The Control of Nature

By John McPhee


Welcome to the fascinating world of The Control of Nature by John McPhee! 🌍📚 This riveting book takes us on a journey through humanity’s ongoing struggle to harness and sometimes fight against the powerful forces of nature. John McPhee, a master of non-fiction and a keen observer of the intricacies of the natural world and human interaction with it, brings to life the challenges, triumphs, and often the hubris of trying to control the environment.

Published in 1989, this book sits at the intersection of science, technology, and human drama, offering readers a deep dive into how we interact with the world around us. McPhee’s work is not just a collection of stories but a genre-defying exploration that combines elements of journalism, narrative non-fiction, and environmental literature. He invites readers to question the wisdom of trying to bend nature to our will, presenting detailed case studies from various parts of the world.

Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a science geek, or simply someone who loves well-told tales that make you think about the world in new ways, The Control of Nature promises to engage, educate, and inspire. Let’s dive into the heart of McPhee’s work and discover the awe-inspiring and often precarious balance between humanity and the natural world. 🏞️✨

Plot Summary

The Control of Nature is a compelling exploration, not structured like a traditional narrative with a clear exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Instead, John McPhee presents a series of detailed case studies, each illustrating different aspects of humanity’s attempts to control natural forces. Here’s a breakdown of the main events in each section:

  • Atchafalaya — McPhee begins with the Mississippi River and the efforts to control its flow through the Old River Control Structure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built an extensive system of levees, locks, and control structures to manage the river’s course and protect populated areas from flooding. This battle against the river’s natural desire to change its course highlights the monumental effort and resources invested in controlling natural processes.
  • Cooling the Lava — The second case study takes us to Iceland, where in 1973, a volcanic eruption threatened the town of Heimaey. McPhee recounts the residents’ and engineers’ desperate and innovative efforts to cool the advancing lava flows with seawater, ultimately saving the town’s harbor. This story illustrates the potential for human ingenuity to confront and mitigate natural disasters.
  • Los Angeles Against the Mountains — The final section deals with the constant threat of debris flows and landslides in the Los Angeles area, particularly following wildfires and heavy rains. McPhee describes the engineering measures, like debris basins and catchment areas, designed to protect homes and communities from these fast-moving and destructive flows. It’s a stark reminder of the risks of building in vulnerable areas and the ongoing struggle to mitigate those risks.

Each of these case studies serves as a standalone example of the broader theme: the immense challenge, costs, and sometimes the futility of trying to control nature. McPhee doesn’t offer a traditional narrative arc but rather a series of in-depth examinations that collectively underscore the complexity and audacity of humanity’s efforts to dictate the terms of our coexistence with the natural world.

Character Analysis

In The Control of Nature, John McPhee doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure with a clear set of characters progressing through a story. Instead, the “characters” are real people, groups, and even the forces of nature themselves, each playing significant roles within the thematic explorations of human attempts to control natural processes. Here’s an analysis of the main “characters” based on their roles in the book:

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — As the primary agents in the attempts to control the Mississippi River’s flow, the Corps represents human ingenuity and determination. Their motivations are grounded in protecting lives and property, but their efforts also reveal the hubris in thinking we can fully control nature.
  • Icelandic Residents and Engineers — Faced with the volcanic eruption in Heimaey, these individuals embody resilience and innovation. Their successful efforts to save the town’s harbor by cooling lava with seawater highlight the potential for human resourcefulness in the face of natural disasters.
  • Los Angeles Residents and Municipal Authorities — In the battle against debris flows and landslides, these people stand for the complexities of human-nature interactions. Their motivations include safety, property protection, and the desire for picturesque homes, reflecting the sometimes conflicting human values and priorities in managing natural threats.
  • Nature Itself — Perhaps the most powerful “character” in McPhee’s narrative, nature embodies the forces beyond human control. Its motivations are indifferent, operating according to its laws and processes, and its “character development” is a constant reminder of the limits of human power.

Character Analysis Summary

CharacterRole in the BookMotivationsCharacter Development
The U.S. Army Corps of EngineersEngineers trying to control the MississippiProtecting lives and property, demonstrating human ingenuityReveals both the potential and the hubris of trying to control nature
Icelandic Residents and EngineersCommunity and experts facing a volcanic eruptionSurvival, protecting their town and harborShowcases human resilience and innovation in crisis
Los Angeles Residents and Municipal AuthoritiesPeople living in and managing landslide-prone areasSafety, property protection, desire for scenic homesIllustrates the complex relationship and sometimes conflicting priorities between humans and nature
Nature ItselfThe natural world and its processesIndifferent, operates according to natural lawsConstantly reminds of the power and unpredictability of natural forces

This table summarizes the dynamics and development of the main “characters” in The Control of Nature, each contributing to the overarching theme of the book: the awe-inspiring, sometimes futile human effort to control the natural world.

