[photo by David Brower 8/6/26]

A FALLEN GIANT

 

David Brower was often referred to in religious terms. Seeing him at the
podium again and again as he brought people to tears with his gifted words
and then later to their feet cheering affirmed this, although preachers
rarely get standing ovations. No issue or opportunity was too small for
David. I once sat across the table from him outside his kitchen in the
Berkeley hills for 20 minutes while he sold the telemarketer for the
Financial Times on the need for global economic reform. "I will gladly
continue my subscription" he told the young man, "once your journal starts
telling the truth, and once you start providing a way to measure natural
capital in our economic indicators......". In the end David kept his
subscription and I was given an address to send the man a copy of David's
latest book.

David was also a teacher in the greatest tradition, one who helped the
student find his or her own answers. Using humor and provocative questions
he at once made you laugh, and then realize the tragedy that his joke
illuminated. Forever crunching numbers into terms we could understand, an
acre foot of water, or the seven days of creation would be reanimated it in
human terms or direct experience. In the same way, he and his wife Anne
invented new words to describe the world's problems: "greedlock" was one of
their favorites. David lived with a zest for life that craved human
interaction and he liked nothing more than continuing a day's conversation
over a few martinis at night (Tanqueray, straight up with no distractions).

 

Much of what David spoke he reworked from other sources. To him it did not
matter as much if the quotes were exact, or the numbers precise, David
Brower was a big picture thinker, and if you argued over the numbers you
usually missed the point of the exercise. "The United States has used up
more resources in the past fifty years than all the rest of the world, in
all previous history", "In the past 20 years the world has lost to
dessertification an area equal to all the crop land in China, and enough
topsoil by other means (development, inundation...) to equal all the crop
land in India. Twenty years and we have lost 1/5 of the world's crop
lands." Quotes like these, both true, were meant to scare, but more
importantly they were delivered as a mandate, by your hearing these words
from David Brower, you felt obligated to address these issues, somehow,
somewhere in your life.

David Brower was also a leader, and like the truly great leaders he led a
volunteer corps. Dedicated to countering what he termed "ecological
illiteracy", to challenging the forces of the status low, and to believing
in a greener, more just world. David attained worldwide respect and three
Nobel Peace Prize nominations for his impassioned pleas to build what he
liked to say..."A future by design, and not by default."

 

When I heard that David Brower's body had given way on November 5th I held
the image of a great tree having fallen in the forest. When this
particular tree came crashing down the sound it made was not nearly as
prominent as the impact. Within hours word spread and soon tributes began
to file in from all over the world. Many of the early messages were from
Japan, a country perhaps not well known for its environmental activism, but
one deeply versed in honoring its elders.

David Brower is now at rest. His life, well lived, will continue to be an
inspiration for generations to come. Each year of David's life added a
breadth of character and a depth of knowledge built slowly through direct
experience. Like the tree in the forest he grew stronger as the years
progressed until that critical point where gravity finally prevailed. A
cross section of this tree would reveal
the early spindly years climbing mountains, his maturation through the War
years with the 10th Mountain Division, his steady growth through the Sierra
Club, Friends of the Earth and finally his immovable final stand with the
Earth Island Institute. While Brower's outer bark, strengthened over the
years, made him almost impervious to the usual hazards of a public life, he
was in private a caring almost shy person.

 

The global environmental crisis David worked his life tying to steer us
away from is now clearly upon us. Global warming is no longer a theory,
and Mr. Ozone no longer a joke, the oft repeated warnings of species
extinction, and the dire declarations that 25% of plant species in the
United States are endangered or threatened with extinction, birds and
mammals following suit and commercial fish stocks in a tailspin, (UCS) has
become the norm, not a reason for panic as it should be. Yet despite
facing the realization of his greatest fears David remained one of the most
loving, sympathetic, empathetic and uncompromising men I have known.

When David formed Friends of the Earth in 1969 they sent out packets to
prospective members that included a Sequoia seed. Noticeably smaller that
a popcorn kernel, this seed, the letter explained, knew everything it
needed to know to survive, to compete, to send out new roots through foot
thick bark if flooded, to grow fire resistant bark and, with no help from
technology or human beings to survive over 2,000 years.

