Today and tomorrow I’ll tell you about two books I read recently: The Control of Nature, and The World Without Us. They both deal with man’s impact on the environment, but not in the same way as the conservation-related books that I am typically drawn to. They are not directly related to the ocean (although The World Without Us touches on it), but encouraged me to think in new ways about our impact on the planet, in terms a little bit broader than “We catch too much fish” or “We burn too much fossil fuel.”
I was induced to read these two books, one after the other, by an apocalyptic frame of mind (which we might be able to blame on intermittent power outages and some of the other challenges we’re experiencing in South Africa at the moment). Even if you don’t feel as though the sky is about to fall on your head, they are still both highly recommended.
The Control of Nature – John McPhee
The Control of Nature
It is a discredit to my literary general knowledge that this is the first book I have read by American author John McPhee. He is a prolific and well regarded non-fiction author whose other work I will be hunting down post haste. The Control of Nature comprises three long essays, each detailing an attempt by man to modify and contain his natural environment. They read like engineering thrillers (which puts me in mind of my brother in law – maybe he needs this book in his life, too). McPhee explains complex engineering concepts in terms that anyone can grasp.
The first essay, entitled Atchafalaya, deals with the Mississippi River, which is cannibalised by its distributary the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, near its mouth. A complex structure called the Old River Control Structure determines how much of the Mississippi is allowed into the Atchafalaya. Left uncontrolled, the Mississippi would change course entirely, with dire economic and sociological consequences for New Orleans and surrounds. The history and workings of the Old River Control Structure alone are fascinating enough to sell the book – check out the Wikipedia entry for a taste of it.
The second essay describes the surprisingly successful attempts by Icelandic islanders from Heimaey to redirect a flow of volcanic lava that was threatening their fishing harbour (of major economic importance – notice a trend here) during an eruption of the volcano Eldfell in 1973. The task was Herculean. Islanders pumped seawater out onto the lava, and worked in conditions so steamy (from evaporating water) and hot that their boots melted and they couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of them. Part of the town was destroyed – preserved like Pompeii – but the size of the island was increased and the harbour is now better protected than it was before the eruption, thanks to lava outflows and rocks shielding it from the prevailing winds.
Finally, McPhee deals with Los Angeles, a city which seems ubiquitous in a certain type of news media, but for reasons entirely other than the ones McPhee writes about. It turns out that the San Gabriel mountains above Los Angeles have some striking similarities to the fynbos-covered slopes around Cape Town. The climate is also Mediterranean – hot, dry summers and wet winters. The vegetation in the San Gabriel mountains is called chaparral, and like fynbos it needs to burn every decade or so for germination of new plants and removal of the overstory of growth. Volatile oils in the leaves of these plants mean that they burn hot and fast, and sometimes gases released from the plants explode in the air as they burn. After a fire, the steep slopes are vulnerable to landslides, comprising rock, gravel and mud. Debris basins – essentially giant empty reservoirs – are built to collect the debris from these massively destructive floods before it reaches the expensive homes high in the mountains. When the debris does reach an area of human habitation, the effects are swift and disastrous.
All three the enterprises McPhee describes are (or were) very costly. Two of them – the government-led control of the Mississippi and of the Los Angeles mudslides – are ongoing and will always be as long as populations inhabit the areas concerned or wish to continue with commerce as it currently is. Iceland is in a volcanic region and it is entirely conceivable that another eruption may threaten property and economics of a region in the future, and that another attempt will be made to drive back a metres-thick flow of boiling magma. I was exhausted after reading this book, and wished that everyone could just down tools and go away. I was also amazed by the scale of the efforts that go on every day to make our world habitable, wherever we choose to set down roots. I wondered what sort of similar activities, frenetic attempts to subdue and hold back earth and water, happen around me that I am not aware of.
A New York Times review of the book can be found here.
You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) otherwise here or here. I also discovered that the New Yorker published lengthy extracts from this book – you can read them online. For all I know it may even be the whole thing!