Week 1: Bearings and a Book Review
A dispatch from Our Man in Wayne County (that's me)
Capitol Reef National Park, to my reckoning, is situated at just the spot where a Maynard Dixon landscape reaches up to touch an Ed Mell sky. Approached from the west the Latter-day industriousness of the ranching towns—Loa, Lyman, Bicknell, smaller by succession—gives way, in the town of Torrey, to the itinerancy of retirees and researchers, rented RVs, vanlifers, and field rigs. The arable land narrows and drops away, or rather the cliffs rise, orange badlands and sheer red faces topped by cream-colored domes. The Fremont River winds its way east to join the Colorado, irrigating the cottonwoods and the orchards in Fruita, where the old Gifford homestead is now the National Park campground. A beautiful landscape, and a perfect place to ponder the aesthetics of conservation, which leads into this week’s…
Book Review: John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid
What role should beauty play in conversations on conservation? How high a value can the aesthetic sense responsibly claim in the hierarchy of competing claims to our natural resources? What is the public place of natural beauty?
These are the questions raised by McPhee’s excellent 1971 profile of David Brower—the 20th Century’s most prolific troublemaking treehugger. Compiling “narratives about a conservationist and three of his natural enemies,” the book follows Brower in the renegade period following his ejection from sixteen years of activist Sierra Club leadership. Opposing him are, in turn, mining geologist Charles Park, who supports developing a copper mine in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of the north Cascades, ambitious Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser, who seeks to expand his empire to the most pristine of Georgia’s sea islands, and the United States Commissioner of Reclamation, Floyd E Dominy, a giant in his own right who handed Brower his bitterest defeat in the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam.
All are impressive figures, and McPhee is nobody’s partisan. But it’s clear that he’s fascinated by Brower, by the confidence and the charisma, and the unexpected reasonableness and relatability that crops up amongst his righteous zeal. Brower is often contradictory, sometimes fickle. He hates a highway grade that runs through his beloved Sierras, but sees no trouble in a rail line; McPhee suspects that this is for no better reason than that the rail line was already there when Brower first laid eyes on the landscape. But he is an arresting figure. “Zeal for your house has consumed me,” the psalmist wrote, and the comparison with Brower is obvious and apt. It’s Fraser who labels him a druid, a religious figure who sacrifices people to trees, who “wants to save things he likes, all for himself.” Brower speaks, in religious terms, of conservation as “an ethic and a conscience in everything we do, regardless of our field of endeavor.”
Brower, McPhee writes, “has been an emotionalist in an age of dangerous reason.” His “love of beauty is so powerful, it leaps. It sometimes lands in unexpected places.” Beer cans are beautiful, and so is Lake Powell, but “my advice to suicides is ‘If you’ve got to go, take Glen Canyon Dam with you’.” He is visionary and extravagant, the combination that kept him in his Sierra Club post for so long, and ultimately lost it. He preaches a scientifically-coded gospel but his arguments suffer under almost any demand for rigor. Yet his inconstancy, his almost arbitrary zeal, resolves itself ultimately in the lens of beauty.
Because Brower, to return to the beginning of this review, is an aesthetic maximalist. Beauty is what he cares for. Facts and practical considerations, which Brower is frequently (and justly) accused of distorting, ignoring, or plain making up, are simply tools to be reached for in defense of natural beauty. If the facts line up on his side—about the risk of siltation behind dams, for instance—so much the better. But if they don’t he will just as happily declare in favor of “wilderness for its own sake.” We must lower our standard of living he declares, for “we are committing grand larceny against our grandchildren” in destroying the wild places of the world. The “scenic climax” is what he invites his opponents to, sure that it will just take the right vista of the Cascades to convince the economic geologist that “copper is not a transcendent value here.” He is almost childlike in his simplicity. And what’s wrong with all the rest of you, he’d like to know.
What do I think: As an evaluation of the conservationist impulse, Encounters with the Archdruid is evenhandedly illuminating. As a work of portraiture, it succeeds completely. Though only Dominy has force of personality enough to fully match the incandescent Brower, McPhee ensures that every character builds on the reader, capturing histories and personalities in subtly compelling ways. McPhee has written a lot of other books. I’ll be on the lookout for them.
Park personality: Dave “Call me Willey” Willey, backcountry ornithologist, camped a spot down . Studying the habits of spotted owls, ten or so pairs of which, to my surprise, in fact inhabit the scrubby landscapes in our general vicinity. Now affiliated with Montana State, he tells me he’s been coming here for 34 years, immersing himself in the habits of the birds. Seems a friendly fellow. He’ll be around all summer.
Song of the week: I’ll be home just any old time