New: Book Report: The Control of Nature

I'm still sick, a little. I'm better than I was. This morning I thought I was all better. So I hopped on the bus to work. I had a coughing fit on the bus. And another few during the day at work. I thought I was better, but it was just the germs lurking--lurking so that I would be lulled into going into a populated center, coughing, propogating disease. I like to think that I'm pretty smart, but today I was outsmarted by a bunch of microscopic critters that don't even have brains. I am no match for nature.

John McPhee wrote a book about engineering vs. nature. The Army Corps of Engineers really wants the Mississippi River to continue in its present bed, not escaping overmuch into the bed of the Old River. What does it do. People living next to volcanoes want lava to go around their homes. What do they do? The city of Los Angeles is next to some mountains which shower boulders and debris upon homes in the hills. What do they do?

It's pretty interesting in a "People are nuts" way.

In the Mississippi River section, there are some notes on the plight of New Orleans. This book was written before hurricane Katrina, and even then , we knew the city was in danger.

An Alexander Calder might revel in these motions--independent, interconnected, related to the flow at Old River. Calder would have understood Old River Control: the place where the work is attached to the ceiling, and below which everything--New Orleans, Morgan City, the river swamp of the Atchafalaya--dangles and swings.

Something like half of New Orleans is now below sea level--as much as fifteen feet. New Orleans, surrounded by levees, is emplaced between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi like a broad shallow bowl. Nowhere is New Orleans higher than the river's natural bank. Underpriveleged people live in the lower elevations, and always have. The rich--by the river--occupy the highest ground. In New Orleans, income and elevation can be corellated on a literally sliding scale: the Garden District on the highest level, Stanley Kowalski in the swamp. The Garden District and its environs are known as uptown.

Also in the section on the Mississippi, a note about documentation:

...for the ignorant river pilots and all uninitiated craft there's a very large sign hugh up the bank of the river--its first three words in red:

1 Mile--West Bank
Old River Control Structure
Corps of Engineers
New Orleans District

Spring high water often knocks the sign away.

People fleeing an erupting volcano may escape with strands of fallen molten glass in their hair. To remove the glass, they need haircuts.

A story of Icelandic fishermen trapped at sea when their boat sank reminded me of Lynne Cox:

...the fishing boat pulled itself stern first under the sea. It rolled over. Three survivors climbed up on the hull. The time was about 10 P.M. The ship's emergency raft was trapped and unreleasable. The air temperature was below freezing, the water not much above. No means remained available to create a distress signal. Lights of [the island of] Himaey were visible to the west. The three men considered their predicament for half an hour. Then--in their jeans, their wool sweaters--they slipped off the hull and began to swim. One died almost immediately. The two others--Gudlaugur Fridthorsson and Hjortur Rosmann Jonsson, the captain--swam side by side and kept talking. Birds, screaing in the darkness, swarmed around them. After a time, when Gudlaugur put something in the form of a question there was no reply.

Thereafter, he talked to the birds. In daylight, sailors who have fallen overboard have been found by shipmates who steered towards hovering birds. There was no hope of that in the dark of this winter midnight, but Gudlaugur--twenty-three years old--consciously struggled to keep his wits through dialog with shrieking birds. He knew that confusion was among the first symptoms of hypothermia and if he became confused he would die. Always, he saw the light on the island. He swam by preference on his back, but he thought that heat would be lost most readily through the nape, so he swam for long periods on his stomach. He swam about six hours--at least five times as long as anyone ever has in water that cold. [This was 1984]

When he reached Heimaey, he found himself in a hostile wave-battered niche in the new lava, up against a cliff. His purchase there being hopeless, he want back into the sea. He swam about half a mile south and, this time, climbed out on a broad flow of apalhraun, the sharpest and roughest texture of volcanic glass. Barefoot, he crossed it, and lost a good deal of blood. After he reached some grazing land, he saw a tub full of water for sheep, broke the ice with a fist, and drank. He came to a house about six in the morning, eight hours after his boat capsized. When doctors examined him, they could not find a pulse, and his temperature was too low to register on a medical thermometer. [But he did survive.]

The debris flows of Los Angeles wiped out the home of hat magnate G. Henry Stetson. That particular flow of debris came from Sombrero Canyon.

This book is full of great stuff. People are nuts when they go toe to toe with nature, and it makes for some good stories.

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Posted 2006-06-05