Anything you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

— Goethe, as quoted frequently by David Brower


There’s an old saying that if your ideas prove to be a hundred years ahead of your time, you’ll be called a genius; if you’re fifty years ahead of your time, you’ll be called a visionary; but if you’re only five or ten years ahead of your time, you’ll most likely be called a pain in the ass. I used to think this saying alluded to the inability of human beings to appreciate greatness when it appeared in their midst. Lately, though, I’ve come to recognize the shadow side of this wry wisdom: that the great people in our midst often are pains in the ass, and not merely because they are great and the rest of us are not.

I was reflecting on this observation after attending a memorial service for the late — and undeniably great — environmental crusader David Brower, who died on November 5, 2000, not long after engaging in his last political act: casting an absentee vote for Ralph Nader in the presidential election. The fact that his memorial service took place just a few blocks from my home is a testament to Brower’s influence on my life: I moved to Berkeley, California, where Brower lived all his eighty-eight years, because I wanted to follow the trail of environmental activism he had blazed.

As executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969, Brower almost singlehandedly turned a quiet hikers’ organization of a few thousand members into a potent environmental lobby with seventy-seven thousand in its ranks. He played a significant role in keeping dams out of Dinosaur National Monument, the Yukon, and the Grand Canyon, designing aggressive media campaigns with such provocative slogans as “Would we flood the Sistine Chapel just to get a better look at the ceiling?” Brower, or the organizations he founded, had a hand in virtually all the environmental legislative campaigns of the late twentieth century, resulting in wildlife- and forest-preservation victories from Alaska to Cape Cod, but especially in the West. His moral influence derived, in part, from the fact that his political defense of the wilderness was founded on his personal passion for undiluted nature. A legendary outdoorsman in his youth, Brower made seventy first ascents of mountains in the western United States, including a 1939 climb to the summit of New Mexico’s Shiprock, previously thought unreachable.

Although the environmental movement has never been symbolized by a single figure in the way that Ralph Nader personifies consumer protection, or Gloria Steinem signifies feminism, or Martin Luther King Jr. represented civil rights, Brower was at least as influential in his own realm.

As a young man, I was a faithful, even worshipful, reader of an environmental journal called Not Man Apart, then published in San Francisco under the auspices of Friends of the Earth. That organization, which is now based in Washington, D.C., and encompasses sixty-eight international branches, was then a small but vociferous environmental lobby founded by Brower after he had been ousted from leadership of the Sierra Club for having tried to take it down a more radical path than its board of directors was willing to follow. (The directors of Friends of the Earth would later oust Brower for very similar reasons — after which he would found yet another activist environmental group, the Earth Island Institute.)

As I said, I ended up living in the San Francisco Bay Area largely because of Brower; I had a burning desire to become a crusading environmental journalist in the style of the writers at Not Man Apart. When I was first published in that journal, soon after joining its staff as an intern, I felt as if I had scaled an impossible peak and had nowhere left to go as a writer. Though I seldom encountered Brower in person, it was under his indirect tutelage that I learned not only a certain political perspective and journalistic style, but also the elegant graphic-design aesthetic that characterized his Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth books.

That Brower directly and dramatically influenced many more lives than my own was evidenced by the audience of hundreds at his memorial service, as well as by the parade of speakers from all branches of the modern environmental movement. In one of the most revealing tributes, Brower’s son Kenneth recalled growing up in a family where “every dinner conversation was turned to the subject of wildlife preservation within five minutes,” and where he found it difficult to rebel against a rabble-rousing father. “Like every Berkeley kid, I wanted to rebel and be a good radical,” he said. “But who could be more radical than Dave Brower?” Recalling how the elder Brower had been characterized by writer John McPhee as the “archdruid” of the environmental movement, the younger Brower said this metaphorical title had made him realize that his father had founded not just a political movement, but a religion. “It was the only religion my family had,” Kenneth commented wryly, “and it was all we needed.”

Walking home from the memorial service, I realized yet another profound influence the archdruid had had on my own life. Though it was David Brower who had shone a light down my own path into environmentalism, it was also he who had inadvertently steered me away from the kind of religious zeal that characterized his life. He achieved the latter in one memorable weekend, the only time I worked closely with him — and he did it by being a real pain in the ass.

It was David Brower . . . who had inadvertently steered me away from the kind of religious zeal that characterized his life. He achieved the latter in one memorable weekend . . . and he did it by being a real pain in the ass.

A few years after completing my six-month internship at Friends of the Earth, I was barely making a living as a freelance typesetter and occasionally published writer. In those predigital days of the late seventies, I rented phototypesetting equipment at night and on the weekends from a Berkeley shop that kept normal office hours. Part of my agreement with the shop owner was that my nighttime business would never spill over into her daytime operations; she didn’t want to be saddled in the morning with last-minute corrections to my jobs from the night before, nor did she want to deal with my clients. This latter consideration was especially important, as I had carved out a clientele mostly by taking on designers who had proved too technically demanding or emotionally difficult for the shop’s daytime staff to handle.

One Friday evening, I received a phone call from a Friends of the Earth editor who was helping Brower prepare a brochure to be handed out at an international environmental conference a couple of weeks later. Sounding exasperated, the editor told me that the piece had already been through several rewrites at Brower’s behest. Now the project was seriously behind schedule, necessitating some emergency production work over the weekend. Several times over the previous few years, I had contributed my typesetting skills for Friends of the Earth projects; could I do it again? Sure, I said. It was then that the editor announced that he was totally exhausted and had to get some rest, so he would simply turn the project over to me and let me deal with Brower directly.

