Uphill Battle Against Downhill Liquids


THE CONTROL OF NATURE by John McPhee, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 272 pp., $17.95

MASTER of the telling anecdote, John McPhee likes nothing better than a good fight - between fluids and engineers.

In this, his 20th book, the voice is that of a war correspondent in the thick of three campaigns: the Army Corps of Engineers' battle with a marauding Mississippi River; the Icelandic Civil Defense Council's firefight with molten lava; and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District's trench warfare with sliding mud.

Water, lava, and mud have allies - gravity and time, eons of time. They hold the high ground and fight, literally, downhill. Pharaoh, not Noah, is the commissioner of public works.

Liquids seek their own level. But the Mississippi River drains two-thirds of a continent, the Icelandic lava flow lasted 5 1/2 months on the Island of Heimaey, and the high-speed California mud came from the fastest-rising mountain range in North America, at the ``kink'' of two colliding tectonic plates. They make level as they seek level.

Conflict between man and nature is, well, ``natural'' in such places. Or is it? Irony courses through this book like the Atchafalaya, a tributary turned distributary that wants to hijack the Mississippi a couple of hundred miles west of where it currently empties into the Gulf. ``Society required artifice to survive in a region where nature might reasonably have asked a few more eons to finish a work of creation that was incomplete,'' McPhee quotes from an Army Corps of Engineers report detailing corps efforts in southern Louisiana.

His pen exposes environmental folly the way a geologist uncovers a fault line. ``From the beginnings of settlement, failure was the par expectation with respect to the river - a fact generally masked by the powerful fabric of ambition that impelled people to build towns and cities where almost any camper would be loath to pitch a tent.''

On Heimaey, islanders are desperately fighting to save hearth, home, and harbor, when an interlocutor pops into the narrative. ``A high-fashion model landed on the island, was photographed on the black ash against the fires of the volcano, packed up, and flew away.'' The vignette is vintage McPhee.

But whether he writes about Cajun shrimpers who want to reverse the salty tides of the Gulf of Mexico, Icelandic fishermen hauling fire hoses to spray on molten lava, or homeowners who rebuild before the mud is dry, he never belittles his subject.

He listens to a scientist at Cal Tech in Pasadena tell why the San Gabriel mountains are so unstable, so prone to ``debris-floods,'' then ``innocently'' asks the scientist where he lives. ``Up there'' [in the San Gabriels] is the answer.

``After a pause, he added, `If they should have a failure up there, I'm afraid I'd get wet.' There was a longer pause, then another sweet smile, and he said, `I live a hundred yards from the Raymond Fault.'''

The ``sweet smile'' diffuses ridicule. It's a superb way to make the point that, however intelligent people may appear, there is an underlying and inexplicable irrationality in folks who live in an area vulnerable to natural disaster.

In one superb (and my favorite) metaphor, he compares the Atchafalaya River to a waiting alligator ready to swallow the mighty Mississippi: ``Among navigable rivers, the Atchafalaya is widely described as one of the most treacherous in the world, but it just lies there quiet and smooth. It lies there like a big alligator in a low slough, with time on its side, waiting - waiting to outwait the Corps of Engineers - and hunkering down ever lower in its bed and presenting a sort of maw to the Mississippi, into which the river could fall.'' A ``spirit'' of swampy place mixes with the heavy air of foreboding and the crushing yet indifferent jaws of nature. One utters a silent prayer there not be the wrong mix of rain and snowmelt somewhere north on the Ohio River.

If Archimedes could have hired McPhee to write the proposal, the Greek polis would have voted money to tilt the earth.

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