Weekend Reading List: 18 June 2016

New Yorker Atchafalaya Sketch

‘If this was a form of battlefield, it was not unlike a great many battlefields—landscapes so quiet they belie their story. Most battlefields, though, are places where something happened once. Here it would happen indefinitely.’

Another weekend is here! For this week, I have just one article to recommend. But what an article – it’s a whopper in length at 27,000 words, not unlike the length of the river it’s about.

This article is Atchafalaya, by the renowned nonfiction writer John McPhee. A magisterial sweep of a writeup, covering history, geography and plenty of social observation, it talks about a titanic struggle between man and nature – all the resources and ingenuity of America’s top engineers, against the ebb and flow of water.

The Corps was not in a political or moral position to kill the Atchafalaya. It had to feed it water. By the principles of nature, the more the Atchafalaya was given, the more it would want to take, because it was the steeper stream. The more it was given, the deeper it would make its bed.

The struggle is for the course of the Mississippi River itself, what Lincoln called the ‘Father of Waters’. Crucially important to the economy of the entire US, the water’s natural behaviour has become problematic for the purposes of the humans who live around it and depend on it. Where the river becomes swamp, people want land. Where the river seeks a new course (the ‘Atchafalaya’ of the title), people fight to keep it the way it is.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a fort was built about a thousand feet from a saltwater bay east of New Orleans. The fort is now collapsing into the bay.

McPhee describes the process of this fight over three centuries, as humans barricade the river and the river charges through. And he does it with vigour, bringing to life a battle that is literally earthshaking in scale, from six-storey high walls of water to erosion on a breathtaking scale – fifty square miles a year. (For perspective, Singapore would be completely gone in five and a half years at that rate.)

At the same time, he leads the reader on a ride through the deeply altered natural and human landscape of the Atchafalaya River itself, and the people who live on it – from navigators and engineers to fishermen seeing crayfish.

Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I have!

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