While John McPhee was working on his previous book, Rising from the Plains, he happened to walk by the engineering building at the University of Wyoming, where words etched in limestone said: "Strive on--the control of Nature is won, not given." In the morning sunlight, that central phrase--"the control of nature"--seemed to sparkle with unintended ambiguity. Bilateral, symmetrical, it could with equal speed travel in opposite directions. For some years, he had been planning a book about places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature, about (in the words of the book itself) "any struggle against natural forces--heroic or venal, rash or well advised--when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods." His interest had first been sparked when he went into the Atchafalaya--the largest river swamp in North America--and had learned that virtually all of its waters were metered and rationed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project called Old River Control.

In the natural cycles of the Mississippi's deltaic plain, the time had come for the Mississippi to change course, to shift its mouth more than a hundred miles and go down the Atchafalaya, one of its distributary branches. The United States could not afford that--for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and all the industries that lie between would be cut off from river commerce with the rest of the nation. At a place called Old River, the Corps therefore had built a great fortress--part dam, part valve--to restrain the flow of the Atchafalaya and compel the Mississippi to stay where it is.

In Iceland, in 1973, an island split open without warning and huge volumes of lava began moving in the direction of a harbor scarcely half a mile away. It was not only Iceland's premier fishing port (accounting for a large percentage of Iceland's export economy) but it was also the only harbor along the nation's southern coast. As the lava threatened to fill the harbor and wipe it out, a physicist named Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson suggested a way to fight against the flowing red rock--initiating an all-out endeavor unique in human history. On the big island of Hawaii, one of the world's two must eruptive hot spots, people are not unmindful of the Icelandic example. McPhee went to Hawaii to talk with them and to walk beside the edges of a molten lake and incandescent rivers.

Some of the more expensive real estate in Los Angeles is up against mountains that are rising and disintegrating as rapidly as any in the world. After a complex coincidence of natural events, boulders will flow out of these mountains like fish eggs, mixed with mud, sand, and smaller rocks in a cascading mass known as debris flow. Plucking up trees and cars, bursting through doors and windows, filling up houses to their eaves, debris flows threaten the lives of people living in and near Los Angeles' famous canyons. At extraordinary expense the city has built a hundred and fifty stadium-like basins in a daring effort to catch the debris.

Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking in his vivid depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those who would attempt to wrest control from her--stubborn, often ingenious, and always arresting characters.

A WONDROUS BOOK OF MCPHEE'S PROSE PIECES-IN MANY ASPECTS HIS MOST PERSONAL IN FOUR DECADES The brief, brilliant essay "Silk Parachute," which first appeared in The New Yorker over a decade ago, has become John McPhee's most anthologized piece of writing. In the nine other pieces here- highly varied in length and theme-McPhee ranges with his characteristic humor and intensity through lacrosse, long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe "on the chalk" from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France. Some of the pieces are wholly personal. In luminous recollections of his early years, for example, he goes on outings with his mother, deliberately overturns canoes in a learning process at a summer camp, and germinates a future book while riding on a jump seat to away games as a basketball player. But each piece-on whatever theme-contains somewhere a personal aspect in which McPhee suggests why he was attracted to write about the subject, and each opens like a silk parachute, lofted skyward and suddenly blossoming with color and form. Author bio: John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.
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