Is it chutzpah? The willing suspension of disbelief? Or sheer stupidity? One wonders—and so does McPhee (Rising from the Plains, Table of Contents, etc.) as he describes, most graphically, three cases of humanity living at the brink of natural disasters. The first long piece describes man's never-satisfied efforts to tame the Mississippi. The mental picture that develops is of a channel forced into deeper and deeper cuts and levees built ever higher as dams are raised and flood plains tamed in an effort to prevent periodic flooding and natural spills into distributaries. But now look at one structure (that's what the Army Corps of Engineers calls a navigation lock complex) that controls the flow where the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers come together. Its purpose: nothing less than to maintain the volume and course of the Mississippi just as it was in 1950 and thus preserve the river's connection to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Next comes a tale of Iceland and the sheer heroism of a small band to tame molten lava by, of all things, hosing it down with water. Even their fellow townspeople laughed at such folly—until they saw that it worked. At stake was the preservation of a great natural harbor at the town of Heimaey—Iceland's richest fishing center. Incredibly, the hosing saved the harbor—but not the town, now buried deep in lava. McPhee contrasts the Nordic approach with that of Hawaiians who accept Mt. Pele's whims fatalistically, their propitiatory gestures limited to offerings of flowers and gin. The last of these cautionary tales is set in California in the canyons and surrounds of the San Gabriel Mountains. Here, the incredible views, natural beauty, and freedom from smog and city are sufficient to close many a mind to the predictable disasters that follow subtle combinations of wind, fire, and heavy rain. Neither man-made pits nor dams can then stay the muck and mud that race down the mountains to bury million-dollar homes (while their tearful owners are interviewed on TV). As always, McPhce is apt at metaphor and simile, more so here where he is less the cerebral lecturer in geology and more the reporter and eyewitness, capturing the words of people and the music of nature. First-rate.

Pub Date: June 1, 1989

ISBN: 0374522596

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1989

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.



An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!


It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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