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Control of Nature and The Enduring Understandings - Student Essay

Updated on February 27, 2014

By Xuan Chau

Please do not re-distribute this article without the author's consent. Thank you!

An important thesis, known as the Enduring Understanding, defines and illustrates the interactions commonly seen between humans, earth, and our solar system in general. According to an interpretation of these understandings, “Energy, from the Sun and from Earth’s interior, drives all of Earth’s cycles and processes”. This statement specifies that forces released by earth’s unified layers and atmosphere, as well as energy from the sun, are the causes behind natural occurrences and everyday processes that are prominent on earth. In the novel, Control of Nature, by John McPhee, individual scenarios are given to simulate these natural processes. McPhee describes, in detail, how these procedures are carried out by the environment, their effects on the earth and human society, and how they are inevitably caused by earth and sun’s energy. In addition, this novel elucidates, not only that earth’s processes have effects on human populations, but that human technology alters our environment in different ways. Human presence on earth has, without a doubt, adjusted and will continue to reconstruct nature itself to benefit mankind.

Arguably, the leading chapter “Atchafalaya” effectively proves the main theory that human activity alters the earth’s processes, out of Mcphee’s three researches. In this case study, one is educated on the varying effects of the Mississippi, Atchafalaya, the Old rivers, as well as the interaction occurring within their intersections. Equally important, each river is closely guarded and influenced by human engineering to allow them to meet agricultural needs. One of these organizations depicted by this chapter, apparently named the U.S Army Corps, have used gates, dams, and other forms of blockage to manually control the flow of water between rivers. “ ‘What the Corps does with the water decides everything’ ”, states Oliver Houck, a professor of ecoprudence. “If we had not interrupted it, the main river would now be the Atchafalaya, below this point.” Unmistakably, by the use of these manipulations, society has remarkably altered the processes that would otherwise naturally lead to the capture of the Mississippi. Likewise to the previous water control systems, the U.S. Corps also used another form of technology, called levees, to keep water from rising to a hazardously high level. “It was important that no water be allowed to escape the river”, states McPhee, “because its full power would be most effective in scouring the bed, deepening the channel, increasing velocity, lowering stages, and preventing destructive floods”. Evidently, without the abundant supervision that is meant to prevent overflowing and the destruction of colonization, these constantly developing rivers would naturally overflow their banks and would, therefore, harm society. A perception of the Enduring Understandings states, “Earth’s surfaces and processes are altered by human engineering”. Clearly, McPhee’s case study “Atchafalaya”, elaborating the human modifications and supervisions made on these rivers, associates with this Enduring Understanding.

In general terms, “Cooling the Lava” focuses on processes occurring within the earth’s crust, and how these processes physically change land above the earth. By knowing this, we can demonstrate how “Earth is a dynamic and constantly changing planet”, as states the first theory of the Enduring Understandings. During the main eruption on Mt. Heimaey, a similar change occurs when molten rock from the earth’s mantle breaks through the crust, creating a fissure alongside a nearby village. During the start of Eldfell’s eruption of 1973, “the magma had moved forty thousand feet upward in the earth in less than a day”. Tremors, falling debris, and deadly gasses that all appear within the start of the eruption prove how matter and energy contained in the earth are prepared to dramatically destroy, and at the same time recreate earth’s land. In this instance, the Enduring Understanding is resembled by two processes, where human engineering prevented obvious damage from an eruption by introducing a new tactic, and how this shows that the earth is still changing by the aftermath of these eruptions. Although this matter is often discussed in the severe eruptions evaluated during the course of this chapter, these processes genuinely originated and have affected the movements of tectonic plates, which are another important discussed factor of “Cooling the Lava”. McPhee describes how this occurs. “Radioactivity in the deep rock creates so much heat that it must find a way out... it eventually encounters the thin surface plates, and may help explain why they move... like the needle of a sewing machine penetrating moving cloth”. The certain connections that are made between magma from the mantle, versus the thinner and outermost continental and oceanic plates, show that earth’s processes are interconnected and constantly changing the form of the earth, agreeing this precise concept of the Enduring Understanding. Although there are many diverse, separate processes inside and outside of the planet, this chapter proves that it is their interactions with each other that create the complex network that we see in our environment.

Like the title suggests, McPhee’s third chapter, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” generalizes Los Angeles’ many conflicts between it and its’ surroundings and environment. The large city’s unique location provides necessary resources, that ultimately cause an abundance of forest fires, which lead to debris flows, and other problems that threaten its’ society. In analyzing the exclusive features, specifically plant life, that account for the land’s environmental behavior, one can prove how “earth systems are interconnected to, dependent on, and shaped by life systems”. The vegetation found on Los Angeles, the chaparral plant, as heavily described in the chapter, survive completely on the common and unavoidable forest fires that occur here and have evolved to adapt to this lifestyle. During a large fire that was nourished by long untouched vegetation, “the century-old fuel of the Middle Fork was so combustible that afterward there were not even stumps”. It is therefore valid to conclude, that many of Los Angeles’ ecological processes, such as its wildfires, are caused mainly by the life systems is supports. Moreover, the aftermath effects of these forest fires are also provoked by these life systems. Much vegetation, including chaparral, is said to become “waterproof”, after it has been burnt, covered in a wax like substance. This factor, mixed with the rare rainfalls that Los Angeles occasionally receives, and the steep mountainsides in which they exist on, unavoidably triggers debris flows which are a constant concern for the city. McPhee describes the waterproof ash remains of the Middle Fork fire as, “Three hundred and ninety thousand cubic yards of loose debris... awaiting mobilization”. Clearly, this complex arrangement held by Los Angeles’ environment dramatically shape, as well as modify, the behavior of everyday processes on earth, as seen in Los Angeles’ ecosystem.

Through these examples, one can perceive that the earth’s variety of processes, systems, and procedures are dependent on each other in the complex order that is existence on earth. To show comprehension over this basic idea drawn from the Enduring Understandings, John Mcphee deciphers his three experiences; Human administration and control over rivers in “Atchafalaya”, the extreme processes that cycle within the earth’s mantle in “Cooling the Lava,” and furthermore, ecology’s natural fuel that drives and modifies earth’s systems in “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”. Indubitably, by just our understanding of earth’s existence, we can do very little to alter nature’s forces. In our struggle to cope with nature’s disasters, though, we begin making increasingly large differences that may in turn, damage our environment. Despite this, in our future where technology has made advancements, humankind may gain the ability to cope with the earth, while accepting and allowing the freedom for the planet and our solar system to perform its natural tasks.

Works Cited

Mcphee, John. (1989) Control of Nature. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. pp. 271

Eldfell. In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 11th, 2012 from

Debris Flow. In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 12th, 2012 from

Atchafalaya River. In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 9th, 2012 from

Helman, Christopher. (May 16th, 2011) “Is This The Year The Atchafalaya River 'Captures' The Mississippi?”. Retrieved on October 11, 2012 from


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    • snakebaby profile image

      Sabrina Yuquan Chen (陈玉泉) 

      4 years ago from Boston, MA, USA

      Excellent writing, very interesting content, good to learn all these.


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