Our Son of a Bitch

Remembering David Brower, a complex man who took it upon himself to complete a simple task: save the planet

Bruce Barcott

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With tributes from John McPhee, Julia “Butterfly” Hill, Stewart Udall, Barry Lopez, Roderick Nash, Don Kegley, Doug Peacock, and Dave Foreman

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE HE PACKED IT ALL INTO ONE LIFE. Posting 33 first ascents in the Sierra Nevada; earning a Bronze Star with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II; transforming a regional hiking society called the Sierra Club into a national political powerhouse (then getting himself booted from same); keeping dams out of Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon; founding Friends of the Earth and the Muir Institute and the League of Conservation Voters and the Earth Island Institute; leaving his fingerprints all over the Wilderness Act, as well as the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore, Redwood National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, North Cascades National Park, and dozens of other wild places that remain wild because he thought there ought to be some places civilization shouldn’t go. In sum, a spectacularly creative life with a crowning achievement: inventing environmental activism as we know it. By the time David Brower died of bladder cancer in his Berkeley, California, home on November 5, 2000, he’d crammed a dozen lives into his 88 years.

He was not, to say the least, universally beloved. He could be arrogant and impractical, drove the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth up the wall and nearly into the ground, and left scores of shattered relationships in his wake. He made a point of being the most unreasonable son of a bitch in the room. Floyd Dominy, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who dammed the West, once said, “I can’t talk to Brower, he’s so goddamned ridiculous.” Brower wore Dominy’s scorn (and later, his grudging respect) as a badge of honor.

By playing the extremist, he knew he’d make other environmentalists look downright conservative. He could be angry and bitter and smugly righteous; too often he equated compromise with corruption, sometimes to the detriment of his own cause. Brower often invited comparison with John Muir, and nowhere were their similarities more striking than in the cross each man bore. In 1913, Muir lost the Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite’s twin, to a dam and reservoir that supplies San Francisco; in 1963, Brower lost Glen Canyon, the Grand’s more subtle sibling, in a bout of geopolitical horse-trading that kept Split Mountain and Echo Park, in Dinosaur National Monument, from being flooded. He never got over it.

Despite all that, he was the most significant champion of American environmentalism in the 20th century. He stopped enormous federal dams with a small army of hikers and his own stubborn voice, and nobody had ever done that before. Full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post are now standard weapons for enviro campaigns, but no one had thought of using advertising as a cannonade before Brower. (And what ads! When the feds suggested the proposed Grand Canyon dams would let tourists float closer to the cliffs, the Sierra Club asked, “SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?” Game over.) Others preached the gospel of environmental activism, but none did it louder or longer than he. Above all, Brower showed the rest of us why we needed to save wilderness—and how.

ADMIRERS OFTEN CALLED HIM A VISIONARY. Indeed, David Brower’s eyes may have been his most strategic weapon. He wasn’t just looking, he could truly see. He weighed the beauty and awe of wilderness against the man-made degradation, and pointed our species in the direction it ought to be moving. “You don’t take eyes for granted,” he once wrote, “if you grew up with a mother who lost her sight when you were eight.” Born July 1, 1912, and raised in Berkeley, Brower took his mother on long hikes into the Sierra as a boy, narrating the wilderness like a play-by-play man calling a ball game. After a war-shortened career as an editor at the University of California Press, he assumed command of the Sierra Club in 1952 at age 40. He never lost that gift for putting words to the wonders of nature. In notes to colleagues, impassioned essays, and lecture after lecture, came the refrain: Take a look at this. “A man once asked me,” he wrote, “‘Why are you conservationists always against things?’ I told him, ‘If you are against something, you are for something else. I am against dams and for rivers.'”

As an editor at Sierra Club Books in the early 1960s, he pioneered the large-format nature book, bringing together some of the nation’s best photographers and writers to produce volumes that argued passionately for the conservation of the nation’s most imperiled land. Stewart Udall, who served as Interior Secretary under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, recalled in his 1988 historical overview of American environmentalism, The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation, that volumes like The Last Redwoods would be “hand-delivered to members of Congress—at times by Brower himself—who would cast the crucial votes on vital issues.” This is what you can save or destroy; take a look.

