Kenneth Brower

Writing For Wilderness

Recorded: September 7, 2014

Ken tells the story of how he started his career to become one of the foremost environmental writers today.  As the eldest son of environmentalist, David Brower, Ken developed an early love of wilderness and was able to convey his thoughts eloquently in writing. In this video, Ken talks about his writing, some ideas concerning wilderness, and reminisces about his famous father. Among Ken's published environmental works are two very unique biographies: one about the scientist Freeman Dyson and his son, George (The Starship and the Canoe) and the other, a biography of his father (The Wildness Within), which kicked off a one-year celebration of David Brower's 100th birthday.  

Ken Brower is a well-known environmental writer and is known for his many books about wilderness and parks. One of his most famous books, Yosemite, is found in over 1,200 WorldCat libraries. He is also known for being the author of The Starship and the Canoe, a true story about the lives of the scientist father and his son, respectively, Freeman and George Dyson. Ken, the son of environmentalist David Brower, was a gifted writer from a young age and his father encouraged him to write and edit many Sierra Club Books. These books helped raise public awareness about the destruction of various wild places, they brought a rapidly increasing flood of new members to the Sierra Club and to the environmental movement in general, besides reinventing the photography book and helping to establish color landscape photography as a fine art. His latest book, published in 2013 is called Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake.

Huey Johnson:   Ken Brower, welcome.

Ken Brower:   Thank you.

Huey Johnson: Good to see you again. Tell me about your — how you started to be a writer and editor.

Ken Brower:   At the end of my freshman year at Cal, my dad had a book he was doing on the Big Sur Coast that a poet was putting together and the poet didn’t do a good job. So at the end of my freshman year, my father said, “Well why don’t you try this?” you know. So I did this book. I took 6 months off and for my father, edited the book putting Robinson Jeffers quotes with the photographs of the Big Sur Coast. I lived down at Ansel Adams house for a couple weeks. Ansel was an old family friend and colleague of my father’s, so I would go out into the Big Sur countryside from Ansel’s house and collect pictures and bring them back to Ansel’s house and show them to Ansel. And one of my great experiences then was watching him crop them. They were photographs from really great photographers on the coast, the Weston’s and people like that, and Ansel would improve them. And I still remember looking over his shoulder and watching him just with pieces of paper, frame them up, a little off this edge, a little off that edge, and all of the sudden, bing! Suddenly there’s the inevitable image because he was such a composer. And so anyway, that’s how I started, and I did this book and it became one of the best sellers. I found I could do it.

Huey Johnson:   Something that I admire in your work is your love of wilderness. How is wilderness surviving?

Ken Brower:   I am worried that we are losing the idea. It was always a hard sell, this idea, well just leaving this land alone for the American approach to life, that wasn’t the way we did it. We exploited, and this was for us to make products out of. And so I’m aware of what a hard sell it was in the beginning. I think we need to sell it over again.

Ken Brower:   One of the basic ideas behind the Wilderness Act was this recognition that natural systems manage themselves better than we do. And there was a sense in the ‘60s, ‘70s, of a history of how badly we managed every time we try to improve on nature, every single time. I think the sense that we can’t do this well is being lost, and I think there’s a rebirth of the idea lately in technological fixes.

Ken Brower:   One of the things I think that’s really important is this attack on the idea of wilderness. I actually think this school of academics who are sort of questioning the wilderness idea, Bill Cronin and J. Baird Callicott — people like this — this idea that they’ve advanced is that wilderness is just a construct, it’s a fantasy, it’s – Indians didn’t have the name wilderness. It’s an introduction from Europe and it’s elitist, only rich people can go in the back country. It’s misanthropic because it sets up this man versus nature dichotomy — that wilderness is just something we project on these places. These places have all been used by humans, there’s no such thing as pristine, and it’s nonsense. Anybody who’s been in wilderness knows it’s the opposite of a dream. This is a dream, skyscrapers and traffic, and all these things. The thing I come away from wilderness always is: this is the real thing. I’m touching something universal that’s been here for a long time. It’s not a fad, this is real. And we’re told by the wilderness deniers, the deconstructionists, that wilderness deconstructionists Foreman calls them, we’re told that we’re just imagining all of this. But anybody who’s been there knows, this is real. Yes, the Indians were here. Yes, they burned some meadows, but don’t try to compare that to what industrial civilization has done to the planet.

