Thursday, March 31, 2011


Our group discussed John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid on March 27, 2011. Here is a report by member Joy Pardue:

Having never delved deeply into the realm of ancient religions, I had only a vague notion of the definition of ‘archdruid’. Druids are defined as those who “worship the forces of nature by means of meditation, prayer and celebration of the Earth.…” Thus, John McPhee bestows the title of “Archdruid” onto David Brower while one of his adversaries lumps David (and all conservationists) with druids and dismisses them as people who “worshiped trees and sacrificed people”.

In this absorbing book, McPhee orchestrates meetings between David Brower and three impressive, driven professionals whose ambitions – as far as David Brower is concerned – are anathema to the well being of the planet and its inhabitants. These encounters are set in some of the most scenic regions of our country. “The Mountain” refers to the Cascade Mountains where McPhee arranges a trek which includes Brower, geologist Charles Park and two medical students. Brower and Parks debate the economic advantages versus the natural and esthetic losses of copper mining is this pristine setting. “The Island” hosts a meeting between Brower and real estate developer Charles Fraser who was proudly transforming picturesque Cumberland Island into an extravagant resort. “The River” section covers a rafting trip down the Colorado River and a visit to Glen Canyon Dam. Floyd Dominy, US Commissioner of Reclamation, who built this and many other dams, is an outspoken critic of conservationists and as determined to have it his way as David Brower is.

A passage in this chapter illustrates McPhee’s ability to record opposing views clearly and concisely – with a touch of humor. He quotes Dominy as saying “Reclamation is the father of putting water to work for man – irrigation, hydropower, flood control, recreation. Let’ s use our environment. Nature changes the environment every day of our lives – why shouldn’t we change it. Diametrically opposed, conservationists think “there is something special about dams, something – as conservation problems go – that is disproportionately and metaphysically sinister. The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT…and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam.”

In each setting, McPhee faithfully records the dialogue, discourse and the many disagreements between Brower and his foil. In the telling, Brower comes to life as a naturalist practically on par with John Muir, an intrepid mountaineer, a passionate defender of the planet and the seriously successful executive director of the Sierra Club where he was revered as a “poet, naturalist and politician” amongst the rank and file. (or “ the membership”).

For twenty years, Brower served the Sierra Club “brilliantly…magnificently”, growing it from a “small, local organization…into a major national and international force in the conservation movement.” In time, as Brower became more powerful and his methods became more controversial, he alienated and infuriated many members of the Board of Directors – enough to have him ousted. Even Ansel Adams’ vote was “Anti-Brower”. Lending truth to the member’s observation: “There is no love-hate like the love-hate that exists among mountaineers.”

Our PVNWG members rated this book highly and agreed that McPhee maintained a fairly neutral stance in depicting these strong, single-minded characters. He records their interactions with neither commentary nor criticism It isn’t easy to determine where his sympathies lie as he records these communications and relationships without commentary or judgment. Perhaps McPhee’s primary goal is to be well informed and to inform others. What a creative way to learn: bring together the archdruid and his archenemies (so to speak) and take notes as they debate the subject. On site of the area in dispute!

In the process we learn something about geology, the extraction industry and the laws – or lack thereof – pertaining to these corporations. We are privy to behind-the-scenes people and politics that make or break dreams and schemes. We’re among the very few who are privy to the inner workings of a dam. And we enjoy the vicarious pleasure of rafting through the Grand Canyon. All of which give us glimpses of the world David Brower saw, loved and appreciated. “Archdruid” may not be considered an altogether complimentary term, but I think McPhee chose it as a tribute to David Brower – a fitting title for this dedicated devotee of Planet Earth.

Brower photo via

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