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Encounters With the Archdruid

Author : John McPhee
Published : 1980

One of the perks of retirement is being able to finally read some of the books you didn’t read earlier because there were always hundreds of excuses not to. But now that the kids are grown and gone and winter days are long, there’s a chance to try to catch up for lost time.

And when I come across a book that especially catches my interest, it’s fun to offer a heartfelt recommendation to other folks who may share my love for special places. One of those books is Encounters with the Archdruid.

This is one of those books that has taken me back and helped me understand a little better some of the things that were happening around us long ago as America’s wilderness ethic was still in its formative years. Here are three stories of the Sierra Club’s David Brower and encounters with people whose ideas for wild places clashed with his. Written by a friend of David Brower who was an invited guest on these memorable outings, this is a fascinating account of how four different men came together to wrestle over the futures of some of our nation’s priceless pieces of heritage.

This is a book that seems to favor no particular side of those arguments, leaving it to readers to determine where they would have stood had they been there. John McPhee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose more than 30 books on a wide variety of subjects have won numerous other awards as well.

Mr. McPhee was a pioneer of a writing style called “creative nonfiction.” That style was a bit disconcerting at times as I read the book and found myself wondering how in the world Mr. McPhee had been able to recreate conversations and spin them into woven tales that take the reader into a mountain range, coastal island, and a very deep canyon as if we were there listening and sharing the experience. But he does it.

I’ll not try to analyze the book – that’s beyond my limited capacity. Instead, I’ll just borrow a few passages and hope they will hook your interest as they did mine.

From the back cover of the book: “The narratives in this book are of journeys made in three wildernesses – on a coastal island, in a Western mountain range, and on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Four men are involved: Charles Park, a mineral engineer who believes that our economic well-being rests on finding metals and extracting them from the earth wherever they are found; Charles Faser, a resort developer who regards all conservationists as druids (“religious figures who sacrifice people and worship trees”); Floyd Dominy, a builder of gigantic dams, who grew up in dry Western country and believes in the impoundment of water; and David Brower, the most militant conservationist in the world.

In turn, Mr. Park, Mr. Fraser, and Mr. Dominy encounter Mr. Brower whether in rapids, in forests, on mountain trails, on a raft, in a jeep, or on foot – now reserved, now friendly, now fighting hard across a philosophical divide.”

The arguments we read here took place 40 years ago. Yet they are exactly the same arguments that ramble and rage around us today. There are gems here and there that made my ears perk up. Such as when Mr. Brower observes to Charles Park that, “Population is pollution spelled inside out.”

Or Mr. McPhee’s description of Hetch-Hetchy and Yosemite valleys as he and Mr. Brower walked along the top of the dam, “ . . . looking far down one side at the Tuolumne River, emerging like a hose jet from the tailrace, and in the other direction out across the clear blue surface of the reservoir, with its high granite sides – imagining the lost Yosemite below. The scene was bizarre and ironic, or so it seemed to me. Just a short distance across the peaks to the south of us was the Yosemite itself, filled to disaster with cars and people, tens of thousands of people, while here was the Yosemite’s natural twin, filled with water.”

Of most interest to me were the pages recounting Mr. Brower’s trips with Floyd Dominy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That was probably because I can remember the battle to prevent construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and the battles to save Dinosaur National Monument from a reservoir that would have inundated much of it. Those and the memory of the fight to prevent Mr. Dominy and his army of mechanical beavers from dropping a dam into the inner gorge of Grand Canyon rang bells as I read.

The exchanges between Mr. Brower and the others became verbal sparring matches as Mr. McPhee recounts them for us. While traveling on a government boat to Navajo Bridge, Mr. Brower and Mr. Dominy get into it. Mr. Brower says, “By building this lake mankind has preëmpted a hundred and eighty-six thousand acres of habitat for its own exclusive use.”

Mr. Dominy replies, “I’m a fair man. Just to show you how fair I am, I’ll say this: When we destroyed Glen Canyon, we destroyed something really beautiful. But we brought in something else. You can lament all you want what we covered up. What we got is beautiful, and it’s accessible.”

Then – “The boat, in Labyrinth Canyon drifted in a film of tamarisk needles, driftwood, bits of Styrofoam, bobbing beer cans, plastic lids. And Brower remarks, ‘We conservationists call this Dominy soup.’”

Woven throughout the book is still another story – a biography of David Brower.

All in all, it’s a well balanced book. Much different that what I expected when I started reading. It presents arguments made by people whose beliefs and opinions were at opposite poles – yet they were able to argue and still remain friends.

Consider this exchange between Mr. Brower and Mr. Dominy as they soaked in some of the crystalline pools of Havasu Creek:

“Dominy contemplates the scene. He says, ‘With Hualapai Dam, you really have a lake of water down this far.’ (In the canyon containing Havasu.)

Mr. Brower replies: ‘There’s another view . . . . Lake Powell is a drag strip for power boats. It’s for people who won’t do things except the easy way. The magic of Glen Canyon is dead. It has been vulgarized. Putting water in the Cathedral in the Desert was like urinating in the crypt of St. Peter’s. I hope it never happens here.’”

Rhetoric became more and more heated until the two men climbed back into the raft that was carrying them through the Grand Canyon and broke open a couple more cans of beer.

So it went back then.

And so it still goes – although now it seems that an unfortunate note of almost ideological hatred has crept into the national debate. Maybe all our national and state leaders of any political stripe should read this book.

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