Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Control of Nature

My plan was to work on a post last night and finish it in the morning. Instead, I spent the night battling nature. Our basement leaks like a sieve. We have a champion sump pump (that my father-in-law thankfully installed) but that machine is not enough to stop the seeping water. Thus, I was armed with a shop vac, and cursed my way through moving basement water-soaked miscellanea.

This effort brought to mind the way in which we build homes and cities with little regard as to how nature can and will intrude. There is much written about this, but I have not come across a better author than John McPhee. The most powerful of his books on this subject is The Control of Nature. Here is how his website describes the book:

"In Louisiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has declared war on the lower Mississippi River, which threatens to follow a new route to the sea and cut off New Orleans and Baton Rouge from the rest of the United States. Icelanders confront flowing red lava in an attempt to save a crucial harbor. In Los Angeles, basins are built to catch devastating debris flows from the San Gabriel Mountains.

Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters."
The phrase "contested territories" says it all. We're in a contest with nature, and we're certainly the underdog. Reading McPhee, one realizes that we're at the mercy of bad planning and aggressive engineers, more so than the environment. Where is your house built? What dangers await?

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