Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee 1971

McPhee’s eighth book is a wonderful read and a prime example of the approach he has taken for his non-fiction examinations of incredibly diverse topics:  find a convivial, loquacious, and knowledgeable expert in an area of interest and then listen, learn, contextualize, and write a brilliant and approachable exegesis of this complex topic in clear and crystalline sentences.  In this case, McPhee found David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club, and perhaps the leading conservationist since John Muir and managed to set up and accompany Brower on three excursions to environmental ‘hot spots’.  The first trip takes them deep into the Glacier Peak National Wilderness in Washington’s Cascade Mountains where Brower debates the merits of an open pit copper mine proposed by Kennecott Copper with Charles Park, a mineral geologist and professor at Stanford.  The second trip takes them to Cumberland Island, a huge barrier island off Georgia where Brower debates the question of development of natural areas with Charles Fraser, the developer of Sea Pines, SC who has bought 1000 acres with the intention of building houses, golf courses, etc.  The third trip takes them down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon where Brower debates the merits of dams with Floyd Dominy, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation who was responsible for the Glen Canyon Dam and who wants to place more dams along the Colorado.  In each case, Brower argues the case for wilderness and the natural environment, more than holding his own against the ‘experts,’ and McPhee transcribes and describes the trips and conversations as if writing a suspense novel.  This is great stuff, and while McPhee has continued to turn out more books of prose right into the current decade, Brower, Park, Fraser, and Dominy are all dead.  The controversial engineering projects that they debated, though, have all been resolved. The copper pit never got dug and Kennecott has renounced their right to do so in the future; Fraser sold his Cumberland Island land to the Federal Government which has created a National Seashore there; no additional dams have been built on the Colorado.  Brower finished the book 3-0, but the final pages describe his ouster from the ED role at the Sierra Club when the Board became disaffected with his independent and controversial stands. Brower went on to found the John Muir Institute and remained an important force for limiting man’s incursions on the land until his death in 2000 at the age of 88.  Great book!

Shop your local indie bookstore