Tom Nixon's Reviews > Encounters With the Archdruid

Encounters With the Archdruid by John McPhee
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Mar 03, 12

Read from January 28 to March 03, 2012

A Quiet Man contribution to my ever burgeoning library, Encounters With The Archdruid was my first John McPhee book and if The Quiet Man was looking to convert me to the glories of creative non-fiction, then all I can say is: mission accomplished.

Encouters is divided into three distinct sections- all of which detail encouters with Dave Brower, one time Executive Director of the Sierra Club, conservationist and environmental champion without peer- McPhee is writing in 1971, so memories of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring are still salient in culture and the environmental movement as we know it today is still in its (what I would consider anyway) infancy.

The first part is entitled 'A Mountain' and takes place high in the Cascades where Brower encounters mineral engineer Charles Park and the two debate mineral extraction as copper and mining companies hover over the Cascades, slobbering at the prospect of getting all that copper out of there. Brower and Park frame their debate with passion and intelligence and at the end of the day, you can't help but siding a little more with Brower. To tamper with one of the last unspoiled wildernesses in America feels wrong to you, the reader- despite the protestations that such mineral extraction can be done with the minimum of environmental impact (I'm not sure how true it was back then, but it's certainly true now) it's just best to leave such wild places alone. Not out of any aesthetic concerns but merely because we should- at this point, it's Archdruid Brower 1, Copper Lover Park 0 (Go Google Map Washington State when you get a minute- there's a wide, empty stretch of national forest that's seemingly devoid of roads, cities or any signs of civilization. 4 decades later, it appears the Archdruid won this battle.)

The next part is entitled 'An Island' and takes Brower to Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, which has the longest unspoiled beach on the Atlantic Coast. Here, Brower encounters developer Charles Fraser with whom he has probably the most collegial relationship of all his 'adversaries' over the course of the book. Fraser had pioneered the development of Hilton Head Island, but had attempted to do so in a way that could be seen as being harmonious with the existing environment as much as possible. Now, he's got his eye on Cumberland Island and is fighting the Carnegie Family for control of the place, which he wants to open to limited development so that he (and a few select clients) along with the rest of the people can enjoy it. Brower surprised me here by giving a little ground and actually acknowledging that while he would prefer to have the place not developed at all if anyone had to do it, it should be Fraser. (But Google Map Cumberland Island, Georgia... it's a National Seashore now. Another win for McPhee's 'Archdruid.')

The final part of the book is entitled 'A River' and sees Brower tangling with the Dam Man himself, Floyd Dominy, head of the Bureau of Reclamation and a passionate advocate for the impoundment of water. As they drift down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, McPhee flips back to an earlier visit to Lake Powell, which was formed with the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam and takes the reader to San Francisco where the Board of the Directors of the Sierra Club meets to oust Brower as Director. (Brower worked out OK though- went on to found Friends of the Earth per Wikipedia, the Font of All Knowledge) Here, Brower finds himself on the most solid ground of all... given what seems like a perpetual crisis of water that persists even to this day (at least when I've gone out west) all these massive dams and drowning these canyons in the name of hydroelectric power seems silly in retrosepct- especially given the obscene number of swimming pools and emerald green golf courses one sees when driving past places like Las Vegas. You have to wonder what kind of water crisis the western state would be having if they weren't so damn wasteful... (Here again, it seems that despite Lake Powell, Lake Mead and Lake Havasu, another dam wasn't slapped across the Colorado- another win for the Archdruid!)

McPhee is a mind blowingly good writer. This book reads like a novel, feels like a novel has three dimensional characters that battle and wrestle with competing philosophies of conservation versus exploitation and development and yet, from time to time, you have to remind yourself that this is non-fiction. All of this actually happened. All of these people are totally real. And it kind of blows your mind- creative non-fiction? Yes please... sign me up right now. (New biggest regret from my college days- not taking a creative non-fiction class. The Quiet Man urged me to do so and for whatever silly ass reason, I never got around to it.)

Overall: Whether he means to or not, McPhee makes you want to climb a mountain- and, working as I currently do in a job in a tiny, bunker-like room with no windows, the urge to run out and experience the wild beauty of the planet around us and to really stop and ask hard questions about what we should and should not do when it comes to protecting our environment. It's astonishing to realize that these threats were real at the time the book was written and yet four decades later, it's inspirational to realize that the Cascades have yet to be exploited, Cumberland Island is a protected seashure and there's not yet another dam along the Colorado River. Now that, to me, is making a difference.

(Does this change my position on the Keystone Pipeline? Yes and no... the Sand Hills in Nebraska should be protected. The Ogalala Aquifer also needs to be protected- but green technology? We've seen a parade of Teslas and Solyndras and we have to conclude that the government may be on the side of the 'angels' but they're bad at making this marketable... so the struggle continues, I guess- but that's another blog post.)
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