The Archdruid in Winter


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Outside magazine, December 1995

The Archdruid in Winter
By Larry Burke

Years ago a developer wisecracked that David Brower worshiped trees and sacrificed human beings, thus tagging him with a nickname he’s carried proudly ever since: the archdruid. A mountaineer and editor who became the Sierra Club’s first executive director in 1952, Brower is one of the most influential environmentalists of the last hundred years, having transformed a
politically benign hikers’ outfit into a potent force. The club’s feistiness during Brower’s 17-year reign, which created advocacy tactics that helped shape the green movement as a whole, obviously held appeal. Membership doubled between 1966 and 1969.

Of course, 1969 was also the year that the Club’s board of directors dumped Brower as executive director, reportedly because his habit of roaring into every conservation fight created financial burdens that they believed were untenable. Brower went on to found two organizations that play valuable roles, Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute. But questions about
the real meaning of his downfall–which happened again at FOE–reverberate still. Does Brower get too far ahead of his troops, who can’t see that the issues driving him transcend the bottom line? Or is there something unworkable in his all-or-nothing style, a failing that generates great heat but even greater friction?

This month, looking for answers, former Outside senior editor Daniel Coyle drops in on the archdruid at his home in Berkeley, California. The first thing he learns is that, at 83, Brower hasn’t slowed down much. Though he’s battling health problems and carving out time for a family that has run a not-so-close second to his work for nearly 50 years,
Brower continues to travel incessantly and to throw himself into an almost Augean daily attempt to extract vision from the ceaseless flow of printed information that surges into his life. Have the personal costs been worth it? Some critics think not, arguing that Brower’s legacy was firmly set by 1970 and that the 25 years of feverish labor since haven’t added much to it.

Coyle decided the question is partly moot. “To ask why David Brower keeps on pushing is to ask why salmon swim upstream–he simply has to,” he says. “Admittedly, this can make him difficult to be around. But it’s what was required to achieve so much.” Coyle also finds a man who by turns is stubborn, evasive, and contradictory, but who seems to believe that by sheer effort and
tireless preaching, he can extend his influence into the next century. His report is called “The High Cost of Being David Brower.”

Winter’s cold, beguiling crunch is here. Time to jettison your skis and your pride, grab a thousand-count jug of ibuprofen, and head for a place where only the brave or foolish go: adult snowboarding school. In “Outta My Flight Path, Peewee!” senior editor Hampton Sides places himself under the patient
yet hyperkinetic tutelage of Kevin Delaney, the posithink-preaching, mountain-shredding founder of the Delaney Adult Snowboarding Camps in Colorado. A top sensei for the growing number of grown-ups who think snowboarding isn’t just for runty, skittering boardheads anymore, Delaney uses no-nonsense method and Karate Kid
mojo (“Find your control center”) in a technique that results in…many, many falls. But that’s just the first day. On morning two, grinning through the pain, Sides and his neophyte classmates wiggle toward the light at the bottom of the Bambi slope.

Elsewhere in this issue: We offer Rick Bass’s eloquent thoughts on an issue that is sure to play prominently in 1996–the bitter fight in Congress over how much of southern Utah’s redrock landscape should be protected as wilderness. In “Confessions of a Cosmic Resonator,” Sallie Tisdale plunges deep into the mysteries of her life as a “weather-sensitive.” The odd-sounding term means that for Tisdale, Arctic fronts, gray skies, and ill winds are more than an annoyance; they’re a physical, sometimes metaphysical, slam dunk. Lately, Tisdale has been wandering the research stacks of the somewhat
obscure science of biometeorology to learn if there really is a physical correlation between winter’s looming howl and a desire to hunker down deep and reach for a teddy bear. And finally this month, a roster of celebrated personages, including Garrison Keillor, Ben & Jerry, and Martha Stewart, rip into their gift-wrapped packages a few days early and find outdoor gear picked
especially for them, reacting joyfully, thoughtfully, blasély, and in the case of Jerry Brown and his shiny new global positioning system device, jerrily. Among its other gifts, “When What to My Wondering Eyes Should Appear…” poses the essential question, What would Stephen King do with an ice ax? And
the answer is… Well, put it this way: It’s driven home–forcefully.