Our Son of a Bitch

Remembering David Brower, a complex man who took it upon himself to complete a simple task: save the planet

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

ADMIRERS OFTEN CALLED HIM A VISIONARY. Indeed, David Brower's eyes may have been his most strategic weapon. He wasn't just looking, he could truly see. He weighed the beauty and awe of wilderness against the man-made degradation, and pointed our species in the direction it ought to be moving. "You don't take eyes for granted," he once wrote, "if you grew up with a mother who lost her sight when you were eight." Born July 1, 1912, and raised in Berkeley, Brower took his mother on long hikes into the Sierra as a boy, narrating the wilderness like a play-by-play man calling a ball game. After a war-shortened career as an editor at the University of California Press, he assumed command of the Sierra Club in 1952 at age 40. He never lost that gift for putting words to the wonders of nature. In notes to colleagues, impassioned essays, and lecture after lecture, came the refrain: Take a look at this. "A man once asked me," he wrote, "'Why are you conservationists always against things?' I told him, 'If you are against something, you are for something else. I am against dams and for rivers.'"

As an editor at Sierra Club Books in the early 1960s, he pioneered the large-format nature book, bringing together some of the nation's best photographers and writers to produce volumes that argued passionately for the conservation of the nation's most imperiled land. Stewart Udall, who served as Interior Secretary under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, recalled in his 1988 historical overview of American environmentalism, The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation, that volumes like The Last Redwoods would be "hand-delivered to members of Congress—at times by Brower himself—who would cast the crucial votes on vital issues." This is what you can save or destroy; take a look.

It's tough to choose a single epitaph for a man who invoked so many epigrams and proverbs. During his last 30 years, Brower expanded his gospel of American wilderness issues to include everything from nuclear weapons to solar energy, toxics, population growth, and dolphin-safe tuna. But wherever he preached, he often ended his sermon with a Goethe couplet that had become his credo: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." He'd let that sink in, then add: "There's magic in you. Let it out."

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