October 18, New York: I am tempted to take a whole year and read every single John McPhee book. I love his writing. (I love it so much that when he wrote about writing for the New Yorker, I made copies to distribute to friends.) And I love his subjects. He could make anything fascinating, but his true genius is in finding the things that surround us that are already endlessly fascinating. Control of Nature is special because it gives us not one but three of those stories.
I connect strongly with each of these stories, can imagine them visually and experience them viscerally. “Atchafalaya” is about the fight to keep the Mississippi River in its current path through Louisiana, where I am from. “Cooling the Lava” is about beating back an emerging volcano in Iceland, where I’ve visited. And “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” is about the battle with landslides in the neighborhoods on the north side of the city where I’ve lived the longest in my adult life.
I first read Control of Nature as a college sophomore (this and another McPhee book specifically about California) in a class that took us exploring around California’s varied geologies. It was a wonderful class with some great texts. A few of which remained in my library, still bearing their yellow “Used” stickers. This one stuck in my mind the most. Possibly it was the pre-existing Louisiana connection? Or that combined with the fact that every clear day I could look north to see the San Gabriel’s of Los Angeles’ enmity in the third piece?
Whatever it was, this book had the eerie power of remaining near to the top of my mind, always in accessible memory, not in the dusty difficult-to-reach bits like most books. And it inspired adventures. I once cajoled my uncle to fly me over Louisiana’s Old River Control Structure in his six-seater plane. I once traveled to Iceland and walked over the lava fields. And when a good friend’s house in the Glendale hills was threatened in a big rain, I insisted to come over and help him dig ditches in the mud. He declined in the end.
If anyone wants to start a John McPhee book club next year, I’m in. We just might have to do some traveling, too.
You can buy this and all the John McPhee books from that big bookstore in the cloud.