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Atchafalaya (1987) (newyorker.com)
49 points by mauvehaus 67 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments

The Control of Nature (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Control_of_Nature) is a book that contains this essay and two others (one about Iceland attempting to divert lava flows using pumped ocean water, one about southern CA attempting to build housing in an area dominated by complementary mudslides and firestorms). The whole book is a really great (in John McPhee's unique style) description of what happens when humans attempt to restrict or alter the earth's natural changes.

The above Atchafalaya essay is eye opening about the Mississippi River and how its natural course has swayed back and forth hundreds of miles over the centuries. We have now decided these two rivers should stop moving, but the earth doesn't see it that way. When they hit the gulf, their flow speed lowers, dropping the carried sediment. This causes their mouth to move slightly to an area with less dropped sediment. Humans have built walls attempting to constrain movement, but that may be a long-term losing battle.

Recommended reading, and a nice entry point to McPhee if you haven't read him yet.

The Yellow River has had more dramatic movements in recorded history, see this Wikipedia image for how varied its course has been in the past two millennia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_River#/media/File:Yello...

What caused the coastline (the dotted blue lines) to change that dramatically over 2500 years?

The book was a fascinating read. Though sometimes I had to consult a map, it could have used with some visual aids.

Basically that river should take over the bulk of the flow of the Mississippi, but for human intervention, in this case the army Corp of engineers

“ If the Mississippi were allowed to flow freely, the shorter and steeper Atchafalaya would capture the main flow of the Mississippi, permitting the river to bypass its current path through the important ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.“


There is a Simpsons episode where the family goes to Australia. In the American embassy there, they are shown a toilet with a huge pump attached to it so that the water will circulate the way it does in the northern hemisphere. A totally false assumption made for comedic effect but the amount of time and money spent by the US government to make Mother Nature behave is anything but funny. At some point, a failure or flood or some other disaster is going to release the river to flow wherever it wants and mankind is not going to stop it.

It's not like the government is just containing the river for fun - they are containing it because huge investments have been made along its current banks, and to just let it run it's course would destroy billions of dollars of value permanently(because other groups would not invest in the new water course if it could change again after 20 years leaving them high and dry).

My point wasn't the money being spent is being wasted. It was that when nature decides it's time for change, all the money in the world isn't going to make a difference.

Hydraulic debt.

Pronounced 'uh-CHA-fuh-LIE-uh,' for anyone curious. CHA like CHApstick. At least, if you're speaking in the kind of accent used with great frequency in this story.

There's no "uh" sound at the beginning.

The IPA on wikipedia uses "ə", indicating a sound closer to "uh" (like commA) versus "at" (like crAp).

This coonass, who grew up along the Atchafalaya, says that people normally use a soft "uh" sound at the beginning of the name.

Mostly I grew up along the Ouachita, but I lived in Church Point for a time, and I don't remember the soft "uh" sound.

Not sayin' I'm right, just that I never pronounced it that way and don't remember it commonly being pronounced that way. That was... about 35 years ago, though. The way I remember it, there was no vowel before the CH sound.

Church Point! Jeez, that's north of the I-10. Once you get past Opelousas, you're practically in Yankee territory. :)

Here's a guy going through some Louisiana names and their pronunciations. Skip ahead to hear him pronounce Atchafalaya the way I grew up hearing it.


Thanks for posting this.

"Laughy-ette" ...pretty much.

Man I miss good boudin.

So, he said, "This is most closely associated with the Atchafalaya basin..."

Said in that way, you don't notice the "uh" sound preceding it. I'm guessing that's what I'm remembering.

He covered Herbert as a last name, but not Richard.

A better representation would be "eh"

You are correct sir. The rest of the parent comments procunciation is spot on though. I had to say it out loud a few times to confirm it was closer to "eh".

I think this is the location of the illustration on Google Maps: https://www.google.ch/maps/@31.0669716,-91.5765602,407a,35y,...

Map from 1944 depicting how the Mississippi River has changed its path: https://www.nps.gov/vick/learn/nature/river-course-changes.h...

This is not the first time this has been posted here. I remember vividly this bit:

> With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they had penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish.

I'd love to read the comments on previous postings, but couldn't find them on hn.algolia.com. Pointers?

I'm having trouble finding it too. I wonder if the same article was published by a different source?

Only today did I realize that Red River and Mississippi are sort of connected. I mean the navigable river infrastructure of USA is itself .. EXCEPTIONAL!

I am sorry Shreveport.. I underestimated you ;)

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