Two years ago, The Nation magazine published a list of the “The 50 Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century.” Among giants like Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Cesar Chavez were three environmentalists: Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, and David Brower. Brower, whose centennial we are celebrating this year, was the first executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the driving forces behind the passage of the Wilderness Act, and the founder of Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters and, 30 years ago exactly, Earth Island Institute. He was, in the words of The Nation, “a pioneer of the modern environmental movement.”
I can’t honestly say that David Brower inspired my commitment to the environment. As a young writer interested in environmental themes, my heroes were of the literary sort: Thoreau, obviously; the agriculturalist Wendell Berry; EB White with his barnyard eloquence and, when I was feeling ballsy, Edward Abbey. Although his name appeared on dozens of coffee table books published by the Sierra Club, Brower is best known as a subject of books, not a writer of them. He was, most famously, the central figure of John McPhee’s classic, Encounters with the Archdruid (excerpted here).
Reading McPhee’s book this spring, I was surprised to learn that Brower was a lousy naturalist. The man didn’t know the difference between a whelk shell and a clamshell, and he couldn’t tell a horseshoe crab from a fiddler crab. He loved the wilderness and living things, of course, but this love seems to have come more from an appreciation of the whole than from a fascination with the particulars. He was, above all, an aficionado of the myriad ways light plays in natural spaces – on mountaintops, on seascapes, in forests. “Brower seems to think in scenes,” McPhee wrote. “He seems to paint them in his mind’s eye.” He was an aesthete of the wild.
Malcolm Margolin, the publisher at Heyday press, whose new title about Brower, The Wildness Within, is also excerpted in this issue, confirmed this: “He had an artist’s sensibility,” Margolin told me. “He approached the world the way artists do, looking to set up place in the imagination.”
I think we environmentalists need to encourage more of this artistic sensibility. In recent decades, the environmental movement has become too preoccupied with science and law, facts and figures. No question about it: We need the researchers, just as we need the lawyers and the lobbyists. But I worry that the bloodless language of “parts-per-million” and “allowable tolerance levels” has drained environmentalism of the romanticism that first gave the movement its animating spirit. Just because we are thinking hard doesn’t mean we have to feel less.
David Brower viewed the world with a childlike sense of wonderment. That wonderment, it seems to me, is what fueled his love for the environment and spurred him to decry its destruction as nothing short of a sin.
The destruction, of course, is mounting. To fight it successfully we will need emotional pleas as well as appeals to reason – one reason why David Brower’s worldview has as much force today as when he was alive.
PS: If you’re in Northern California on the Summer Solstice, June 21, please come have a martini in Brower’s memory at our Party for the Planet. Tickets here.
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