Monday June 18, 2001
David Brower (1912-2000); My Archdruid
by Mikhail Davis
David Brower is gone, but the Archdruid lives on. He is as alive today as when I
first met Him in the pages of John McPhee's conservation classic Encounters with the Archdruid in 11th grade. The historical figure whose boldness conquered the Bureau of Reclamation when it ruled the West and brought nuclear power to it's knees can never really die. He lives on in anyone who hikes in wilderness then fights to protect it, floats the Grand Canyon and works to set the river free, and takes on the powers that be for the sake of the Earth. Anyone who takes bold action for the Earth and wildness can share a moment with the Archdruid.
But the moments I will savor and the times I will miss most are not with the
Archdruid, but with my friend Dave, the kind, funny, generous old man I came to
know and love working side by side with him in his final two and a half years.
We had a joke that he was my adopted grandfather, but he was much more to me. In our time together, Dave became not only my oldest friend (he would
appreciate the joke), but also my best friend.
I met Dave when I was 22 (and he 85.7 by his own reckoning), six years after my
encounter with McPhee's Archdruid and 4 years after waiting in line to shake his
hand after he spoke at Stanford my freshman year. In the spring of 1998, using everything short of black magic, I won the honor of succeeding Chris Franklin at Earth Island Institute as David's next assistant. I was still in shock when I made my
way up to his old house on the top of Grizzly Peak in Berkeley for an improbable
"get-to-know-you" session with the Archdruid himself.
Dave welcomed me as if we had known each other for years, and in a certain way I felt we had. My life as a precocious but confused 16 year old in a small-town
had changed forever after reading about this real-life superhero and his quest to
Save the Earth. From that time on, I knew that I would be doing "David's Work"
for the rest of my life. I hadn't ever counted on taking it quite this far.
As our tour of David's house wound down, he loaded me up with books to take
with me, including an expensive-looking new photo book on the rivers of Oregon
for which he had written a foreword on Restoring Glen Canyon. I would come to realize that this was a man who knew he couldn't count on having tomorrow to express what was in his heart. The wisdom of age perhaps, or just a touch of the boldness that he was so famous for in public life. It was my first introduction to an extraordinary human being, who was known as a defender of the Earth, but was equally courageous and generous in his love for humanity.
Dave always delighted in pointing out to people the advantages of working with
someone 64 years his junior. Our recall abilities were complementary; he could remember things I couldn't, like World War II and life before the Golden Gate Bridge, and I could remember things he had forgotten, like how to open his email or the name of "that ecologist from Harvard." He delighted in having me answer questions from the audience that he hadn't heard. But there was much more to it than that.
In the 1950s, while most of the nation was entering the era of mass consumerism and "keeping up with the Joneses," and while my parents were busy enjoying elementary school, Dave was out making sure there would be something left for me, an "untrammeled wildness," testifying "that this generation had love for the next," laying the groundwork for the Wilderness Preservation System and new National Parks from the North Cascades to Fire Island. Many in my generation have felt David's love, just as clear in the pristine waters of a wilderness lake as it was in his gentle smile and twinkling blue eyes. When Dave would apologize for being so slow or for my having to push him in a wheelchair through another endless airport terminal, I would smile, content with knowing that I was acting on behalf of countless others; I had the honor and privilege of representing my generation in service of a man to whom all subsequent generations owe a debt of gratitude. He fought for us before we were around to fight for and I got to thank him for it.
So I never complained when I had to push his wheelchair.
Besides, Dave promised he'd come back around in time to push mine.
The title of John McPhee's book was inspired by a developer characterizing enviromentalists as "druids" who "worship trees and sacrifice human beings to those trees." But it was out of a love of life, not anger at people, that a basically shy mountain climber, most at ease with a few friends in the Sierra Nevada, transformed himself into an international leader and came to be called "the Archdruid." The countless articles and even McPhee himself to some degree, miss this when they focus on Dave's uncompromising stances, strident tone, and magnetic charisma. Though he could be certainly be impatient and stubborn at times, he was most effective when he tapped into the love that got him started as a young boy who delighted in butterflies and forest springs and guiding his blind mother through the Berkeley Hills. Dave often quoted Robinson Jeffers: "...the greatest beauty...is organic wholeness...love that, not man apart from that." If he was a Force of Nature, it was only because he allowed Nature to speak through him, and it had not given him permission to compromise
From the stories I hear, Dave had mellowed by the time I got to work with him,
but there were two topics that would throw Dave into passionate frenzy like no
others: the state of the Sierra Club and the campaign to Restore Glen Canyon.