Themes and Symbols

The Control of Nature by John McPhee delves into a variety of profound themes and employs certain symbols to enrich the narrative. Here’s a look at the major ones:

  • Human vs. Nature — The central theme of the book. McPhee examines the ongoing struggle between human civilization’s attempts to control natural forces and nature’s relentless, indifferent power. This theme is depicted through the efforts to redirect rivers, cool lava flows, and contain landslides, underscoring the limits of human engineering against the might of nature.
  • Hubris — Closely related to the human vs. nature theme, hubris represents humanity’s overconfidence in its abilities to control and manipulate the natural world. McPhee illustrates this through the ambitious projects undertaken by individuals and governments, highlighting the consequences of overestimating human power over nature.
  • Resilience and Innovation — Despite the overarching theme of struggle and sometimes failure, the book also celebrates human resilience and innovation in the face of natural disasters. The successful cooling of the lava in Iceland and the engineering defenses against the Mississippi River showcase humanity’s capacity for ingenuity.
  • Interconnectedness — McPhee underscores the interconnectedness of human and natural systems, showing how changes in one can have profound impacts on the other. This theme is evident in the unintended consequences of engineering projects, such as the ecological impacts of altering river courses or the increased risk of landslides from construction in vulnerable areas.
  • The River as a Symbol — In the Atchafalaya section, the Mississippi River serves as a powerful symbol of nature’s force and unpredictability. It represents the challenges of attempting to control a dynamic, living system with static, human-made structures.
  • Lava as a Symbol — The flowing lava in Heimaey symbolizes both destruction and creation. It is a threat to human habitation but also a creator of new land, embodying the dual aspects of nature as both creative and destructive force.
  • The Mountain as a Symbol — In the context of Los Angeles against the mountains, the mountains symbolize the looming threats of nature that hang over human endeavors. They stand as reminders of the ever-present risk of natural disasters in areas where people choose to live and build.

These themes and symbols contribute to the overarching message of The Control of Nature: the awe-inspiring and sometimes humbling interactions between humans and the natural world. McPhee’s detailed case studies serve as a canvas for exploring these complex relationships, offering insights into the beauty, power, and often unpredictability of nature, and our place within it.

Style and Tone

John McPhee’s The Control of Nature stands out for its distinctive writing style and tone, which play crucial roles in engaging the reader and enhancing the thematic depth of the book. Here’s a closer look:

  • Detailed and Observational — McPhee’s style is marked by meticulous attention to detail and a keen observational eye. He delves into the technicalities of engineering projects and natural phenomena with clarity, making complex subjects accessible and engaging to the reader.
  • Narrative Non-Fiction — The book employs narrative techniques commonly found in fiction, such as setting, character development, and a strong sense of place, to tell true stories. This approach brings the subjects to life, allowing readers to connect on a more personal and emotional level with the events and people described.
  • Analytical yet Approachable — McPhee analyzes the interactions between humans and nature with depth and nuance, but his writing remains approachable. He balances expert interviews, technical descriptions, and historical context with anecdotal evidence and personal observations, creating a rich, multi-dimensional view of each scenario.
  • Reflective and Thought-Provoking — The tone of the book often reflects McPhee’s contemplation on the themes of human endeavor, nature’s power, and the ethics of environmental manipulation. His writing prompts readers to consider their own views on these topics, engaging them in a larger conversation about humanity’s place in the natural world.
  • Humor and Irony — Despite the sometimes serious and contemplative tone, McPhee incorporates humor and irony, particularly in his portrayal of human endeavors that seem particularly audacious or doomed to failure. This lightness adds a layer of readability and relatability to the narrative.
  • Elegiac and Warning — In parts, the tone becomes elegiac, mourning the loss of natural landscapes or the inevitable consequences of human arrogance. It serves as a warning about the potential dangers of underestimating nature’s power and overestimating our own.

Through this combination of style and tone, John McPhee crafts a compelling narrative that draws readers into a complex exploration of the efforts to control nature. The book’s approachability, coupled with its depth of insight, makes it a standout work in environmental literature, offering lessons not only about the natural world but also about human nature itself.

