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McPhee on Debris : THE CONTROL OF NATURE by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $17.95; 272 pp.)

July 30, 1989|Jack Miles | Miles is The Times' book editor. and

In a period belatedly eager to befriend Mother Nature, America's most distinguished nature writer has chosen to write about those who defy her. "Atchafalaya," the first of his book's three long essays, all originally published in The New Yorker, deals with the attempt of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control the channel of the Mississippi River. "Cooling the Lava," the second essay, tells how Iceland's National Emergency Operation Center saved a fishing village from an erupting volcano. "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," the third, pits the Los Angeles Flood Control District against "debris flows" in the San Gabriel Mountains. Each of the three puts a different subset of John McPhee's formidable gifts on display.

The Mississippi, laden with silt churned up from points as remote as Montana and Alberta--thousands of tons per annum of "mountain butter," as McPhee calls it--has long since begun to gum up its own channel and overflow into the Atchafalaya River, whose course to the Gulf of Mexico from the point where it branches off from the Mississippi is deeper, cleaner and shorter by 400 miles than the course of the Mississippi itself. Should the Atchafalaya ever "capture the channel" of the Mississippi, however, New Orleans would be cut off from river commerce, and the "American Ruhr" between Baton Rouge and New Orleans would be deprived of the millions of cubic feet of water that make its industries possible.

Channel control efforts have culminated in the Old River Control Auxiliary Structure, "the most advanced weapon ever developed to prevent the capture of a river and a handsome gift to the American Ruhr, worth three hundred million dollars." The structure consists of seven towers whose composite weight is 2,600 tons. "Each of them is sixty-two feet wide. They are the strongest the Corps has ever designed and built . . . in grandeur and in profile they would not shame a pharoah."

But will even this pharaonic effort suffice to preserve the channel against the might of a hundred-year flood? No one knows, but to quote McPhee quoting Mark Twain: "A discreet man will not put these things into spoken words; for the West Point engineers have not their superiors anywhere; they know all that can be known of their abstruse science; and so, since they conceive that they can fetter and handcuff that river and boss him, it is but wisdom for the unscientific man to keep still, lie low, and wait till they do it."

When a new volcano turned the remote island village of Heimaey into a modern Pompeii, the immediate and acute effects were horrendous: Some houses were incinerated, others buried to their eaves in volcanic ash. And yet today, with the volcano cool, the village has been rebuilt. Had its harbor been clogged with congealed lava, however, no one would have bothered to rebuild the village; for without a harbor, Heimaey--a tiny island off the south coast of Iceland proper--cannot fish; and without fishing, it cannot live.

What saved Heimaey, therefore, was the decision of its rescuers to abandon its houses to the lava and try to save its harbor. They did this by implementing Prof. Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson's seemingly simple-minded plan to cool the lava by hosing it down with sea water. Heimaey's initial pumping efforts--11,000 gallons a day--were more quixotic demonstrations than serious countermeasures. But when the volume of pumped seawater rose to 11 million gallons a day, Quixote was proven right. Enough of the lava was cooled to create a dam against the rest of the lava. The harbor was saved.

Pauline Kael once commented that in American movies the game is never won by brains. Typically, when the pointy-heads are talked out, our guy wades in there and settles things with his own two hands.

Not so in McPhee. Though he has a knack of presenting even the most ordinary folks in their best, most ingenious moments, his true heroes are those to whom he himself turns for instruction; namely, the professors.

McPhee's professors are not just the smartest, they are also the most colorful, the most likable and somehow the most enviable characters on his large and populous stage, a sunny aristocracy in which Thorbjorn, the University of Iceland academic who came up with the funny-brilliant notion of turning hoses on the lava, now steps to the front rank.

The finest of the three essays in this volume, however, and in my opinion one of the finest that McPhee has ever written, is the last: "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," a study of how greater Los Angeles protects itself against debris flows.

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