A fiery war with Mother Nature

Essayist Wendell Berry writes of a pond he tried to create on a steep wooded hillside at his Kentucky farm. He wanted to use the site as cattle pasture. Berry, an advocate of sustainable, low-tech farming, sought “expert advice” and hired a man with a bulldozer to dig the pond, which filled with water to support livestock.

After a wet fall and winter, the ground was soft. The surrounding land collapsed into the pond.

“The trouble was a familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge,” Berry writes in his collection of essays, What Are People For? “The fault was mine.”

Too much power. Too little knowledge.

Add to this self-absorption and the idea that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. This is the American way of life, which is, as George W. Bush reminds us, “non-negotiable.”

For Angora Fire fighters, seeing toys and tools in burned-out homes was heart-rending. Last week, South Lake Tahoe families began returning to burned-out shells of homes and black SUV carcasses. Days earlier, they’d evacuated quickly—leaving little time to grab family photo albums, home videos and the heirloom quilt passed down for three generations.

In less than a week, 3,100 acres burned and some 245 houses and a methamphetamine lab were destroyed.

A few bears were saved. Much wildlife died. Firefighters also saw “a lot of dead trout,” one report said.

“We’ve made it safe for the people to come back in,” a strike team leader from California told reporters. “That was our goal.”

John McPhee’s 1989 book, The Control of Nature, examines places where humans attempt to control natural forces. McPhee begins with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ declaration of war on the lower Mississippi River.

The Corps’ pro-war propaganda included a film showing its work to rein in the river. The narration: “This nation has a large and powerful adversary. Our opponent could cause the United States to lose nearly all her seaborne commerce, to lose her standing among trading nations. … We are fighting Mother Nature. … It’s a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory.”

Years later, we know the war’s outcome. Katrina’s confirmed death toll lingers around 1,836—along with hundreds still missing.

Too much power. Too little knowledge. Human hubris.

Traveling to the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, a place plagued by floods, debris flows and fires, McPhee asks why people build homes in areas prone to natural disaster. Answers range from ignorance to a willingness to gamble.

Richard Crook, a consulting geologist, tells McPhee: “Developers will buy a piece of property without thinking. … The people want to live in these areas. When they buy houses, they don’t know what they’re getting into. The entire county ends up paying for these people’s problems.”

Early estimates of the Angora Fire put the damage to structures at more than $140 million. The cost to fight the blaze is expected to reach $15 million.

Officials last week pledged the fire would not ruin Tahoe’s Fourth of July celebrations.

Berry concludes his pond building anecdote by explaining how the act of wounding nature compels him to make art. Useful writing provides a map of scars, he says, that heals and protects its subject.

“It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon,” he writes. “After the stone axe, we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect—and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage.”