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Encounters with the Archdruid

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  5,603 ratings  ·  318 reviews
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. The four men portrayed here have different relationships to their environment, and they encounter each other on mountain trails, in forests and rapids, sometimes with reserve, sometimes with friendliness, ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published October 1st 1977 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1971)
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Nov 11, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-nature
David Brower was an extreme conservationist. His 'religion' was wilderness. Brower's natural enemies were the mineral engineer, the resort developer and the dam builder.

What John McPhee did, in the three parts of this book, was to contrive meetings between Brower and each of these three. But these were not meetings in some boardroom. No. Brower hikes in the Cascades with the mineral engineer; he camps out on Cumberland Island with the resort developer; and he goes rafting through the Grand Canyo
Rex Fuller
Jun 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Great book. Have no idea why I never ran across John McPhee before stumbling upon him as a non-fiction author C. J. Box's Joe Pickett character read. Looked him up and found him to be a prominent and prolific writer and picked this one, probably his most popular work, to start with. Published in 1977 it describes three meetings in the wild that the then head of the Sierra Club, Dave Brower, the "archdruid" of the title, had with then prominent agents of development: hiking Glacier Park Wildernes ...more
Elizabeth A.G.
Feb 14, 2019 rated it liked it
Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee is an interesting narrative of differing views on environmentalism and the ongoing conundrum of conservation versus preservation. Focusing on David Brower (1912-2000), the prominent environmentalist who was Director and board member for the Sierra Club and Founder of the John Muir Institute for Environmental Studies, author John McPhee presents Brower's preservationist view that nature's value to society far outweighs any monetary value that society g ...more
Peter Tillman
Dec 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bios-memoirs, travel
I first read this in the 1970s, and it holds up well to rereading, almost 50 years later. McPhee is a wonderful writer, and this is one of his better books. He arranged for encounters between Dave Brower, then the head of the Sierra Club, with Charles Park, a well-known mining geologist, Charles Fraser, the developer of the Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island, and Floyd Dominy, then the Commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation. McPhee made multiple visits to all these men, but the titular Encoun ...more
Jul 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nature, 2015
There's a passage from a science fiction story by Robert Charles Wilson that I love, and which came to mind more than once as I was reading this book. Here it is, from Wilson's story "The Inner Inner City" (and which you can find in his excellent collection The Perseids and Other Stories):

We contrast the urban and the natural, but that’s a contemporary myth. We’re animals, after all; our cities are organic products, fully as “natural” (whatever that word really means) as a termite hill or a rabb
Aaron Arnold
Apr 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I found this book to be riveting; both a nature travelogue and an applied ecology seminar in one slim volume. Sierra Club director David Brower is the Archdruid, a man who uses the word "conserve" the way Carl Sagan used "billions". He's a die-hard environmentalist with a gift for PR who fights a never-ending battle against the government, developers, miners, and even humanity at large in his quest to keep as much of America as possible out of the reach of man forever, and McPhee – whose writing ...more
Aug 01, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Great book about the soul of environmentalism. The author perfectly captures the equally valid perspectives of David Brower, former head of the Sierra Club, and the miners, developers and dam-builders to which he stands opposed. Best of all, these perspectives are shown through in-person encounters and the arguments take place in the very settings over which they will fight their battles.
Aug 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Non-fiction: A mineral engineer, a resort developer and dam builder take a walk, or a jeep, or a raft, through the wilderness with David Brower - conservation giant. McPhee accordingly observes, listens and documents three narratives, which essentially capture the presiding differences between the philosophies of each man.

It would have been so easy for this short book to present binaries of eco-good and anthro-evil. It's certainly possible that McPhee sways towards the former. As it is, however,
Nov 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Gosh I love John McPhee. Everything he touches is golden. It's strange how timeless his books feel, since they're hopelessly dated in terms of actual subject matter. What was once cutting-edge environmental activism now seems almost adorably quaint. What I think I love about McPhee is his remarkable ability to be fully objective--to present two (or more) sides to a story and to give each equal weight and consideration--while still writing with a clear and obvious passion for his subjects. McPhee ...more
Oct 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Just finished. Absolutely excellent. John McPhee is one of the great nonfiction writers of our time. As a New Yorker staff writer since 1965, he has contributed greatly to my own understanding of geology and natural science in general, as well as the broader and more all-encompassing science of conservation ecology and the environment.

Most poignant is the contrast between the environment of 1971, when this book was written, and the environment of today. The very first paragraph makes this painf
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
McPhee is a master Craftsman and one of the few nonfiction writers who can make environmental arguments from the 1960s feel new and vital 50 years later.

