“Encounters with the Archdruid”

John McPhee

Somewhere over the course of my last several moves, I lost my copy of The Control of Nature; given that I absolutely loved that book, it’s been on my list to get another copy of it. During a recent foray to a local used book store, I took the chance, and also took a chance on grabbing another of McPhee’s books to see if it would captivate me in the same way. About an eighth of the way through Encounters with the Archdruid, I had a very clear vision of my future, wherein I have an entire shelf dedicated to a collection of all of McPhee’s works. While Control of Nature was maybe the single best possible option to start with for me, Encounters with the Archdruid also grabbed my interest in the same way.

Encounters with the Archdruid is in three parts, but this time, the unifying thread isn’t a single theme. Instead, it’s a single person: David Brower, head of the Sierra Club, stout conservationist. He’s… a character:

Jerry Sanderson, the river guide who has organized this expedition, calls out that dinner is ready. He has cooked an entire sirloin steak for each person. We eat from large plastic trays–the property of Sanderson. Brower regularly ignores the stack of trays, and now, when his turn comes, he steps forward to receive his food in his Sierra Club cup. Sanderson, a lean, trim, weathered man, handsome and steady, has seen a lot on this river. And now a man with wild white hair and pink legs is holding out a four-inch cup to receive a three-pound steak. Very well. There is no rapid that can make Sanderson’s eyes bat, so why should this? He drapes the steak over the cup. The steak covers the cup like a sun hat. Brower begins to hack at the edges with a knife. Brower in wilderness eats from nothing but his Sierra Club cup. (186-187)

The book isn’t solely focused on Brower, though. It’s focused on three people opposed to him in very different ways—a miner, a developer, and a dam-builder. McPhee managed to arrange for these meetings on grand scale, setting up long tours with himself, Brower, and each of his three ‘natural enemies.’ It’s a powerful way to tell the story, and makes for some fun moments. For example, at the dedication of a dam on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, where the man who spearheaded the construction of the dam introduced him thus:

Then Dominy spoke. “Dave Brower is here today,” he said, and the entire ceremony almost fell into the reservoir. “Brower is not here in an official capacity but as my guest,” Dominy went on. “We’re going to spend several days on Lake Powell, so I can convert him a little. Then we’re going down the river, so he can convert me.” (196)

It’s a really interesting way to tell… well, not a story. Several stories, twining together, and lacking the clear beginning, middle, end of what you’d find in a novel. It’s just the events, the interactions, told in a deeply personal way that still manages to get the author well out of the reader’s way. I really enjoyed reading it, and I recommend checking it out yourself.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

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