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Uphill Battle Against Downhill Liquids


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THE CONTROL OF NATURE by John McPhee, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 272 pp., $17.95

MASTER of the telling anecdote, John McPhee likes nothing better than a good fight - between fluids and engineers.

In this, his 20th book, the voice is that of a war correspondent in the thick of three campaigns: the Army Corps of Engineers' battle with a marauding Mississippi River; the Icelandic Civil Defense Council's firefight with molten lava; and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District's trench warfare with sliding mud.

Water, lava, and mud have allies - gravity and time, eons of time. They hold the high ground and fight, literally, downhill. Pharaoh, not Noah, is the commissioner of public works.

Liquids seek their own level. But the Mississippi River drains two-thirds of a continent, the Icelandic lava flow lasted 5 1/2 months on the Island of Heimaey, and the high-speed California mud came from the fastest-rising mountain range in North America, at the ``kink'' of two colliding tectonic plates. They make level as they seek level.

Conflict between man and nature is, well, ``natural'' in such places. Or is it? Irony courses through this book like the Atchafalaya, a tributary turned distributary that wants to hijack the Mississippi a couple of hundred miles west of where it currently empties into the Gulf. ``Society required artifice to survive in a region where nature might reasonably have asked a few more eons to finish a work of creation that was incomplete,'' McPhee quotes from an Army Corps of Engineers report detailing corps efforts in southern Louisiana.

His pen exposes environmental folly the way a geologist uncovers a fault line. ``From the beginnings of settlement, failure was the par expectation with respect to the river - a fact generally masked by the powerful fabric of ambition that impelled people to build towns and cities where almost any camper would be loath to pitch a tent.''


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