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Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007
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Conquest of Nature (06 Edition)

by David Blackbourn

The Last Thing You'd Consider

A review by Tim Heffernan

It takes a rare writer to make a history of hydrology readable, let alone compulsively so. It takes a rare historian to convincingly argue that a nation's great water projects help define and shape its character. David Blackbourn is both. And his new book, The Conquest of Nature, proves it.

Beginning with the rerouting of the Oder River under Frederick the Great, the book details two and a half centuries of digs, dikes, and dammings that not only changed the face of the German landscape, but helped define the very nature of Germanness. In 1747, the year the Oder project began, much of the country was swamp. By 1900, it was a nation of shipping canals, farmland, and iron foundries. In those hundred and fifty years, Germany transformed from a collection of mutually hostile duchies to a nation of imposing unity and strength.

Blackbourn maps these sweeping changes using every tool he has: biography, geography, archival materials, and one too often forgotten, shoe leather. (He has hiked over the land whose astonishing changes he chronicles.) This dedication comes as no surprise once you've read his introductory essay, where makes an important point: History is not merely about ideas, but about things -- people, towns, and, in this case, the rivers and lakes to which they owe their very existence.

Though The Conquest of Nature is about Germany, its lessons can be applied to American history: From the Erie Canal to the Hoover Dam, our homegrown conquest of nature marched in lockstep with the rise of our great industrial cities, the opening of the Plains, and the settlement of the West, with Los Angeles, the garden in the desert, standing as its brightest (or darkest) icon. And today, China is conducting a conquest of its own, starting with the Three Gorges Dam. If we're lucky, Blackbourn will get started on these stories. If he's smart, he'll invest in some new shoes.

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