It’s tough to choose a single epitaph for a man who invoked so many epigrams and proverbs. During his last 30 years, Brower expanded his gospel of American wilderness issues to include everything from nuclear weapons to solar energy, toxics, population growth, and dolphin-safe tuna. But wherever he preached, he often ended his sermon with a Goethe couplet that had become his credo: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” He’d let that sink in, then add: “There’s magic in you. Let it out.”

The Archdruid Is Dead. Long Live the Archdruid!

“There were two giants in the conservation movement in the last 50 years: Rachel Carson and David Brower. Brower was daring, versatile, and never pulled his punches. He was an editor, a writer, a lecturer, but most of all a missionary and a preacher, out there getting the people stirred up. He had the power to get things done.”
Stewart Udall, 81, Secretary of the Interior, 1961–1969

“Among environmentalists, David Brower had the sharpest teeth. He was the most vigorous fighter. He jump-started things, got the momentum going in the 1960s. The environmental movement has since bloomed and spread out, but in those days he was showing the way.”
John McPhee, 69, writer and author of Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), a book-length profile of David Brower

“We’ll never know what personal price David paid to walk point for us on so many environmental issues. Even as we mourn the loss, we remain profoundly grateful for the example. He was a warrior and a teacher.”
Barry Lopez, 56, author of Arctic Dreams and Light Action in the Caribbean

“The problems we’re having today—the whole shooting match—it’s underscored by a loss of a usable tradition of human behavior, a practical wisdom that lives among traditional people, especially passed along by shaman and tribal elders. More than anything else, that’s what David Brower was to me: He was one of the last few living elders I had, people like Aldo Leopold, Ed Abbey—people who are mostly gone now. He was one of the few people still on earth who could call me on my bullshit.”
Doug Peacock, 58, conservationist and author of Grizzly Years

“David Brower is the outstanding wilderness advocate of the 20th century. I was at a meeting once with David, talking about the Grand Canyon, and it was running late. I said, ‘David, I’ve got to catch an airplane.’ He looked at me and said, ‘There will always be another airplane, but there won’t be another Grand Canyon.’ That was typical of his stance. He said, in effect, we are dealing with remnants of wilderness, and we ought to stand tall, put our spears in the sand, and protect them. It’s also important to remember that David was one of the premier mountaineers of our time.”
Roderick Nash, 62, author of Wilderness and the American Mind

“David Brower is, forever, a planetary hero. His legacy lives on in the wild and natural places of this earth that he fought so hard to protect, and in those still unprotected places that need all people to stand up as heroes for them today. His love for young people, and the inspiration he gave us to live a life committed to a healthy, respectful, and loving world, will be passed on.”
Julia “Butterfly” Hill, 27, tree-sitting activist and founder of the Circle of Life Foundation

“All my life as a steelworker I’ve been a human-rights activist. The labor movement is about human rights and about dignity for human beings. What David Brower did for me is open up my eyes to the other side of the coin—the need for the same kind of justice and dignity for the environment. One of the things we talked about was the fact that if we don’t have justice and dignity for ourselves, we probably can’t expect that we’re going to have it for the earth, too. The man just had incredible common sense.”
Don Kegley, 47, co-founder with Brower of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment

“In the eighties and nineties, we did a lot of speeches together. Afterwards, we closed down bars together, and he always drank me under the table. So my memory of Dave Brower is largely him being totally sober while I was drunker than a skunk. When I heard that Dave had died, my wife and I went out and toasted him with some Tanqueray martinis—which I suggest is a very appropriate thing to do.”
Dave Foreman, 54, co-founder of Earth First! and head of the Wildlands Project   

Compiled by Bruce Barcott and Christian DeBenedetti

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