Huey Johnson:   Boy, that’s right. I would argue that the issue of creative conflict, of purposely asking for the impossible dream; that you want a new wilderness, you want to expand it, you go after it even if there’s a chance that you’re going to lose because in the conflict, in the discussion, in the interviews, in the press stories, that is where you educate the public.

Ken Brower:   This idea of risking, of taking, of taking on city hall, it’s always been a problem in the Environmental Movement. People say, “Oh you can’t. How can we fight the Bureau of Reclamation?” And for example, they want to build this dam in the Grand Canyon, well they’re our government, we can’t beat them. This is what my — what was my father’s specialty was — to say, “Yes we can. We can fight city hall.” But this is the big thing people have to get over, oh my god, the forces are already against me. They forget all the examples of the people who have succeeded at fighting city hall.

Huey Johnson:   You’ve had an unusual opportunity to meet a lot of people that the rest of us didn’t meet because of your father’s connections. Who did you remember meeting? And what books were particularly instrumental in inspiring you in your career?

Ken Brower:   I backpacked once with Justice Douglas in the Devil’s Post Pile in the Sierra when I was about 14, and he was a great — he was a great wilderness advocate, a Civil Rights advocate too, of course. He was one of our great liberal justices. He had a wonderful quote about a Bill of Rights and humans having a right to this; he said, “A right to know what sphagnum moss is like, a right to bare your face in cold water in the morning in the mountains.” There are many others, Wallace Stegner was a family friend, and Stegner wrote really one of the best appreciations of the wilderness idea that we’ve ever had, this famous wilderness letter, and this idea of geography and hope. These wild places have value to us even if we only drive to the edge and look in. So those are the people. And the books, it’s like the four legs to the stool. One’s, one is Sand County [Almanac]. One is Walden. One is Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and I think the other would be Man and Nature by George Perkins Marsh, which was way back. But first, nobody knows anymore, but sort of set out these ideas of what we had done to the world. Marsh went back to Greece and these other places where they had that experience that we’re having now, where they used it all up and they cut down all the forests, and it all fell apart. That’s what we need to retell for people who think that human intervention in nature isn’t almost always a bad thing because the history is that it’s a bad thing and it goes way back to the beginning of history.

Huey Johnson:   It’s kind of fascinating, the father and son relationship. The fame of your father is unprecedented in the Environmental Movement, and it would be awfully hard to be courageous enough to start out in a similar direction, but you know it’s worked. And your father, literally for many, as being forgotten, and your books are just being recognized. In a sense of history, the advantage of being an author is, in the end, you win.

Ken Brower:   It’s interesting.

Huey Johnson:   They’re some great books.

Ken Brower:   Thank you.

Ken Brower:   It’s interesting, I looked at my father’s career, I knew I wasn’t going to be as good an activist as he was. He was really a one of a kind and had a – So I didn’t, he signed me up in his movement but I didn’t see myself as an activist, but I did see that this writing would be a way to further the cause without trying to be him again. His set of skills, he was a very, very high IQ, totally driven man, humorous man, so he could leaven some of this grim stuff we’ve been talking about. It was a mix of skills that nobody else had, but I could write, so I thought this was a way I could do it. And it’s a question I often got asked in my career, did you feel in your father’s shadow? And you know, I never did.

Huey Johnson:   That’s wonderful.

Ken Brower:   And I think it was partly because I thought I saw route for me to go, and also it has something to do with him. For one thing, he was a tremendous fan of my writing, and in fact to the point it was worthless. He was worthless as a critic because he liked everything I did, but it was great. It’s great to have that kind of encouragement from your old man. When you’re young, you take your parents for granted. Its funny, after his death he continued to grow for me and I’d began to see more and more how unusual he was, probably because nobody else came up to fill the void. But that particular brand of eloquence, total passion, lack of compromise with the enemy, it’s a rare package and yeah, I miss him a lot.