Opposites attract

Illustration of David Brower

I just finished reading Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee. Enjoyed it more that I thought I would. The premise isn’t all that exciting, like most McPhee books (his compendium about the geological history of North America won the Pulitzer prize!), but it was hard to put down. The portraits of the main characters and the portraits of the wilderness locations were superb and endlessly interesting.

Encounters with the Archdruid tells the story of David Brower, a giant figure in the environmental conservation movement in the last century, and three trips he takes to different wilderness areas in the US with the the author and three of his bitterest rivals: a miner, a developer, and a dam builder. The book is divided into three sections, one of each of the trips they take, and weaves between background stories about each of the four figures and the locations and experiences they have along the way.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the book.

Part 1 – A Mountain

Set in Glacier Peak Wilderness in the cascades in Washington State. David Brower travels alongside Charles Park, a mineralogist who believes that mining is a necessity for the future of mankind.

“In every depression is a tarn, and we had passed a particularly beautiful one a little earlier and, from the escarpment, were looking back at it now. It was called Hart Lake and was fed by a stream that, in turn, fell away from a high and deafening cataract. The stream was interrupted by a series of beaver ponds. All around these free-form pools were stands of alder, aspen, Engelmann’s spruce; and in the surrounding mountains, just under the summits, were glaciers and fields of snow. Brower, who is an aesthetician by trade and likes to point to beautiful things, had nothing to say at that moment. Neither did Park. I was remembering the words of a friend of mine in the National Park Service, who had once said to me, “The Glacier Peak Wilderness is probably the most beautiful piece of country we’ve got. Mining copper there would be like hitting a pretty girl in the face with a shovel. It would be like strip-mining the Garden of Eden.”” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

““Most people don’t think about pigments in paint. Most white-paint pigment now is titanium. Red is hematite. Black is often magnetite. There’s chrome yellow, molybdenum orange. Metallic paints are a little more permanent. The pigments come from rocks in the ground. Dave’s electrical system is copper, probably from Bingham Canyon. He couldn’t turn on a light or make ice without it. The nails that hold the place together come from the Mesabi Range. His downspouts are covered with zinc that was probably taken out of the ground in Canada. The tungsten in his light bulbs may have been mined in Bishop, California. The chrome on his refrigerator door probably came from Rhodesia or Turkey. His television set almost certainly contains cobalt from the Congo. He uses aluminum from Jamaica, maybe Surinam; silver from Mexico or Peru; tin-it’s still in tin cans—from Bolivia, Malaya, Nigeria. People seldom stop to think that all these things—planes…” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

“Park had recently published all this, in less random form, in a book titled Affluence in Jeopardy, which is in part a primer on minerals and their uses and significance and in part an exhortation to mankind to husband what we have. Introducing minerals one by one, he says in clear and fascinating detail what they are, where they come from, what we do with them, and, ultimately, how we are locked into a system of living that is fuelled by them and founded upon them and would collapse without them. He quotes Lord Dewar, who said, “Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open,” and he goes on to define conservation (at least with regard to minerals) as the complete use of natural resources, with as little waste as possible, for the benefit of all the people, and not merely for industrialists, on the one hand, or preservationists, on the other. He says that the search for energy, being vital to the extraction of minerals, and thus to the survival of the society, is far more important than exploration of the back of the moon, and he says that each nation should have a mineral policy that involves the intelligent exploration and development of mineral resources and an acceptance of fully reciprocal international trade.” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

Part 2 – An Island

The real estate developer, Charles Fraser, joins Brower on Cumberland Island in Georgia, which he is planning to developer a large portion of, and which Brower wants to stop.

““Landscape architects won’t hang swings. They say swings are not a strong enough design statement. I’ll wait until the landscape architects are finished, and then I’ll hang a hundred swings from the live oaks. I’ll have a vender selling watermelon, too—roasted oysters in the winter, ice-cold slices of watermelon in the summer.” Fraser and his wife, Mary, lived in a glass-and-cypress Sea Pines house. Gardeners took care of the environment. The Frasers had two daughters, aged four and two. The Frasers believed that the direction of a life was established almost at the beginning—that no years were as telling as the earliest ones.” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

“Brower was reverent toward the young. His faith had told him that the young would do better with the earth. He did not associate lumber companies, motor companies, chemical companies, or mining companies with youth. He admired Young Turks while he attacked Old Philistines. By his ready admission, he had learned a great deal from his own children, all of whom were college age or older. Brower himself looked almost unnaturally young, his white hair notwithstanding. He sometimes seemed to trust young people’s judgment over his own. He often said, “I’m impressed with what young people can do before older people tell them it’s impossible.”” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

Part 3 – A River

The final trip is with Floyd Dominy on the Colorado River just downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam.

“The Colorado lights and slakes Los Angeles. It irrigates Arizona. The odd thing about it is that all its writhings and foamings and spectacular rapids lead to nothing. The river rises in the Rockies, thunders through the canyons, and is so used by mankind that when it reaches the Gulf of California, fourteen hundred miles from its source, it literally trickles into the sea. The flow in the big river and in its major tributaries—the Green, the Yampa, the Escalante, the San Juan, the Little Colorado—is almost lyrically erratic, for the volume can vary as much as six hundred per cent from one year to the next.” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

“There is something quite deceptive in the sense of acceleration that comes just before a rapid. The word “rapid” itself is, in a way, a misnomer. It refers only to the speed of the white water relative to the speed of the smooth water that leads into and away from the rapid. The white water is faster, but it is hardly “rapid.” The Colorado, smooth, flows about seven miles per hour, and, white, it goes perhaps fifteen or, at its whitest and wildest, twenty miles per hour—not very rapid by the standards of the twentieth century. Force of suggestion creates a false expectation. The mere appearance of the river going over those boulders—the smoky spray, the scissoring waves—is enough to imply a rush to fatality, and this endorses the word used to describe it. You feel as if you were about to be sucked into some sort of invisible pneumatic tube and shot like a bullet into the dim beyond.” (John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid)

Each of these men have huge ideological differences from Brower on how the environment should be treated, but all of them are illustrated as experts in their domains, well meaning, with a deep love for nature, albeit in very different ways. They argue intensely but they also spend time with each other, they probe and ask questions, and through the dialogue that’s presented, seem to genuinely benefit from the interactions despite being sworn enemies. More than anything, the time each of them spends seeing things visually, audibly, from the other’s perspectives, is something that seems invaluable and a great idea for those of us living today.

I hope to have the courage to spend more time with real or perceived enemies as Brower did.

I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

Abraham Lincoln

More than anything, I want to get outside more after reading this book. Recommended for any nature lovers out there.

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