Control of Nature

June 18, 2008 at 9:10 am | Posted in read this | Leave a comment
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Cedar Rapids, Iowa — June 13, 2008

Reading about — and seeing those amazing photos of — the flooding in the Midwest reminded me of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature.  The book was assigned for my “gut” geology course (taken at the last minute to fulfill my lab science requirement, the bane of this English major’s academic life), “Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Other Hazards,” a.k.a. “Shake and Bake.”  I actually ended up loving the course, taught by the very man who came up with the theory of plate tectonics.  We learned about exotic things like volcanoes and hotspots.  We took field trips to study the erosion at the Jersey Shore.  And McPhee’s book was one of my favorite parts of the course.  In it, with his exquisite yet relaxed descriptive style, he considered the erosion of the East Coast, wildfires in California, and flooding along the Mississippi.  These otherwise natural events have become modern destructive phenomenon in many ways because man has tried so hard to control them due to the havoc they wreak on our prized real estate:  Malibu hillside mansions, New Jersey beach houses, and Midwestern farmland.  When I heard on NPR the other day that the floods in Iowa had reached the 500-year flood plain, I knew precisely what the reporter was speaking of — the reach of a flood that statistically is supposed to occur only once every 500 years.  There also are 10-year flood plains, 50-year flood plains, 100-year flood plains, etc., and building codes are created based on these calculations.  McPhee explained that the levee system around the Mississippi actually created a higher base river level, squeezing all that water into channels narrower than nature had intended (this is why the level of the river is actually higher than the town of New Orleans itself).  And so when an engineer speaking on the radio this morning argued that perhaps the only way to control and stop such floods is to abandon some land back to the river, again, I understood his theory.

Anyway, McPhee is a phenomenal writer, and I learned a lot from this book — so much so that I remember most of his main points some 13 years later.  It has really helped put these stories of catastrophic natural disaster from far-off places (California, Iowa!) in context.

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