Since the late nineteenth century, the American West has been an environmental battleground. At one extreme, rabid capitalists see the region as nothing more than a rich land to be exploited for personal gain, never mind the effects their profiteering has on the land and the people who live on it. At the other extreme are radicals who believe mankind has no place in the West; that it is best left to the elements and we humans should only be allowed to sneak in and take a peek every now and then, then leave.
Most folks, as is usually the case, are sandwiched somewhere nearer the center of those extremes and look to achieve some kind of balance betwixt and between. Even then, viewpoints are fervent and disagreements intense.
Although somewhat dated since its publication in 1971, Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee paints arguments between conservation and development in vivid colors. And, the fact is, the arguments have changed little since then—or ever.
The book sets the views of David Brower, outdoorsman and long-time leader of the Sierra Club and the titular “Archdruid,” against three powerful men with contrasting views. One of the encounters lies outside the West, featuring a real estate developer on Hilton Head Island off the South Carolina coast. Another concerns mineral mining in remote areas, specifically in a wilderness location in the Cascade Range. The third, and most engaging for me, pits government dam builder Floyd Dominy against Brower during a float trip through the Grand Canyon.
McPhee, a meticulous reporter and imaginative writer, allows each man to state his case during each encounter, and allows readers to take from the debates what they will. And, like all good art and literature, Encounters with the Archdruid asks a lot more questions than it answers.