Unsung Muse

Unsung Muse

Anne Hus and the evolution of environmental icon David Brower.


The Horace Albright Lecture in 1981 filled UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall with an audience of several thousand, including my mother and me. We sat toward the back, and I was a little uneasy. In the audience were my faculty advisers and other luminaries, and I was nervous about how they might judge the speaker. I knew he could be really good, but I’d heard him bomb, too, so it was with great relief that I listened to him get off to a strong start, glancing only occasionally at the typescript on the podium in front of him. The audience was with him and he was moving fluently through his text ... when, as he flipped a page, he faltered, shuffled quickly through his script, then looked up and appealed to the audience: “I’ve lost my page. Annie! Where’s my page?”

I’d been uneasy, but my poor, shy mother! She blushed red and muttered, “Oh, David!” as heads craned around the hall looking for the woman who could save the day.

He either found it, or went on without it. I don’t know. But I recall that it was a terrific speech. Once I’d recovered from my own anxieties and my mother’s trauma at being invoked before an audience of thousands, I settled in to appreciate both what David Brower could bring to such an audience, and how much my mother mattered to him.

My mother brought into my father’s life ideas and values developed through her own rich history, contributing to the widening mission that characterizes the global environmental movement of the twentieth century.

Anne Hus Brower was my father’s best page-tracker, adviser, editor, critic, fan, and sparring partner in matters of English usage. She bore his four children, ran his household, and brought into his life ideas and values developed through her own rich history, contributing to the widening mission that characterizes the global environmental movement of the twentieth century.

When I proposed this thesis as a research topic to my father a year or so before he died, he embraced it. He was always generous in crediting his wife for her editorial skills, and for helping him — through pointed and spot-on critique — hone both his arguments and his delivery of them. But he hadn’t considered the larger role I was postulating: the influence she exerted through her near lifelong connection to the University of California and her strong identification with the progressive left. My mother, however, demurred. She was winding down her own life, already almost paralyzed with some Parkinson’s variant, her mind beginning to fray; it was hard for her to speak. Yet she was quite clear: “Oh, no; I don’t think so. It was all David.”

But I think you’re wrong there, Mom. If, as many argue, David Brower was a seminal figure in the environmental movement, you were, too, playing the role that so often fell to women of your generation — and the generations before and after yours: You were a significant if unsung force in your own right, and his muse, if red pencil and sharp critique, channeling ideas and modeling values, can count as muse work.

ANNE HUS WAS ANNOYED when she first met David Brower. He was placed at the vacant desk in her office at the University of California Press in Berkeley, paid more though less qualified than she, and she resented it. She had started working fulltime for Cal at age 17, supporting her family while earning an honors degree in English (her spectacular final exam was posted for years in Sproul Hall). It took her 13 years to finish since she had to meet degree requirements in classes that met at 8:00 a.m., before work, or 5:00 p.m., after her workday ended.

Anne worked to support her parents and brother through the Depression because her father, trained as a dentist in his native Holland, was spectacularly unsuccessful, once even suggesting that he become an undertaker, “because then people would stop dying.” With her father an unreliable breadwinner, her family lived with her maternal grandfather, John P. Irish — “Colonel” Irish because of his appointment as commissioner of the Port of San Francisco. That position put him among the managers of Yosemite Park and at odds with John Muir over the question of whether California or the federal government should run the park. My mother, who married a man often compared to John Muir, grew up in a family that loathed “that nature fakir.”

Those years in her grandfather’s house trained my mother for her 53 years married to David Brower. John Irish was brilliant, charismatic, contrarian. A publisher-orator-political gadfly, he specialized in lost causes, passionately defending Japanese Americans and the Gold Standard, lobbying (as did my grandmother) against woman suffrage (“women will vote the way their husbands tell them to, or the opposite, to spite them”), as well as labor unions. From the distance of a hundred years, these appear to be incompatible causes, but I think early training in this household got my mother thinking critically about justice and equality. Perhaps growing up in an adult-oriented household, where she entertained herself tying and untying knots in the venetian blind cords and teaching herself to read (by age 4), also helped her develop the patience she would need to stick with a man whose mission and ego must have reminded her of her grandfather.

And stick with him she did, through thick and very thin, once she got over her annoyance at the newcomer in her office. The thaw began when he fabricated an oppressively pedantic footnote and inserted it in the manuscript she was editing. She laughed when she discovered the joke, and realized that here was a man who shared her aversion to bad academic writing and had a sense of humor. She continued to be annoyed, however, that she, who had so labored to earn her command of language, should be out-edited by a guy who’d “never read a book.”

Yet if he was a better editor, it wasn’t by much. They were very evenly matched in their facility with language, the sharpness of their wits, their curiosity about the world. Their greatest pleasure, it seemed, other than arguing over Scrabble scores, was in sharing the latest fascinating thing they’d read or heard, feeding each other ideas and information from their different worlds.

My mom’s was the University of California, Berkeley. When she finally retired at age 72, she had worked all over campus, mostly as an editor, with long stints in City and Regional Planning, Anthropology, and the Regional Oral History Office. While bringing order and clarity to the writing of professors and graduate students, she brought home what she learned en route. Was my father’s interest in urban design and livable cities awakened by Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Ian McHarg, introduced by Mom through some editing project? I was in kindergarten when she resumed work in the brown-shingled planning office, and wasn’t paying attention. But when she worked in Anthropology, I was a Cal student myself, showing up at her office strategically so she would take me to lunch, learning along with her about California Indians, Inuit art, and Australopithecines. Dad’s Anne-mediated connections with Robert Heizer and Theodora Kroeber led to the Sierra Club’s Almost Ancestors, a lament for California’s lost native peoples and their special knowledge of place. She worked with Laura Nader. Is that how Dad came to know brother Ralph? The million-year-old Oldowan chopper presented by a grad student became a prop for David Brower’s talks, an illustration for his “sermon” on man’s last-minute place in the seven days of creation.

Along with the information gleaned from editing, my mother brought ideas. My father came from a conservative Christian household; he loved nature and mountains. My mother also loved mountains, but hers was a progressive, Unitarian/agnostic family, and her life experiences pushed her further and further left; she took my father with her.

I don’t think it was hard to widen my father’s world, to add concern for equality and humanity to concern for nature, since he already was a liberal-hearted man. But though he had to have been open to the ideas, values, and people she brought to his life, I think my mother is largely responsible for turning a rock-climbing wilderness lover into the icon of wide-angle environmentalism that he became.

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