The Control of Nature, revisited
September 4, 2005 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Atchafalaya. As part of its coverage of the hurricane, the New Yorker has reposted on-line John McPhee's 1987 article on the Atchafalaya basin and the Army Corps of Engineer's long-running efforts to control the Mississippi. An excellent piece from one of our best writers.
posted by Kat Allison (16 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
That article is required reading for anyone seeking an understanding of how the city's infrastructure was planned.

It can be found collected in an excellent volume, The Control of Nature, that also looks at engineering efforts to control landslides and forest fires in the West, and to stem the flow of lava in Iceland. It's fascinating.
posted by Miko at 7:15 AM on September 4, 2005

I LOVE McPhee!. . .thank you for posting this.
posted by Danf at 7:46 AM on September 4, 2005

John McPhee -- one of my favorite contemporary writers.

On a tangential note -- to address those who propose that New Orleans not be rebuilt (and I'm talking about you Dennis Hastert) -- a little perspective is in order.

Today on CBS Sunday Morning Martha Teichner pointed out that the Port of New Orleans is the largest in the United States and is crucial to our economy, since agricultural goods, automobiles, manufactured goods, gas and oil flow out of New Orleans to all parts of the world (as do imports flowing in):
"The Port of New Orleans handles about 145 million short tons (132 million tonnes) of cargo a year and is the largest faction of the Port of South Louisiana, the latter being the largest and busiest shipping port in the western hemisphere and the 4th busiest in the world.

About 5,000 ships from nearly 60 nations dock at the Port of New Orleans annually. The chief exports are grain and other foods from the Midwestern United States and petroleum products. The leading imports include chemicals, cocoa beans, coffee, and petroleum. The port handles more trade with Latin America than does any other U.S. gateway, including Miami.

New Orleans is also a busy port for barges. The barges use the nation's two main inland waterways, the Mississippi River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which meet at New Orleans. The port of New Orleans handles about 50,000 barges yearly." [source]
posted by ericb at 7:52 AM on September 4, 2005

Additional link: The US Army Corps of Engineers has some good downloadable maps of the region -- useful to have open for consultation while reading the essay.
posted by Kat Allison at 8:04 AM on September 4, 2005

You rang?
posted by atchafalaya at 8:27 AM on September 4, 2005

I was thinking about his book too. I pulled out a favorite quote from the book while writing about the disaster.
In southern Louisiana, the bed of the Mississippi River is so far below sea level that a flow of at least a hundred and twenty thousand cubic feet per second is needed to hold back salt water and keep it below New Orleans, which drinks the river. Along the ragged edges of the Gulf, whole ecosystems depend on the relationship of fresh salt water, which is in large part controlled by the Corps. Shrimp people want water to be brackish, waterfowl people want it fresh—a situation that causes National Marine Fisheries to do battle with United States Fish and Wildlife while both simultaneously attack the Corps. The industrial interests of the American Ruhr beseech the Corps to maintain their supply of fresh water. Agricultural pumping stations demand more fresh water for their rice but nervily ask the Corps to keep the sediment. Morgan City needs water to get oil boats and barges to rigs offshore, but if Morgan City gets too much water it's the end of Morgan City. Port authorities present special needs, and the owners of grain elevators, and the owners of coal elevators, barge interests, flood-control districts, levee boards. As General Sands says, finishing the list, "A guy who wants to put in a new dock in has to come to us." People suspect the Corps of favoring other people. In addition to all the things the Corps actually does and does not do, there are infinite actions it is imagined not to do, and infinite actions it is imagined to be capable of doing, because the Corps has been conceded the almighty role of God.
--John McPhee, The Control of Nature (1989, page 23)
posted by john at 8:33 AM on September 4, 2005

(apon reading the article)

It looks like a good portion-if not all-of the chapter of the book on the river and it contains my favorite quote. Very cool.
posted by john at 8:38 AM on September 4, 2005

I remember reading this when it was published. Wow.

ericb: Of course it will be rebuilt. I hope that it is rebuilt on stilts. Or with other usual construction methods suited for barrier islands and similar exposed landscapes. If we're going to spend $100 billion on this, we'd better do it right.

Heck, Chicago raised its streets to get out of the swamp. In 1855.
posted by dhartung at 11:19 AM on September 4, 2005

It has been widely reported that the levee system could have been upgraded and fortified (to withstand a category 5 hurricane) for $14 billion (as originally reported by Mark Fischetti in his 2001 article "Drowning New Orleans" for Scientific America).

Too bad preventive measures weren't taken then. That dollar amount pales in comparison to what will be needed now.
posted by ericb at 11:57 AM on September 4, 2005

"The Control of Nature" was the first or second McPhee book that I read; I've since read about 20 others. There is no better writer. TCoN is a pretty good place to start, especially with recent events. "Oranges" is another good one for McPhee beginners.

The thing about McPhee is that it doesn't really matter what he's writing about; it'll be fascinating. I remember when I read "Oranges" saying to myself: "I'm reading a book about oranges and I can't put it down!"
posted by neuron at 12:09 PM on September 4, 2005

neuron writes "'The Control of Nature' was the first or second McPhee book that I read; I've since read about 20 others. There is no better writer.

Me too, it was my second, and is still one of my favorites. Thanks for this post.
posted by OmieWise at 1:01 PM on September 4, 2005

The sun, just above the horizon, was large and ruddy in the mist, rising slowly, like a hot-air baboon.

A triumph of spell checking software.
posted by apodo at 1:44 PM on September 4, 2005

Atchafalaya, hmmm? I'll see you and raise you ...
posted by rob511 at 10:54 PM on September 4, 2005

It's remarkable how many of McPhee's early essays now seem uncannily prophetic. Anyone read The Curve of Binding Energy, where he speculates on the feasibility of a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers?

I sympathise, very much, with ericb and dhartung and others who insist that New Orleans must be rebuilt. But I do wonder how carefully they have read McPhee's essay. The main aim of this and the other essays collected in The Control of Nature is to induce a little more humility about man's ability to control the environment, by showing that nature wll always win in the end. The Army Corps of Engineers has made heroic efforts to control the course of the Mississippi, and with luck it may be possible to protect New Orleans for a few more years, but sooner or later the cost will become insupportable. If anyone has come up with a convincing counter-argument to this, I have yet to see it.
posted by verstegan at 1:07 AM on September 5, 2005

verstegan: check this thread. It might not provide an argument that will satisfy you, but it does contain some discussion of the argument to rebuild.
posted by Miko at 7:07 AM on September 5, 2005

I sympathise, very much, with ericb and dhartung and others who insist that New Orleans must be rebuilt.

I "insist" nothing, but point out some context for considering "re-building."
posted by ericb at 6:35 PM on September 5, 2005

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