Literary Devices used in The Control of Nature

John McPhee’s The Control of Nature is a masterclass in the use of literary devices to enhance non-fiction writing. Here are the top 10 devices McPhee uses, each contributing to the depth, clarity, and engagement of his exploration of humanity’s attempts to control natural forces:

  1. Metaphor — McPhee frequently uses metaphors to draw comparisons between human endeavors and natural processes, making complex ideas more relatable and vivid. For instance, describing the Mississippi River’s control structures as “arteries” underscores their vital importance and the life-giving yet potentially destructive power of the river.
  2. Imagery — Rich, descriptive imagery brings the scenes to life, allowing readers to visualize the landscapes, engineering projects, and natural disasters McPhee describes. This use of imagery makes the abstract concepts of geological and meteorological phenomena tangible.
  3. Personification — By attributing human characteristics to nature, such as the river “choosing” its course or the lava “threatening” the town, McPhee emphasizes the dynamic and sometimes adversarial relationship between humanity and the natural world.
  4. Anecdotes — McPhee intersperses his narrative with personal stories from the individuals involved in these monumental efforts to control nature. These anecdotes add a human element, making the broader themes more personal and impactful.
  5. Juxtaposition — Placing contrasting elements side by side, such as the immense power of natural forces against human attempts to contain them, highlights the themes of hubris and the limits of human control.
  6. Foreshadowing — McPhee often hints at the eventual outcomes of human efforts to control nature, creating a sense of inevitability and tension that keeps readers engaged and underscores the themes of the book.
  7. Irony — The use of irony, particularly situational irony, where efforts to control nature lead to unintended consequences, serves as a critical commentary on the complexities and often the futility of these endeavors.
  8. Symbolism — McPhee employs symbols, such as the river, lava, and mountains, to represent broader themes of natural power, human ambition, and the precarious balance between them.
  9. Allusion — References to historical events, scientific research, and cultural stories enrich the narrative, providing context and depth that connect McPhee’s subjects to larger themes and universal experiences.
  10. Parallelism — The structural device of parallelism, particularly in how the three main case studies are presented, emphasizes the common themes and challenges across different scenarios, reinforcing the book’s overarching messages.

Each of these literary devices enhances McPhee’s exploration of the complex relationship between humans and the natural world, making The Control of Nature not only a profound work of environmental literature but also a compelling narrative that captivates the reader’s imagination and intellect.

Literary Devices Examples

Given the intricate use of literary devices in The Control of Nature, let’s explore specific examples and explanations for each of the top 10 devices used by John McPhee:


Comparing the Mississippi River’s control structures to “arteries”This metaphor emphasizes the essential and life-supporting yet potentially dangerous role of the river’s management system, mirroring the function and criticality of arteries in the human body.


Descriptions of the lava flow’s red, glowing advance towards HeimaeyMcPhee’s vivid imagery allows readers to visualize the menacing beauty of the natural disaster, enhancing the emotional and sensory engagement with the text.


Referring to the Mississippi as “choosing” its courseThis personification highlights the river’s power and unpredictability, framing it as an active agent with its own will, challenging human efforts to control it.


Stories of residents and engineers fighting the lava in IcelandThese personal stories humanize the broader narrative, adding depth and a personal connection to the scientific and technical descriptions.


Contrast between human-built structures and the wild, untamed nature of the riverJuxtaposing human attempts at control with the river’s natural forces emphasizes the scale of the challenge and the hubris involved in such endeavors.


Early mentions of potential failures in the engineering projectsForeshadowing the eventual outcomes or challenges adds suspense and highlights the themes of unpredictability and human vulnerability in the face of nature.


Efforts to control flooding leading to worse floods in unexpected areasThis situational irony underscores the unintended consequences of human attempts to control nature, reflecting on the complexity and interconnectedness of environmental systems.


The river as a symbol of natural forces beyond human controlUsing the river as a symbol, McPhee reflects on the broader theme of the unpredictable and often overpowering force of nature in contrast to human vulnerability and resilience.


References to historical flood control efforts along the MississippiAllusions to past events provide context and depth, linking the current narrative to a broader historical and cultural understanding of human-nature interactions.


The structural mirroring of the three main case studiesThis parallelism reinforces the book’s overarching themes by showing similar challenges and themes in diverse geographical and environmental contexts.

These examples highlight how McPhee’s use of literary devices not only enriches the narrative but also deepens the reader’s understanding of the complex interplay between human endeavors and natural forces.

