Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
a brief review
Encounters with the Archdruid is a 1971 John McPhee work of nonfiction in which McPhee manufactures reasons to put former Sierra Club President and renowned conservationist Dave Brower on a mountain, on an island, and in a rubber raft barreling down the Colorado River with men of mining and commerce and much more intrusive approaches to environmental intervention than Brower prefers to tolerate. In each trip we see Brower and the other man do battle, and in each, Brower seems to concede the dignity, honesty, and honor of his adversary much easier than he concedes any points in their arguments.
I first encountered McPhee in a senior seminar on the personal essay taught by Ken Smith at IUSB in 2003. I can see now, probably more clearly after 18 years of experience teaching high school senior English, why Ken had such marked praise for McPhee’s abilities. The sage comment that sticks from that time goes something like, “he seems to keep himself completely out of the picture, but if you’re really paying attention to the writing, he’s everywhere.”
McPhee stops short of prescribing what to think of the reality he shapes through detail selection, observation, and turn of phrase, but there is no doubt the writing is no mere transcript. It’s an active attempt to creatively define the tension of the encounters in a style more personable than a Hollywood thriller but that no less aptly demands our attention.
This is a book that shows us how important both selection of detail and artful arrangement of those details impact the telling of a person’s life. In the end, I find myself mourning for Brower, who seems much more human at the end of the story than the towering demigod of conservation McPhee presents to us as the book begins.