It was this fascination with nature, this reverence for nature that earned
David his Archdruid moniker. As a young man David would disappear to the
Sierra mountains with friends. For as many as seven weeks they would
traverse the High Sierra in search of mountains to scale, valleys to
explore, and young minds to expand, naturally. David is credited with a
legendary 70 first ascents in the Sierra, most on peaks still rarely
visited some seventy years later. When this 20 something Brower crossed
paths with a bearded man in Yosemite taking photographs he recalled "I
know immediately who he was (Ansel Adams), but neither of us knew who I
was."

By the mid 1960's David Ross Brower was riding a wave of environmental
achievements unparalleled in history. Big victories were filing in; Dams
slated for the grand canyon and the Yukon were halted, The Wilderness Act
of 1964 granted for the first time "protection from human interventions on
behalf of future generations." The Redwood National Park declaration
capped a decades long grassroots struggle to preserve the remaining Redwood
groves in California. New thinking had redefined the conservation
movement from one of building dams to conserve water, to an era of
preservation. This philosophical leap in which nature was finally given
standing and value apart from what could be milled from it, above what
could be mined, drilled or hunted from it--as a place to be human, to be a
part of rather than apart from our natural world.

David Brower edited and published books with dire messages. The Population
Bomb, Brittle Power, Progress as if Survival Mattered, alongside practical
books like The Environmental Handbook and the inspirational exhibit format
coffee table books highlighting the work of our nation's top photographers
Ansel Adams, Cedric Wright, and Eliot Porter, coupled with leading writers
like Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, Robinson Jeffers.

 

David's life also spanned an era of unprecedented growth and development in
this nation. When David was born in Berkeley in 1912 there were fewer than
3 million people in California, there was no Bay Bridge or Golden Gate
Bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay. California was still wild, the
Golden State still had grizzly bears and wolves, and 6,000 miles of salmon
streams. Today California has fewer than 300 miles of salmon streams, only
one river (the Smith) that flows undammed from its headwaters to the sea,
the grizzly and wolf are long gone and the state has a population of 25
million people.

 

It's a miracle there is anything left of California. Without the
collective strength of Brower and his contemporaries things would look much
different. "All defeats are permanent, and all victories temporary" Brower
was quick to remind us, knowing too well the cost of compromise....a half,
of a half, of a half...a friend said.... leaves you with nothing".
Compromise only decides how much we are willing to lose never how much we
are able to gain. The loss of Glen Canyon came at the price of political
dealings. David Brower subsequently vowed he would never again offer or
accept compromise as legitimate strategy, he argued that as
conservationists we need to be unapologetic about our goals and our
beliefs, that once we trade on those, we lose not only our campaigns, but
our virtue and our credibility as well.

 

A great irony of David's life is that he was twice fired and many times
marginalized because his ideas were too big, his patience too short and his
methods too direct - often characteristics we long for in our leaders. The
irony lies too in the realization that as Amory Lovins remarked "Dave
Brower is always at least ten years ahead of everyone else". While it must
have been a frustration to see his prescience born true time and time
again, Brower only used this to ever further his goals, never looking back.

In our age of limits David lamented the popular promotion of growth as
progress. Rather, he saw the uncontrolled growth (for growth's sake) as a
cancer devouring our natural and social capital. He had seen firsthand
this path of progress and, to him, it led us away from our foremost
priority of learning to live in harmony with the natural world. As David
liked to remind us "We (human beings) are the result of 4.5 billion years
of successful evolution, we are here because during that time there were no
mistakes." To some David was irrational or over emotional in his pleas,
but David often defended his position by claiming "as a sophomore drop-out
they never had the chance to teach me what wasn't possible.

In an old growth forest the oldest trees grow furthest apart, standing
alone against the elements. When one of these giants falls sunlight pours
through the hole in the canopy illuminating the forest floor. Latent
seeds, new growth and us young seedling instinctively follow our own
journey toward the sky. In his rest, from his myriad cones and perpetually
sage advice, David's life will nourish ours and the lives of all those who
follow.

Davis Ross Brower 1912- 2000

*written by


Christopher Franklin
130 Oakhurst Rd.
Cape Elizabeth ME 04107

207-799-0213

November 2000