The Influential Druid

David Brower has slipped into semi-obscurity over the years, but he deserves a place in the pantheon of environmental heroes.
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David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement. (Photo: University of California Press)

David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement. (Photo: University of California Press)

David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement
Tom Turner
University of California Press

In 1963, the federal government announced plans to build two dams inside the Grand Canyon. The dams promised to generate hydroelectric power, but threatened to desecrate the beauty of one of the country’s most iconic parks. Congress appeared poised to approve the project—gas-station road maps had already been revised—when David Brower got involved.

Then the executive director of the Sierra Club, the white-haired, indefatigable Brower was, by this time, a seasoned advocate for wilderness preservation. According to Tom Turner’s new biography, David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, Brower made it his “personal duty” to save the canyon. He testified before Congress, served as the driving force behind two propaganda films and a book, and teamed up with an advertising agency to run full-page New York Times spots urging readers to lodge their protests. “Now Only You Can Save Grand Canyon From Being Flooded ... for Profit,” one read. Turner quotes an official from the Bureau of Reclamation to describe the response: “I never saw anything like it. Letters were arriving in dump trucks.” The plans for the dams were ultimately scuttled.

Back when public outrage was measured by truckloads rather than by retweets, Brower was a master at orchestrating it. He was, as Turner puts it, “nature’s publicist.” Through his leadership at the Sierra Club and at Friends of the Earth, a scrappier group he later founded, he became the most prominent tree-hugger of his time. “He started the environmental movement,” one of Brower’s protégés told Turner. “He created it.”

Yet today, Brower has slipped into semi-obscurity. To the extent that he is remembered, it is largely due to John McPhee’s classic 1971 book Encounters With the Archdruid, a kind of unorthodox extended profile. Given that more than 40 years have passed since that book’s publication, Turner set out to resurrect Brower’s memory for an audience that may be at best glancingly familiar with him, and to install him firmly in the pantheon of environmental heroes. Turner, a longtime environmental activist and the author of books including Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature, is hardly unbiased. He worked closely with Brower at both the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and his affection shows. But the book is not a hagiography. Turner brings Brower to life as a charismatic, intensely passionate man who could be as frustrating to his allies as to his adversaries.

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David Brower was born in Berkeley, California, in 1912, to humble beginnings. As a child, he spent countless hours in the then-wild Berkeley Hills. Later, as a University of California–Berkeley dropout, he fell in love with mountaineering and joined the Sierra Club, which at the time engaged primarily in wilderness outings.

So began Brower’s lifelong and at times tempestuous affair with the group. After stints as an editor at the University of California Press and as an officer in World War II, he became a tenacious full-time conservationist. His own wedding ceremony had to be delayed because of a Sierra Club meeting that ran late. (His wedding gift to his wife: A Sierra Club membership.) This was a harbinger of the life to come. He was a loyal husband and father, but often absent as his work kept him at the office and took him on the road.

"Any environmental organization will always be short of funds if it's doing anything right."

Under Brower’s leadership, the organization began to focus more on advocacy than on hiking trips. One of his innovations was a series of books featuring magnificent nature photography, some of which he mailed to every member of Congress. He helped spearhead the strategy of suing to prevent projects in scenic places. Less inclined to compromise than many of his colleagues, he often encountered conflict. As he once wrote, “My thesis is that compromise is often necessary but that it ought not originate with the Sierra Club.” He had much to show for these tactics: He helped to halt plans for development and dams in a number of glorious wilderness areas, including Mineral King in Southern California and Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. He was also a major player in the campaign that culminated in the 1964 Wilderness Act, whose famously poetic text defined wilderness as an area “untrammeled by man,” and which set aside more than nine million acres of federal land. Over the years, Turner reports, Brower also contributed to the expansion of the environmental movement to include public health, pollution, and even nuclear disarmament.

Brower spent money on these causes freely—his theory was, as he put it, “Any environmental organization will always be short of funds if it’s doing anything right.” He had trouble complying with authority, and his tendencies led to fallouts with old friends and ultimately his ouster from the Sierra Club. According to his ideological foes, he was a “druid”—defined in McPhee’s book as someone who prefers trees to people. According to his ideological allies, he was a genius and a visionary, but a terrible manager.

Turner’s book styles itself as a “professional biography,” and, as such, focuses more on internal politics at the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth than on intimate revelations. We are privy to administrative controversies and personnel decisions, but learn nothing, for example, of Brower’s romantic life before marriage, or, for that matter, his feelings about perceived betrayals by colleagues at the Sierra Club.

That said, some colorful details do come through, as well as a strong impression of Brower’s basic character. He cut his own hair. His wife Anne, also a former editor, was resentful of being left to raise four children essentially alone, but also proud of the work he was able to do as a result. Turner explains Brower’s apparent contradictions: “Just as he would overcome his shyness by teaching himself to be comfortable speaking to audiences from one to ten thousand or more, he overcame his fear of heights by learning to climb mountains.”

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Apart from Brower’s charms and foibles as a person, what was his legacy as an environmentalist? Turner makes a persuasive case that he was instrumental in the preservation of numerous large wild spaces in the United States. More generally, he did more than perhaps anyone else of his generation to raise awareness about the dangers of human meddling with the natural world.

But there are tensions between different environmentalist values. Brower initially supported both nuclear power and coal as alternatives to hydropower, for instance, because he loathed dams so violently. As environmental priorities have shifted over time, dams, a source of renewable energy, have lost some of their potency as a symbol of destruction. Global climate change has largely eclipsed other concerns, including wilderness preservation.

Today, the Sierra Club’s past focus on beauty—what it called “scenic resources”—seems almost like a quaint luxury. At the same time, some environmentalists have interrogated the historical fetishization of the wild. In a famous 1995 essay, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” William Cronon wrote that its glorification made nature seem like something far away, leading us to neglect the hard work of living sustainably in our everyday lives.

Others have also challenged the coherence of the category, now that, through greenhouse gas emissions, human activity has left no patch of the globe truly untrammeled. Turner takes aim at such critics, referring derisively to “modern-day pundits who hold that there really isn’t any wilderness, that the whole concept is outmoded....”

Perhaps another reason that conservation has faded as a priority is that so much has already been accomplished. Brower and others left us an extraordinary heritage of largely intact canyons, rivers, and forests. It’s nearly impossible to imagine today’s Congress passing such legislation. Wilderness may not be as pure or uncomplicated a concept as Brower believed; its preservation comes with tradeoffs. But it deserves to be one important part of the green agenda, whether because of its restorative powers or out of the simple humility of restraining our impact. Brower liked to quote his friend and colleague Nancy Newhall: “The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask.” Anyone who has had the honor of seeing the breathtaking stillness of the Grand Canyon can be thankful for Brower’s unreasonable evangelism.

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