Here’s the setup: visit three places in the world where people have tried to hold nature at bay through engineering. In the first part, you visit the mouth of the Mississippi, where the river desperately wants to shift its position before it empties into the ocean. With locks and diversions, people have told the Mississippi where to go - and the river often, but not always, listens.
In the second part, you visit Iceland, where people used big hoses sucking seawater to hold lava from an erupting volcano at bay in order to save a fishing harbour.
In the third part, you visit Los Angeles, where debris slides from the mountains have the power to wipe out whole neighbourhoods - unless they can be contained by very large ditches.
Elements of the book made me think immediately of the Baichwal, Burtynsky, de Pencier filmmaking trio. What would these places look like in pictures? How would locals’ stories sound if I could hear them in their own words? Unfortunately, I liked their imaginary movie version of the book better than the essays themselves.
McPhee, who is an astoundingly successful writer on the topic closest to my heart, didn’t live up to what I wanted him to be. Are these places symbols of the Anthropocene? Are they metaphors or representative of a larger message? Why should I know this?
In the end, it’s not clear if these locations were picked because they have global significance, or if they were just the first three places McPhee thought to write about. I’m not sure what the lesson in the book might be - and not in the thought-provoking, non-didactic way that Baichwal loves. More in a “does this guy have an editor?” kind of way.
The book took a really long time to get through, mostly because the information - especially on the Mississippi - was so repetitive. By the time I was part-way through each essay, I started to get a bit resentful about the wordiness. Resentful because I genuinely care about the topic and wanted to know it better - just without all those words in the way.
Time for a change of pace ...