Timely and Enlightening: John McPhee on Cajun Country Floods

The New Yorker has brought out from its paywall archives John McPhee's wonderful 1987 piece "Atchafalaya." This is about the very stretch of the lower Mississippi River in the news today because of the pending decision to open the Morganza Spillway and flood parts of Cajun Country, so as to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from being flooded instead.

McPhee's piece, in addition to its narrative and descriptive power, explains the basic forces of nature against which the US Army Corps of Engineers, and much of modern development, have worked. For instance:

>>The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand--frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions.<<

Those frequent and radical changes of course, inevitable in geological time, are the challenge in the here and now. It's not that the piece is getting no attention -- it's the most popular at the moment on the New Yorker's site -- but it is so timely and, in so many ways, instructive that I thought it worth mentioning to anyone who might have missed it. (Thanks to Tim Heffernan for reminder.)

UPDATE. A reader in the area writes:

>>Check out the Baton Rouge La newspaper, The Advocate. I am afraid that people don't know that the floodway has levees to protect the cajun towns. All farming and other uses of the floodway are permitted with the understanding that the risk always exist that the area may have to be flooded. We know how to live in swampland and love it.<<
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

From This Author

Just In