Like a lot of people I was introduced to the writing of John McPhee through the New Yorker. I loved how he could write so beautifully about, well, anything. From geology to political figures, no matter how obscure the subject after finishing an article you couldn’t wait until his next one. Not only an accomplished writer, for decades he taught nonfiction writing at his alma matter Princeton, inspiring a number of his former students to become accomplished writers themselves. (David Remnick, Robert Wright and Dan-el Padilla Peralta are but a few.) Over the years I’ve acquired several of his books yet sadly made no effort to read them.
As part of my 20 Books of Summer series I decided remedy this by including a little something by McPhee. Published back in 1971 his Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies explores three (four, if you count a side trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota) beautiful, yet radically different parts of the United States and the memorable individuals strongly associated with them. From North Cascades National Park in Washington State to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina to the Colorado River in Arizona and Utah McPhee explores the areas’ natural beauty while introducing us to a pioneering conservationist and his three political rivals.
First and perhaps foremost of these is David Brower, at the time Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a life-long conservationist. Contrasted with him are his ideological adversaries: Charles Park, a mineral engineer and mining advocate; Charles Fraser, a resort developer from Hilton Head; and Floyd Dominy, a high-level government official responsible for the creation of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. Like a geologist descending through layers of accumulated strata McPhee reveals bit by bit the interesting depths of these complex individuals, showing no matter how aesthetically pleasing and majestic these places might be they’ll never completely overshadow the four remarkable personalities forever responsible for their preservation or alteration.