He was re-elected to another term on the Sierra Club Board of Directors in 1998, four days after I was hired. The dense bureaucracy and political timidity of the of the now enormous organization that he had shaped into a lean, mean fighting machine while Executive Director in the 1950s and 60s drove him to distraction. He quipped that a local club leader might prefer suicide over trying to navigate the National Sierra Club's accounting policies on how much money they could spend on political activity. His final term on the Board saw two lively, but unsuccessful campaigns for Board President, but nothing to match the high point of his previous term when he convinced the Board to unanimously endorse Draining Lake Powell to Restore Glen Canyon, bringing it full circle from 1956 when the Board pulled the rug out from under his efforts to sink the Colorado River Storage Project Act (which authorized Glen Canyon Dam) in Congress.
I had the mixed pleasure of attending several strategic planning meetings with
the Archdruid, who would coast along until some foolish facilitator would get to
the idea of setting priorities. Dave had no use for priorities, he wanted to save
the entire world, all at once. But if there was one place that was a priority to
Dave, it was Glen Canyon, a remote stretch of the Colorado upriver from the Grand Canyon, blessed with a maze of hundreds of lush red-rock side canyons. He floated the Glen only in its final days, after the Dam's flood gates had closed, but "The Place No One Knew" touched Dave in a way that never left him. He came back years after year with friends and family. He never tired of showing house guests his pictures of the canyon's climax, an immense vaulted chamber of ferns and delicate waterfalls known as Cathedral in the Desert; "it's the most beautiful place in the world, and we've got to get it back."
The picture on the cover of his autobiographical tome For Earth's Sake says it all; the Archdruid in 1966, handsome, unstoppable leader of the conservation movement, white hair blowing dramatically in the wind...his face full of unspeakable anguish, on the verge tears, for the beauty and the tragedy of the Eden drowning around him. It would be his final trip, before the waters of "Lake" Powell at last submerged Cathedral in the Desert and the rest of Glen Canyon.
During our travels, he never missed a chance to talk about the opportunity to Restore Glen Canyon. From Japan to Vermont, audiences learned about the million acre feet of water wasted by evaporation from this reservoir in the desert. My most vivid memory from his final year is of Dave desperately straining to hoist his frail 87 year old body up into a tiny Cessna airplane, already exhausted from a night of struggling to breathe in the thin Flagstaff air. Once again, he was unstoppable, and we flew to The Dam one last time to rally the believers and ensure that his dream would not pass with him.
That speech, which he called "Glen Canyon Dam and Global CPR" was the Archdruid at his best, at once dire and self-effacing, visionary and funny:
"...Jane Jacobs, who is close to my age and can thus being considered an elder, says that when ordinary people pay attention, they are often capable of more profound insights than the experts.
The opportunity here is to see how we can get ordinary people, us, to have time to pay attention to the immediate chance to restore the Earth that we face here, and to what the global implications will be if our insight beats the experts, if that is what it takes. Let me make it clear that I have nothing against experts. I wouldn't be alive without them. Now and then their insight is impaired. That's why God created ordinary people."
Now David Brower is gone, The Dam is not, and the challenge of administering "Global CPR" is left to "ordinary people" like you and me. Dave has earned his rest, and our work is just beginning.
So if you want to meet the Archdruid, visit the unconsummated damsite in Grand Canyon's Marble Gorge, or the wild mountains of the North Cascades or his beloved
Sierra Nevada and "do something to make the mountains glad," as John Muir
urged. There's a bit of Archdruid in every one of us. "All you have to do is let it out," he reminds us still.
But if you want to meet my friend Dave, help speed the day that we see Glen
Canyon restored. He wouldn't miss that party, not for the world.
Mikhail Davis was the Assistant to Chairman David Brower at Earth Island Institute from April 1998 until Mr. Brower's passing at the age of 88 in November 2000. He continues David's work at Earth Island Institute in his capacity as Director of the Brower Fund.