For an environmental book published in the 1970s, Encounters With the Archdruid by John McPhee still is extremely relevant today. Conservationists, preservationists, or environmentalists; whatever term you want to use, people who want to protect the earth will always face opponents. And like any complex issue involving millions of people’s lives, there are no simple solutions.
Encounters With the Archdruid is broken up into three parts: mountain, island, and river. Each part covers different environmental issues and each has an interesting opponent to one of the nation’s most famous conservationist, David Browers.
In part 1, “A Mountain”, Browers faces an expert geologist Charles Frederick Park who wants to mine mountains, and is specifically in search of copper. Park believes that minerals must be mined wherever they are found, as they help society as a whole. To Park, it is what is inside the mountain, not the scenic view of the mountain that matters to the most people.
On the contrary, Browers wants the mountain and surrounding area to be a wilderness. People should only arrive on foot and leave no lingering trace behind.
In part 2, “An Island”, Browers defends himself against Charles Fraser, a real estate developer. Fraser wants to turn Cumberland Island into homes and amenities for humans to live there. But Fraser isn’t merely about leveling the earth and making seaside homes. He wants to develop the land while preserving the beauty, as much as possible, of the landscape.
Browers, again likes to have nature be in charge and keep the landscape pristine (as much as possible).
In part 3, “A River”, Browers goes down the Colorado River with Floyd Dominy, the commisoner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation. Dominy is a dam builder and views rivers as sources of water, and life, for people. To dam a river doesn’t destroy it but makes it useful.
Browers laments the loss of beauty as dams have filled canyons with water, their beauty never to be seen again. Browers is the enemy of dams, and has stopped numerous dam projects almost by himself. He is credited with stopping a dam that would have ruined much of Dinosaur National Monument.
But there are no victories in conservation. Every dam project that is halted is a temporary delay in what will someday happen. Every wilderness protected could be overturned years later.
What McPhee does in Encounters With the Archdruid is observe both sides. He lays out the opinions of each side with nearly no additional insight. His writing style is clean and crisp. The ability to present ideas in this way is rarely done.
McPhee understands that competing interests are always present. It is up to everyone to find a balance that works with a demanding society while still avoiding destroying the land we so badly need.