Encounters with the Archdruid – John McPhee, 1971

We  had a great discussion about this in the Nature and Environment book group. I particularly enjoyed the arguments about McPhee’s artifice—“he’s pulling the wool over our eyes,” said one person. The New York Times Magazine article had just come out, and it brought up the structure glyph in the chapter headings—the three triangles on the line balanced on a single triangle–which most of us would not have recognized otherwise. Encounters suffers in comparison to Desert Solitaire, which is so much more vivid, but it’s interesting and very timely. One of our members had known David Brower personally and gave us more insight into what he was like as a person, not the figurehead/symbol he is in McPhee’s book. The three archvillains—Charles Park, Charles Fraser, Floyd Dominy—feel more fleshed out. They get in some zingers, like Park talking about the number of children Brower has (“Population is pollution spelled inside out”), and cataloguing the minerals Brower’s house contains and where they came from. McPhee says about Brower:

When he is in the Yosemite, he seems to be packed in nostalgia, and he appears to be unaffected by the valley’s peeled-log Levittowns, its tent cities, its bumper-to-bumper traffic, and its newsstands—all results of what has been described as the fatal beauty of Yosemite. In all likelihood, he accepts Yosemite whole because the valley was already urbanized when he was young.

But Brower points out: “Wilderness was originally a nice place to go, but that is not what wilderness is for. Wilderness is the bank for the genetic variability of the earth.”

Some funny passages:

The trees were dead because the dunes were marching. Slowly, these enormous hills, shaped and reshaped by the wind, were moving south. They had already filled up half of Fraser’s lake, and, left alone, they would eventually fill it all. Five buzzards stood at the edge of the water. Fraser stood there, too, with the unconcealed look on his face of a man watching a major asset disappear. “We’ve got to stabilize these dunes,” he said.

Cans of beer are known as sandwiches in this red, dry, wilderness world. No one questions this, or asks the reason. They just call out “Sandwich, please!” and a can of Coors comes flying through the air. They catch the beer and drink it, and they put the aluminum tongues inside the cans. I threw a tongue in the river and was booed by everyone.

That story is part of what makes it feel like McPhee is creating a narrative performance rather than sharing his subjects’ feelings on these topics. But his observations are great:

Although there was no way for an automobile to get to Holden except by barge up Lake Chelan and then on a dirt road to the village, we saw there a high pile of gutted and rusted automobiles, which themselves had originally been rock in the earth and, in the end, in Holden, were crumbling slowly back into the ground.

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