The Control of Nature – FAQs

Q: What is the main theme of “The Control of Nature”?
A: The main theme of “The Control of Nature” is the ongoing struggle between human attempts to control natural forces and the power and unpredictability of nature itself. It explores the consequences of human hubris and the limits of engineering and technology in the face of natural processes.

Q: Who is John McPhee, and why is he significant in environmental literature?
A: John McPhee is an American writer, widely recognized for his detailed, accessible explorations of natural phenomena and human interactions with the environment. His work is significant in environmental literature for its thorough research, engaging storytelling, and ability to make complex scientific topics interesting and understandable to a general audience.

Q: Can you give an example of how humans attempted to control nature in the book?
A: One example is the efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control the Mississippi River’s flow through an extensive system of levees, locks, and control structures. This was intended to prevent flooding and redirect the river’s course for navigation and land development purposes.

Q: What are some of the unintended consequences mentioned in “The Control of Nature”?
A: The book details several unintended consequences, such as the exacerbation of flooding in areas outside the protective levee systems, ecological damage from altered river courses, and increased vulnerability to natural disasters in areas where human interventions have disrupted natural defenses.

Q: How does John McPhee use literary devices in “The Control of Nature”?
A: John McPhee employs a range of literary devices, including metaphor, imagery, personification, and irony, to enhance his narrative. These devices help to vividly depict the natural phenomena and human efforts discussed in the book, making complex scientific concepts accessible and engaging for readers.

Q: Is “The Control of Nature” relevant to current environmental discussions?
A: Absolutely. “The Control of Nature” remains highly relevant to current environmental discussions, particularly those related to climate change, sustainable development, and disaster preparedness. It highlights the critical need for understanding and respecting natural forces in policy-making and engineering projects.


Which section of “The Control of Nature” discusses the Mississippi River?AtchafalayaCooling the LavaLos Angeles Against the MountainsNone of the above
What natural event threatened the town of Heimaey in Iceland?EarthquakeVolcanic EruptionTsunamiLandslide
Which of the following themes is NOT explored in “The Control of Nature”?Human vs. NatureTechnological AdvancementHubrisInterconnectedness
John McPhee is known for writing in which genre?FictionNarrative Non-FictionScience FictionPoetry
What literary device is used to describe the Mississippi River’s control structures as ‘arteries’?SimileMetaphorAlliterationHyperbole
Which area is described as being threatened by debris flows and landslides?New YorkLos AngelesMiamiChicago
What is one of the unintended consequences of attempts to control nature mentioned in the book?Increased wildlife diversityEconomic prosperityExacerbation of floodingReduction in natural disasters
John McPhee employs which of the following literary devices extensively in his book?OnomatopoeiaImageryAssonanceEuphemism
The Control of Nature” is significant in environmental literature because it:Provides a solution to global warmingExplores the complexities of human-nature interactionsPredicts future natural disastersOffers a detailed history of environmental activism
Which literary device is used to give the river the characteristic of ‘choosing’ its course?MetaphorPersonificationIronyOxymoron


Spot the Literary Devices

Read the following paragraph from “The Control of Nature” and identify the literary devices used.

“The Mississippi River, with its sandy banks and meandering course, seemed to play a game of cat and mouse with the engineers tasked with its containment. Like a serpent slithering through the landscape, it defied the rigid structures humans imposed upon it, always seeking the path of least resistance. The river’s waters, charged with sediment, whispered tales of ancient times, reminding us that nature’s memory is long and unforgiving. In their efforts to tame the wild flow, the engineers wrote their own chapter in the age-old saga of humanity’s quest to control the natural world.”


  1. Simile – “Like a serpent slithering through the landscape,” comparing the river’s movements to a serpent to illustrate its sinuous and unpredictable nature.
  2. Personification – The river is given human-like qualities in several instances, such as “seemed to play a game of cat and mouse” and “always seeking the path of least resistance,” highlighting the dynamic and somewhat adversarial relationship between the river and human efforts to control it.
  3. Metaphor – “The river’s waters, charged with sediment, whispered tales of ancient times,” uses the metaphor of the river whispering to convey the idea that it carries historical and geological knowledge.
  4. Alliteration – “sandy banks and meandering course” uses alliteration to create a musical quality that emphasizes the natural beauty and complexity of the river.
  5. Hyperbole – “nature’s memory is long and unforgiving,” exaggerates to emphasize the vast timescale and implacability of natural processes compared to human endeavors.