Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee: Fifty Year Later

The Sierra Club seem to really not like Colorado Senator Gardner-e.g. billboards, TV ads, newspaper ads and so on.. link here Perhaps ironically, Gardner was responsible for shepherding the Great American Outdoors Act, including fully and permanently funding LWCF, through Congress.

I’m taking a break from posting Forest Service Folktales, as I am trying to locate authors who sent only paper copies. I’ve been thinking that It might be good to look back at the last 50 years or so and see how things have or have not changed. What did the federal lands landscape look like prior to OHV’s? prior to climate change (as an issue)? Perhaps the past will lead us to new insights about today.

Let’s begin with John McPhee’s book, “Encounters with the Archdruid” . It was originally run in The New Yorker in March of 1971. Remember, the original Earth Day was 1970. There was no CAA, no CWA, no ESA, no NFMA. NEPA had been signed into law on January 1, 1970. In this book, McPhee organizes hikes/camping trips with David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club, and Charles Park, a mining engineer, Charles Fraser, a resource developer, and Floyd Dominy, a builder of dams. According to reviewer Steward Udall, “McPhee reveals more nuances of the values revolution that dominates the new age of ecology than most writers could pack into a volume twice as long. I marvel at his capacity to listen intently and extract the essence of a man and his philosophy in the fewest possible works.” Why this is a fun read for me is that people discuss their philosophies about specific things- dams, mines, housing, and the trade-offs between peoples’ needs and leaving Nature alone.

What was interesting to me is that the worldview of Brower is still around today, as in “don’t mess with the earth- at least not “special places”” but the rationale for this view has become more complex. Biodiversity, climate change, tourist and recreation economies are all reasons supporting this philosophy today. Look in any press release about a Wilderness bill. So it made me wonder if the “let things alone” is an underlying value, with only the expressions and arguments of today carefully included or excluded. For example, Brower was not fond of dams. Yet now hydroelectric power is seen to be good for climate change, so we don’t notice that so much. Climate change is obviously unnatural- so leaving land alone doesn’t make the vegetation conditions or wildlife “natural,” due to climate change, but the idea is still that leaving it alone is best.

I didn’t expect that 50 years ago McPhee would have noticed some of the things we observe today.

When Brower was the executive director of the Sierra Club, the organization became famous for bold full-page newspaper ads designed to arouse the populace and written in a style that might be called Early Paul Revere. One such ad called attention to the Kennecot Copper Corporation’s ambitions in the Glacier Peak Wilderness under the headline “AN OPEN PIT, BIG ENOUGH TO BE SEEN FROM THE MOON.” The fact that this was not true did not slow up Brower or the Sierra Club. In the war strategy of the conservation movement, exaggeration is a standard weapon and is used consciously on broad fronts.” (p. 37)

What’s interesting is thinking about how the conflict was deemed to be a “war” and so “anything’s fair” would naturally follow. The ends justify the means.
At around the same time, the Civil Rights movement had just lost Dr. Martin Luther King, who saw that struggle as anything but warlike. This was more than likely based on his beliefs and role as a Christian minister. What was it about the Sierra Club that led to the “warfare” thinking? Was it a cultural accident- the impact of certain leaders early on?

Fifty years later, there are still remnants of the “warfare” orientation in some people in some environmental groups. We still see the Early Paul Revere style of communication and the casualness with regard to the accuracy of statements. If I had to guess, I think it’s become a habit. But to many, it’s kind of an annoying habit. Maybe after 50 years, it’s time to change?

If you’d like to read Encounters with the Archdruid” please feel free to come back and tell us your own observations. What has changed over the last 50 years? What hasn’t? What surprised you?

2 thoughts on “Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee: Fifty Year Later”

  1. When you are fighting a lot of battles, it’s not hard to imagine a war. Especially where a win only gets you the status quo, the big picture looks like continual retreat.

    On a good note, regarding your reference to dams, construction on the last major dam built in the U. S. began about the time this book was written (the New Melones Dam was completed in 1979). I don’t think it would be easy even now to sacrifice a “special place” for a reservoir, when farm and ranch lands (and rooftops) can generate power instead.

  2. Cory Garner has an 11% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. “Shepherding” the Great American Outdoors Act won’t move that needle much. His predecessor, Mark Udall, had a 96% lifetime score from LCV. It shouldn’t be surprising the Sierra Club would prefer a Democrat replace Gardner. Not that Hickenlooper will necessarily match Udall in pro-conservation votes.

    Many folks do still notice the impact of dams on ecoystems and native species:


    What forms the basis of your assertion environmental groups have a habit of “casualness with regard to the accuracy of statements”? Is that just anecdotal or do you have specific examples? Do you see such “casualness” only from environmental groups or from other interests, too?


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