and psychological blindness to risks, humans keep building defenses, and rebuilding.

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