Since the beginning of time, man has attempted to take advantage of nature in ways that will benefit him. In some ways, nature is subdued by man. He is able to make fire, to cut down trees and make shelter, and capture and enclose animals and grow food for substance. In other ways, however, nature is more powerful than man. Giant waves swallow up ships, hurricanes and tornadoes destroy his shelter, and wild animals attack and kill. John McPhee’s book, The Control of Nature, takes this concept of man versus nature and explores it in many different ways. The title itself is already ambiguous. One must start out by asking if the title stands for man’s control of nature or the control that nature has over man. McPhee makes several attempts to address this issue and divides his book into three separate sections, each having to do with the endeavor to control nature by man and each having a varying amount of success.
In the first section that takes place in the state of Louisiana, a group of Army Corps of Engineers challenge an offshoot of the great Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya, by trying to change its naturally-flowing course. The purpose of this control attempt was to benefit the people by industrial and economical use of the river. For example, freighters and other boats could easily travel down the river if these changes were made, but sedimentation was preventing such an easy flow. To make these changes, the Army Corps of Engineers set up several dams, locks, and levees, but in return they were left with several devastating accounts of flooding because many of the towns were located below sea level. The story of the manipulation of the river is McPhee’s first example of man’s attempt to control nature that lead to more disaster than success.
Next, in the second section of the book, people from a town in Iceland attempt to save their harbor by battling a lava flow from a volcano. In 1973, a volcano erupted on the island of Heimaey that created a lava flow that got closer and closer to their city. The people here thought that their only hope was to pump water from the ocean with hoses onto the lava in order to cool it. The effect this had on the lava was that it was hardened, which also helped to create a barrier against the fresh lava coming behind it. The people were mostly successful in that these hardened-lava barriers helped to create a way to guide the lava out to sea and away from the homes and businesses. Unfortunately, however, this did not work in all cases and some of these barriers caused the lava to flow towards the city where many buildings were destroyed by the fire. They even attempted to strategically bulldoze mounds in attempt to create additional barriers, but the lava still managed to find other pathways through, underneath, and over these barriers. Though it did have some success, this still serves as yet another example of how man’s interference with nature can lead to devastation.
Finally, in the last section of the book, people in Los Angeles, California located in the San Gabriel Mountains try to control landslides and debris flows but also have little success. In this scenario, the people of Los Angeles dig giant debris basins in the mountains that will help to catch the falling debris. In some cases, the debris basins work, filling up with debris and preventing the landslides from damaging the city. However, other times the debris missed the basins completely and caused vast amounts of destruction on the city of Los Angeles. In some ways, this plan made things even worse. For example, when wildfires would start in the hills, the people would go and put them out which left behind burnt up organic material that would lose its roots in the soil, causing additional debris that would eventually fall down the mountain. Additionally, the process of moving the debris out of the debris basins was not only costly, but also ineffective. McPhee writes, “For twenty million dollars, Los Angeles had returned the rock to the mountains” (272). In other words, the debris control system would simply gather up the debris from the basins and deposit it somewhere else on the mountain, creating even more future landslides. Clearly, man’s attempt to control nature here is also futile.
In each section, man is working at gaining the upper hand in his relationship with nature. It is as if man is attempting to live in areas of the world which should not inhabit and should instead abandon. Instead of avoiding these places, however, it seems as though man feels the need to have this conflict with nature, a very irrational point of view to have. McPhee writes, “Human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods” (236). This clearly shows the unnecessary battle that McPhee depicts between man and nature. In fact, he also uses military metaphors throughout the story to represent this attempt, with scientists and engineers at the forefront of the battle. For example, the Wyoming inscription seems to reinforce the biblical terms of humankind’s dominance over nature, but it is set out in a way that makes man seem at war with nature. McPhee, however, does not leave out the inevitable qualities that man tends to have of both stubbornness and ignorance. This is typically where nature wins the fight.
Overall, it is clear that McPhee is attempting to depict this struggle that man constantly faces in its war against nature. In order to survive, man finds it necessary to try to conquer nature in every way that it can, even when the fight itself seems unnecessary. After all, couldn’t all of these people in these different situations have found a different place to live and work instead of constantly trying to defy the power of nature? While the humans are able to stop nature at some times from its devastating effects, we start to realize that this is only temporary, and that nature, in the end, always wins. I personally believe this story teaches a great lesson: it is crucial to continually have a strong respect for nature because no matter how intelligent man might be, the power of nature will always have the upper hand.