The Archdruid of the title is David Brower, ousted first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and the man who in the early 1950s was largely responsible for halting the Echo Park Dam project at the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers (thus saving Dinosaur National Monument), the act of which symbolically launched the modern conservation movement in the U.S. In this book, creative nonfiction master John McPhee narrates a number of Brower's 'encounters' with various similarly visionary oppo
Jackie Mancini
Oct 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I guess I need to read more John McPhee.
Jan 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
McPhee's account of the conversations between environmentalist David Brower and three representatives of development may be 40 years old, but the issues it sets out are still surprisingly relevant. More than just an issue book, though, it presents the vital and engaging characters who hold the opposing positions and shows how closely intertwined position and and character are. The book is divided into three sections--each is a conversation between Brower and one of his "natural enemies." Althoug ...more
Jim Rossi
Apr 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Not only is this book a classic of environmental literature, it's also a classic of how a writer can get really close to a subject without imposing their views, instead letting the people in the story take center stage. David Brower on the Colorado River with Floyd Dominy, two great men with completely different worldviews, is as good as it gets,. They engage in debate between roaring rapids, and while they remain opponents, they emerge as friends. Powerful. I lived this. Around 2009, I arranged ...more
Dec 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
McPhee is a master of nonfiction. I admire the way McPhee presented individuals who had opposing points of view about wilderness in the Sierra Nevadas, an island off the coast of South Carolina, and the Colorado River. Written in 1971, the book is worth reading today.
Oct 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Brilliantly constructed, poignant.
Dec 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A great story in three parts from McPhee. Must read for environmentalists / natural resource folks.
Mike Mikulski
Dec 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Written as three New Yorker articles in 1971. McPhee sets up three outdoor adventures with David Brower, the former Director of the Sierra Club who has been recently ousted after 17 years in the post for being too extreme on environmental issues and overspending against the club's budget. This is despite growing the Club from 7000 members in 1952 focused on the outdoors, mountaineering, the Sierra and John Muir's Legacy to 70,000 members with an influential impact on environmental policy and leg ...more
Mar 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
As timely today as when McPhee wrote it in 1971, "Encounters with the Archdruid" tells three environmental stories involving four men who are at once archetypes (a mineral engineer, a resort developer, a dam builder, and a militant conservationist) and, at the same time, real humans who are vividly portrayed by the author. While this may not be a book I would have picked up myself, I am glad my son-in-law, Ben, gave it to me to read. I can identify both with the naive young environmentalist I wa ...more
Philip Palios
Apr 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
McPhee is an extremely talented writer and in his (now classic) work of environmental literature he presents the issues with the complex analysis they deserve. No matter where one stands on the issues, this book is a good read. The WSJ review on the back of the book is wrong; this isn't about choosing sides, it's about understanding all of the ways the issue can be seen, the complex details and everyone's own contradictions. McPhee's well-crafted prose make reading this a breeze, so check it out ...more
Kyle Muntz
Nov 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Complicated feelings about this. The first "encounter" struck me as a sort of masterwork in characterization and observation. The second also had its moments, but especially the third was less interesting, maybe because the book is full of so much nature porn that it starts to feel like padding. The problem could be the subject matter, because I'm quite impressed with McPhee as a writer but don't care much about nature or conservation. Going to try at least one more book of his sometime soon bec ...more
Very enlightening. McPhee's writing style is very unique - sometimes boring but frequently brilliant (I'll post some examples below). What I like about him most is the subjects (human and otherwise) he chooses to write about. Most of his topics deal with the interaction of humans and nature. He's regarded as an environmental writer, but I find him quite balanced. His foils are presented as very human and sympathetic. I came away with an appreciation for both sides of the issues, which is a sign ...more
Tony GD
Feb 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
When I flipped to the last page and saw the gaping margin beneath the final paragraph, I was disappointed. This is a special book. Hard to say, but it could be my favorite of the long-form McPhee books.

This book is about conservation, preservation, development and Dave Brower. To read through his efforts on the Colorado, in the Cascades and elsewhere, then rush to the computer to see what's happened since is viscerally thrilling. Understanding the context and backstory of the Sierra Club, their
Dec 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Though dated, this collection of essays on conservation and controlled use of natural resources, presenting the arguments of various friends of his often while out in the field hiking or visiting, is still instructive and valuable today. It got a tad tedious, but I still followed along, and I have always enjoyed McPhee.
Jordan N
Jul 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
John McPhee has a skill of making non-fiction read like fiction. Why read David Brower's wikipedia page when you can get through this book in three-four hours? And yes, Brower enjoyed being called the archdruid. Maybe I should find a cool nickname like that... ...more
Matthew Ciarvella
Apr 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
This book is a time capsule for the environmentalist. It's a fossil. It's a treasure.

"Encounters with the Archdruid" takes us back to 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency will be born this year. Climate change isn't yet in the environmentalist's lexicon; even its forerunner, "the greenhouse effect" is still a decade away from being a talking point. The greatest scourges are hydroelectric dams, mining, and housing developments. You can drink from the Colorado River, untreated, without worryi
Todd Brown
Aug 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Such a fun read to cover to cover. Conservation vs Consumerism. Can there be a balance and still enjoy the beauty and adventure of the earth. John McPhee is amazing.
Craig Werner
Oct 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Published in 1971, his book deserves its iconic status. McPhee engages the tension between environmental conservation and the economic "needs" of American society in a way which is both clear-eyed and, to use the term in a way that has nothing to do with Fox's co-optation, "balanced." The Archdruid is David Brower, long-time head of the Sierra Club who was ousted by the organization as a result of his increasingly radicalism and what his opponents saw as rhetorical overkill. Brower's position is ...more
Mar 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: conservationists, or those opposing them
Recommended to Matt by: recommended to read before Cadillac Desert
My first encounter with John McPhee, and a memorable one. I will definitely be reading more of him. He has a great, objective, journalistic style, where most of the storytelling is done through summary and dialogue. This book serves as a good introduction into David Brower and his conservation tactics, his reason and stubborness, as he competes verbally with men of a different mind than his: a mineralogist, a developer, a dam erector. The interplay between passion and character is fascinating, a ...more
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more

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