When my brothers and sister and I were growing up in the fifties and sixties, classmates and teachers would occasionally ask what our father did for a living. “Conservationist,” we would say. “He’s a conservationist.” The response from the citizenry was almost always the same. “A conservationist? What’s that?”
It is easy to forget how young the environmental movement is, particularly in its modern incarnation.
On being hired in 1952 as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, our father, David Brower, became just the second full-time employee of the outfit. The first was Virginia Ferguson, a secretary. Back then the Club was essentially a hiking fraternity of just seven thousand members.
In hiring David Brower, the organization doubled the size of its staff, but that still equaled only two.
“When people say, ‘You’re not being realistic,’ they’re just trying to tag some thoughts that they can’t otherwise handle.” —David Ross Brower
In the nineteenth century, Thoreau, Muir, and George Perkins Marsh had argued eloquently for conservation, of course, but they were philosopher-writers with other concerns. In the first half of the twentieth, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold did brilliant conservation work, and they began to formulate, Leopold in particular, an ethic for the movement; but these men had government jobs with other duties. The citizen environmentalist we know so well today – the career activist employed by a nonprofit to advocate for wilderness, or wildlife, or wild rivers, or national parks, or clear air, or clean water, or efficient energy use – had yet to appear. In the early fifties there was Howard Zahniser at The Wilderness Society. There was my father at the Sierra Club. There must have been a handful of others, but the names don’t come to mind.
Because he was among the first, in this dawn of his movement – the Archaeozoic of environmentalism, before specialization in the ranks – my father was forced to do a little of everything. He had no choice but to rise to the occasion. He became inexplicably good at a large number of things. He was a pamphleteer. He was a photographer. He was an executive. He was a grassroots organizer. He spoke or lectured to audiences large and small. He was a lobbyist. He testified regularly in Washington. (Great stacks of the Congressional Record piled up in our house. I skimmed these as a kid: You never saw such volumes of hot air distilled into print.) He was a magazine editor, recasting the Sierra Club Bulletin, which had been preoccupied with news of its mountaineering and outings programs, into a journal of advocacy. He was a filmmaker who wrote, directed, filmed, narrated, and produced sixteen-millimeter movies arguing for national parks in the Sierra Nevada and the North Cascades, and against ruinous dams in California and on the Colorado Plateau. (My siblings and I were pressed into service as child actors in several of these films. We were not paid at union scale; we were paid, in fact, nothing at all. We grumbled on being asked to repeat scenes, but we never staged a strike or sit-down – our father was nothing if not persuasive.)
“I’m not blindly opposed to progress. I’m opposed to blind progress.”
He was an ad designer. He was logistician, managing the Sierra Club “High Trip” program and often leading the expeditions, mule-supplied forays by scores of Sierra Club hikers into the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, the Tetons, and the Wind River Range. He organized Sierra Club river trips in order to build a constituency for the free-flowing rivers of the Southwest. He was a publisher who invented a genre, the large-format coffee-table book of nature photographs, of which he produced a thirty-volume series, along with smaller-format “battle books” and mountaineering manuals and guides.
“David dropped out of school before they could teach him what he couldn’t do,” my mother liked to say.
At sixteen my father had entered the University of California at Berkeley, but dropped out as a sophomore to go climbing. My mother, having stayed on at the same school to get her degree, knew how the college experience can trim a psyche down to size. Her unspoiled-by-academe theory of her husband has some merit, no doubt. But my own belief is that my father’s renaissance tendencies owed less to what he escaped, in his flight from higher education, than to what he learned in his alternative, and more elevated, education up on the granite at 14,000 feet.
My father discovered himself in the mountains. He became one of the elite rock climbers of his generation, with many first ascents in Yosemite Valley and elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada. Among the peaks he found the love of wildness that would be the dynamo driving everything he later did. His initial preoccupation at the Sierra Club with wilderness preservation gave way, very soon, to the conviction that environmentalism had to embrace much more – pollution, pesticides, population, proliferation of nuclear weapons, just to name some Ps – yet love of wilderness always burned at the core. “Wilderness,” he said, “is where the hand of man has not set foot.” The definition was playful, but useful and apt. Wilderness is where the opposable thumb has not substantially transformed the landscape. The hand-foot distinction addresses a problem that critics of the wilderness idea always bring up: the fact that all wildernesses, save the Antarctic, have been inhabited by humans since the Stone Age. Wilderness, indeed, is where we come from. Homo sapiens did not evolve in the Information Age, my father pointed out, or in the Space Age, or the Atomic, or the Industrial, or after the invention of agriculture. We evolved as hunter-gatherers in the wilderness of Mother Africa. We were fully human, entirely our present selves, long before domestication of the first seed. Natural selection tailored our every trait to life in wild country. Wilderness is home.
“Politicians are like weather vanes. Our job is to make the wind blow.”
David Brower found his voice outdoors. As a boy in the Berkeley hills, describing for his mother, who was blind, all the natural sights she was missing, he began working on the clarity of his sentences. Grown up, speaking at the campfires of Sierra Club trips he was leading, he refined his language, overcame his essential shyness, and discovered his theme.
