Of rivers and volcanoes
I couldn't help but watch some of the anniversary coverage of Hurricane Katrina on the news programs this week. On seeing all the destruction that remains, and hearing of the enormous engineering projects planned to keep water out of New Orleans, I found myself saying, 'people shouldn't be living there!'
All of which reminded me of a book I read a while ago that outlines the human folly behind some of the lengths we go to to live where we live. In The Control of Nature, John McPhee describes three different feats of engineering that have been undertaken so people can live where we have no business being. One of which is the U.S. Army Corps' plan to keep water from the Mississippi River from draining into the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. Apparently the River has its own ideas on where it would like to flow. McPhee describes the Corps' attempts to force the River where the Corps would like it to flow. (As an aside, the channelling of the river has severely degraded the surrounding wetlands, which has been blamed for some of the flooding during the hurricane.)
The two other feats McPhee describes are the efforts by Icelanders to control the lava flow from the eruption of a volcano on the island of Heimaey. By spraying it with cold seawater. they hoped to be able to prevent the lava from destroying the town of Vestmannaeyjar including the shipping port. And in Los Angeles, huge cement basins are built in order to divert the mud slides that occur on a regular basis in the San Gabriel Mountains, a place where more and more people (including Johnny Carson, at the time) were wanting to live.
If 'engineering' and 'controlling nature' are scaring you away, don't let it. If you've never read McPhee before, start now! He takes technical things like geologic time and volcanology and makes it read like a romance novel. With humor. He writes about anything: nuclear energy (The Curve of Binding Energy), Alaskan rivers (Coming Into the Country), and heavy freight (Uncommon Carriers). As Roy Porter of the LA Times says, he writes "geopoetry." He's a brilliant reporter of the natural (and man-made) world.