At age 86, after decades of being celebrated as one of the best nonfiction writers in America, John McPhee has just published a new book, “Draft No. 4” that shows how he works. It includes lots of behind-the-scenes insights into McPhee’s job as a staff writer at The New Yorker, along with some advice for wordsmiths who want to follow in his footsteps.
For those of us who live in Louisiana, though, McPhee’s latest book is an occasion to revisit an old one — “The Control of Nature,” published in 1989. In that literary outing, McPhee carefully explained to the rest of the world why Louisiana’s coast is sliding away. “The Control of Nature” was a wake-up call for those of us who live here, and it helped raise awareness of the state’s environmental challenges among readers far beyond the region.
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Environmental writing tends to be an eat-your-vegetables affair — something consumed out of obligation rather than pleasure. But even though it outlined some serious ecological challenges, “The Control of Nature,” like so many of McPhee’s books, was a joy to read.
Here’s how he explained the role of the state’s biggest waterway in feeding the wetlands: “The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand — frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions.”
But as McPhee deftly explains, a river that unpredictable would threaten homes and industry, including the chemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that at night “made the river glow like a worm ... Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.”
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McPhee outlines efforts to control the Mississippi with a system of levees, diminishing its ability to replenish the coast. “What was a net gain before 1900 has now been a net loss for nearly a hundred years,” McPhee wrote of area wetlands, “and the Louisiana we have known — from Old River and the Acadian world to Bayou Baptiste Collete — is sinking.”
That was John McPhee, writing in some three decades ago. The appeal of “The Control of Nature” — and its most sobering reality — is that the issues it raises about the future of Louisiana are still very much with us.