It was at altitude, I am convinced, that he stumbled across his true calling. At those campfires in the wilderness, talking to the circle of the tribe, he was tapping into the Paleolithic and the very beginnings of narrative. There is no more powerful form of exposition, because it goes back so far. Nothing triggers racial memory like staring into flame while listening to the rise and fall of the human voice.
These campfire talks were the beginnings of what my father would later call “the Sermon.” This ever-changing palimpsest of a speech, in one form or another, is what he would deliver in lecture halls and university auditoriums for the rest of his career. Elements of it appeared, too, in his testimony before Congress and governmental commissions, in his commencement addresses, in articles and books he wrote, in the dozens of forewords he did for the books he published. The Sermon was never static: He would work in local angles and news from the morning paper, and sometimes at the podium he would extemporaneously invent whole new passages and sections.
Abbie Rowe/The White House
“Sermon” was apt, because for my father environmentalism was religion. He had that kind of fervor for it. “She has the religion,” was his highest compliment. It meant that she really got it. She, or he, was not just paying lip service. She had the environmental ethic in her bones, a true believer. The Sermon was a celebration and defense of Creation. Anyone who doubts that environmentalism can make a complete and perfectly satisfactory religion should have grown up in our house.
On the public stage he was fearless. He had a joy in combat with his corporate enemies and their lackeys in government. He was not shy about mixing it up with the opposition, but it was never personal. His argument was never ad hominem. He did not trust the experts. In a democracy, he thought, our job is to question conventional thinking and expert wisdom. He did not believe in compromise, having been burned by it several times. The environmentalist’s job, as he saw it, is to fight as hard as possible on behalf of the Earth. When the time comes for compromise, leave it to the politicians. “That,” he said, “is what we pay them for.”
“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
David Brower led the transformation of the Sierra Club into the most powerful conservation organization in the United States. The 7,000 members he began with, in 1952, grew to 77,000 by 1969, when the Club’s board of directors kicked him out. He went on to found the John Muir Institute for Environmental Studies, the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth in the United States, Friends of the Earth International – a federation of sister organizations now in seventy nations – and finally Earth Island Institute, an incubator organization that has supported more than one hundred environmental projects worldwide. He was instrumental in the establishment of Kings Canyon, Redwoods, North Cascades, and Great Basin National Parks, and Point Reyes, Cape Cod, and Fire Island National Seashores. He led the successful campaigns against dams in Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park.
But his influence and legacy, I have come to believe, are much less institutional than personal. My father always led an organization, but he was never really an organization man. His impulse was for action; he inevitably grew impatient with institutional inertia that developed in the various outfits he built. He had no deep interest in operating in the black, a fatal trait in an executive who reports to a board of directors. His lifecycle mimicked that of an insect that he, as it happens, was the first to tell me about, as we listened to its buzz in the High Sierra: the North American cicada, genus Magicicada, which hatches out every seventeen years. After seventeen years as executive director of the Sierra Club, he was forced by the board to resign. After sixteen years at Friends of the Earth, the same thing happened. He would swell, split the exoskeleton of the constraining organization, emerge, spread wings, and fly off to start a new one.
His lasting effect, I think, was not in his organizations or books or films, but in the flesh, one-on-one, or one-on-five, or one-on-auditorium, or one-on-saloon, or wherever it was he delivered the Sermon. The Sermon worked best when he was winging it, taking a chance, stretching for some idea just out of reach. At the conclusion, young people would stream down the aisles and ask how to sign up in his movement. It was the campfire all over again.
The organizations David Brower built have all grown and changed, and none, save the last, really bears his stamp any longer. But many of the people compelled by the Sermon, those young people who lined up afterward at the podium to offer their services, do retain his stamp. Many are now leaders of the environmental movement. For me, the interviewer listening to them, the sessions that produced these recollections were a very fine thing, almost a kind of séance, a chance to spend many weeks again in my father’s company.
Kenneth Brower was drafted by his father at age 19 to be an editor for the exhibit format books published at the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. He wrote or edited 14 of those volumes before departing his father’s shop to become a freelance writer. He is the author of The Starship and the Canoe, A Song for Satawal, and Wake of the Whale, among other books.
Outtakes from David Brower’s Sermon
“We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.”
“I hate all dams, large and small. If you are against a dam, you are for a river.”
“Without wilderness, the world’s a cage.”
“Environmentalists make terrible neighbors, but great ancestors.”
“I believe that the average guy in the street will give up a great deal, if he really understands the cost of not giving it up. In fact, we may find that, while we’re drastically cutting our energy consumption, we’re actually raising our standard of living.”
“Bite the worms. They won’t hurt nearly as much as the insecticide does.”
“Bring diversity back to agriculture. That’s what made it work in the first place.”
“We may learn anew what compassion and beauty are, and pause to listen to the Earth’s music.”
“All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.”
“When vultures watching your civilization begin dropping dead, it is time to pause and wonder.”
Compiled by Gar Smith from The Wildness Within
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