The Control of Nature

John McPhee

My mother recommended Los Angeles Against the Mountains—the final essay in this collection—on a trip out west last February. I pulled a muscle in my back the week before, so we walked up into the San Gabriel on a hike to give it exercise. The mountains hummed with heat and the trapped potential energy of valley and slope. Much of McPhee's writing deals with the improbability of Los Angeles against such forbidding land. He carries that theme to Iceland and the Atchafalaya river, which wants very much to eat the Mississippi, depriving New Orleans of her harbor. He has a beat on our misguided works of ingenuity, but he doesn't let that get in the way of his awe at those works. I adored his giddy fascination with the land. And of course, there is something calming in reading about geological forces moving on timelines much longer than our own.