I felt like a lowly secretary toiling away in the depths of the Vatican who’d just been told that the Pope would be stopping by for a little help wrapping up the next papal address. As an intern, I had never gotten more than a glimpse of Brower coming and going from the office, and that distant nearness had only enhanced the glow of power around him. Now this great man personally needed my assistance in preparing an activist broadside! I was under no illusion that I had any qualifications for this brush with greatness, other than happening to be available at the last minute. Nonetheless, I felt honored — and excited that my activist credentials, slightly tarnished by a few years outside the political fray, were about to receive a little polishing.

Or so I thought. As it turned out, my up-close, unmediated encounter with David Brower the person precipitated in me a shocking disillusionment with David Brower the icon, and for a while after that unforgettable weekend, I wanted nothing to do with environmental activism.

From the moment we met at the office to discuss the project, Brower was impersonal, demanding, and seemingly oblivious to such niceties as courtesy or compromise. It was not that he was overtly imperious or superior in any way; I had halfway expected this attitude, seeing as how Brower was an important man forty years my senior. No, what got to me during that Saturday and Sunday was not that Brower treated me like a lesser being, but that he hardly seemed to recognize my existence at all.

As Brower continually rewrote, redesigned, and generally tortured the media project I was helping him complete, it became increasingly clear that he would rather have been doing all the work himself, and that I was simply an unavoidable obstacle getting in the way of his doing it. He changed his mind and overhauled the project every three or four hours — with never so much as an apology nor even an acknowledgment of the problems he was causing me. I soon realized that he was the most unpleasant, difficult client I had ever known.

Yet part of my aggravation surely arose from my own religious devotion to Brower’s cause. Without realizing it, I was treating Brower as more than human — a kind of icon. Had any of my regular clients suddenly turned cold and demanding, I would have asked them what the problem was, or simply told them to cut me a little slack — that is, I would have treated them as ordinary human beings. But in the background of my frustration that weekend was the conviction that helping Brower meant I was helping to save the earth — and resisting or objecting to Brower would have been tantamount to not saving the earth. He never said as much, of course, but his unrelenting urgency and single-minded focus reinforced the feeling, nonetheless. (As one speaker at Brower’s memorial service delicately put it, “He was a leader, not a manager.”)

At any rate, after I handed Brower the final type proofs late on Sunday evening and watched him stride off to his car with nary a word of farewell, I vowed under my breath, “Never again.”

I was sleeping in the next morning when I was awakened by a phone call from the type shop’s owner, who said, with more than a little peevishness in her voice, “Patrick, we have a problem here.”

The problem, of course, was David Brower, who had apparently gone home to read his type proofs and decided that one more rewrite was in order. Before dawn, he had slipped the marked-up proofs under the type shop’s door with a notation that the corrections were needed immediately. The shop owner had naturally put the work aside for me to attend to that evening. When Brower had called the shop midmorning and brusquely inquired as to why his project was not finished yet, he and the shop owner had gotten into a tiff. Now she was calling me with the very clear suggestion that I get the great environmentalist out of her life, and soon.

By the time I resumed the project on Monday evening, my disappointment and disillusionment with David Brower had turned into a seething, unexpressed anger. At this point, he had actually threatened my livelihood by pissing off the person who made my business possible, and still he seemed oblivious to the human-relations wreckage left in the wake of his finishing a simple conference brochure. I grumbled to myself all the way through the final revisions, particularly since I could see that Brower’s final rewrite was largely unnecessary, serving little but his neurotic perfectionism. (Being a neurotic perfectionist myself, I readily recognized the handiwork.) Mercifully, that revision was the last I saw of the project, because it absolutely had to be on the press by Tuesday morning if it was to be printed and reach its intended audience (which it did). That Monday night was also the last time I ever spoke to David Brower.


From a distance of twenty-odd years, I can look back on this incident affectionately and even see it as a kind of inadvertent wisdom teaching. By rubbing the wrong way against a powerful elder with whom I had more in common than I realized at the time, I eventually learned to be less like him. In the coming years, I would confront in myself some of the excesses that I saw in David Brower’s character that weekend: an obsessive focus on short-term goals in the name of a higher purpose; a lack of appreciation for the people who care for and help me; and an uncompromising devotion to doing things exactly the way I want them done — regardless of expense, difficulty, or the intruding voices of compromise.

Although I’m certain that I’m now easier to live with because I’ve recognized these tendencies in myself, it’s also true that I am less zealous about some political goals and ideals than I was in my youth. But perhaps I was never as zealous about anything as David Brower was about preserving the wild. To this day, I find myself wondering whether we have a right to expect our greatest leaders and most constructive zealots to be nice people; perhaps the same forcefulness that accomplishes great goals necessarily runs roughshod over people of lesser vision and greater politeness.

In her memorial tribute, environmental author Stephanie Mills joked that there should be a bumper sticker for Berkeleyans that says, HONK IF YOU’VE OUSTED BROWER — an allusion to the fact that some of Brower’s most storied conflicts were not with land-hungry developers and probusiness Republicans, but with his allies and former lieutenants in the environmental movement. Would Brower have been even more effective had he learned the arts of compromise and cooperation — at least with his allies, if not with his enemies? Or would the force of his nature, and thus the height of his monumental achievements, have been reduced had he frequently paused to consider whether he was hurting people’s feelings?

I don’t raise these questions to dilute Brower’s legacy. Rather, I hope they will give us cause to reflect on the dilemmas that can arise in the hazy middle ground between personal politics and social movements. Whenever we are tempted to conclude that a greatly influential person in our midst is just a pain in the ass, we might do well to remember what was said of David Brower by Russell Train, the politically moderate director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon: “Thank God for Dave Brower; he makes it so easy for the rest of us to look reasonable.”