Los Angeles vs. Nature

John McPhee is the best nonfiction writer alive. My opinion, of course. But I happen to be right. Nobody describes anything better. No writer does a better job of digging into subjects most would find dull (rocks, pine barrens, river levees, minor species of fish) and making them not only interesting but relevant. Sometimes extremely so.

Take what he wrote in The Control of Nature about the Mississippi river, describing, among much else, what would happen to New Orleans when a levee failed. Which, ineviably, one would. In a chapter titled Achafalaya, McPhee handicapped the Army Corps of Engineers against the Mississippi. That was in 1987. The New Yorker ran it again in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina gave McPhee’s words the ring of phophesy.

Another chapter in The Control of Nature is “Los Angeles vs. The San Gabriel Mountains.” That one has special relevance today, when torrential rain on mountains denuded by fires brings the threat of mud slides — a term that doesn’t describe what really happens. McPhee:

  In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie’s words, “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”

  In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins. On its way down Pine Cone Road, it plucked up cars from driveways and the street.

Geologists call mountain-building “orogeny.” In his Pulitzer-winning book on geology, Annals of the Former World, McPhee explains, “in the fight between orogeny and erosion, erosion always wins.” Fires side with erosion. Rain does too, especially when teamed with fires.

It is important to understand, if you live on or under their slopes, that the mountains of Southern California are brand new and not all well built. There are volcanoes that grow slower than some of these mountains, and come down slower too. Many of the canyons and ravines in the San Gabriels — the Big Tujunga, the Pacoima — are flanked by dirt whose angles of repose nearly exceed the temporary frictions that hold the land in place. Water-soaked dirt can weigh more than rock, and will seek a level lower than its own. Burn off the desert chapparal that carpets the slopes, and debris flows become certain once the rain soaks in.

So that’s not just what to watch for in the current heavy weather. It’s what to expect.

12 comments

  1. George Metesky’s avatar

    I like that I can read Doc Searls without paying the New York Times.

  2. George Metesky’s avatar

    When your name is George Metesky it’s hard for people to give you shit about being a troll.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Wasn’t tempted, George. :-) And thanks for the kind words.

  4. Paul Bouzide’s avatar

    I’ve been a railfan for all but three or four of my fifty+ years (thanks Dad!), with a routing and freight logistics specialization that developed over time. So obviously I loved McPhee’s piece (published in the New Yorker, presumably an excerpt from his latest book “Uncommon Carriers”) where he rode a coal train from the Powder River Basin, Wyoming to a Georgia power plant. I even blogged about it on the old Paulytron.

    What was notable to me was how much detail he nailed perfectly. Lots of people write surprisingly deep pieces that involve modern day railroading (I’m thinking of William Vollmann’s excellent “Riding Towards Everywhere” at the moment, but there have been others), but often manage to misinterpret some of what they observe. Like any subject under the sun, railroading has a rich matrix of phenomena, processes, and layers of legacy altered by changing economic and technological contexts. I’d be tempted to opine that McPhee is also a railfan given this demonstrated depth of understanding in this subject except he apparently exhibits this same depth in myriad unrelated subject areas.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Yes, Coal Train I and Coal Train II were combined into a chapter for Uncommon Carriers, which is now in the canon of the too-few writings about Infrastructure.

    McPhee loves Stuff That Matters that doesn’t get noticed otherwise. All his writing concerns one or more of those. He’s also interested in how things change, and likes to study subjects at moments in time when they are neither as they were, nor as they will be. Such as oranges during the concentrate phase, when even the growers drank the factory product. Sports figures (Arthur Ashe and Bill Bradley) who operate in original ways you might not know, and may never see again. Alaska as the pipeline was coming in. The Pine Barrens before they became suburb. Hazmat transport. And coal power before we become embarrassed at destroying Wyoming to extract mass quantities of 80 million year old carbon that can’t be replaced.

    You can open any McPhee book to any page and find yourself immediately enlarged by what you read there. No writer has influenced me more, even though I only started reading him when I was pushing fifty.

    I could go on, but I’d rather readers just go off and start buying his books.

  6. Diego Jackson’s avatar

    John McPhee is the best nonfiction writer alive. This is not merely your opinion, it’s the absolute truth.

  7. Chip’s avatar

    Good work Doc, as always
    Will be sharing with a few friends
    And, with McPhee, you just added to my list of not yet read’s – but need to

    Ciao
    Chip

  8. Theodore Taptiklis’s avatar

    The theme of Los Angeles vs nature is treated brilliantly, to my outsider-LA-lover’s thinking, by Mike Davis in ‘City of Quartz’ and ‘Ecology of Fear’. He suggests, among other things, that from the fragile landscape of the area, undone by generations of unsympathetic practice (apparently even the arroyos are human-caused!) has arisen an experience of apocalypse that is now deeply embedded in the zeitgeist…especially in movies and fiction. Whether or not Davis is right about this, the relationship between the natural and the human environment of LA is for me one the great unfolding stories…

  9. barbara (kitten)’s avatar

    Thanks for reminding me to read more McFee (after I read Cluetrain Manefesto 2.0 and Content:) Annals of the Former World was exellent.

  10. California Blogger’s avatar

    Very accurate description of what can suddenly occur on Southern California’s foothills. Los Angeles is always perched on the edge of utter destruction — pick your method — but society goes on in L.A., miraculously. We Angeloids can survive it all, I guess!

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