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The Green Life: Q&A: Kenneth Brower Remembers His Father

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June 21, 2012

Q&A: Kenneth Brower Remembers His Father

David Brower

Kenneth Brower's father, David Brower, is widely regarded as one of the greatest environmental activists of his time. The elder Brower became the first executive director of the Sierra Club in 1952 and he spearheaded many of the Club's famous wilderness campaigns. He also founded several environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earth Island Institute.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the legendary activist's birth, Kenneth Brower put together The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower (Heyday, 2012), a collection of interviews with some of the people whose lives and careers were changed by his father.

Sierra: What was the impetus behind writing The Wildness Within?

Kenneth Brower: I had a couple. One was the idea that this would be a piece of our centennial celebration; it triggered the whole centennial. I also owed Sierra Club a biography of my father. They've been very generous; I’m 8 years too late. The whole biography’s been intimidating, and I haven’t been able to get to it. I thought that this would start the process. I’m hoping to get some raw material together to get the biography going.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of who could tell this kind of story. I could do sequels one, two, three, and four on the people who did cross paths with my father. These just happened to be the ones who came up first. And the challenge was how to limit this, because I really could have gone on for a long time. I didn’t find them repetitious. I found that everyone had their own angle on my father; each person had such a different personality, and had different ways my father started them off with his mentorship.

What is your earliest memory of your father?  


My very first memory is in the Sierra Nevada, on a Sierra Club high trip. I must be five or so. I’m with my mom and dad. There’s very heavy dust on the trail, and I’m leading the way, churning up as much dust as I can like a little locomotive. My father tells me once not to do it. And I keep doing it. And then he tells me sort of firmly, “Stop kicking up dust.” He was not an authoritarian father so this kind of thing sank in with me. He seldom was harsh in what he said. 

I also remember trying to keep up with him on the trail. He’d been a multiple-peak guy and he could really do it down the trail. Everyone of his generation said nobody could keep up with him. And I remember with my little legs trying to keep up. He kept forgetting he had little boys with him. I also remember climbing lessons with him. He was a great teacher; he was very patient. He would talk you down in a calm way if you, at age seven or eight, got stuck up on a rock.

Is there a memory of your father on these trips that really stands out?

I wrote a bit about it in the foreword — my father at campfires. I think this was my first glimpse of what made him stand out. I remember watching the audience as they watched, as they listened to him and realizing: “He’s just got these people in the palm of his hand.” For the first time, I sensed his way with words and the power of his presentation. And everyone in that circle of the campfire was moved by what he said. 

Do you think these experiences are what inspired you to get involved in the environmental movement?

I'm an environmental writer; I write about the natural world, and that's very much a consequence of those early trips and his influence. My father had a very complete philosophy. It was two things: this bundle of concepts that were involved in going into the wilderness, and the experience itself. Any parent can do this. You don’t have to do any more than lead your child down the trail and that’s 70 percent of what you’re contributing. In my father’s case, it was the additional 30 percent of why we’re doing this, what this means in the larger pictures, why having enjoyed these mountains we now need to reciprocate and preserve them. 

How did your perception of your father change over the years?

I was always impressed by father. I never had the rebellious period that a kid is supposed to have. A little bit. You know, when I was growing up, a college student in Berkeley where everyone was sort of radical. I had a real radical and revolutionary in my family. I wasn’t called to the imitation kind. So I was almost always impressed. When we worked together on the Sierra Club books we would have run-ins occasionally, but not much.

What were some of the things you disagreed about?

It’s silly. I remember the very first book we did on the Big Sur coast. He put an aerial photograph by William Barnett in upside down, and I said “Dad, that’s upside down.” And he said “No, it’s not. It doesn’t really matter because it’s aerial.” Barnett later said “You got my picture upside down!” So I was right. But we actually worked pretty smoothly together. Odd for a father and son. But you know, no big explosions.

What would your father think of the environmental movement and Sierra Club today?

Sierra Club was the love of his life. He grew up in the Sierra Club; he was formed by it and formed it to a large extent. He’d be pleased at the size of it, because it’s certainly bigger. In '52, the movement as we know it just didn’t exist. The nonprofit activist just wasn’t around really, except for a handful. So he’d be very pleased at that.

I think he would be unhappy at the type of institutional inertia that develops with success. I think this happened throughout the movement; it's almost inevitable. They need an MBA to run the finances, and then he becomes some leader of the organization, and the organization begins to drift away from the type of movement that was driven by fire-in-the-belly activist people. I know when he came back to the Sierra Club he got awfully discouraged as a board member by how much process there was at all levels. The movement in his days was much quicker on its feet and less encumbered by that. So he’d quit, then run again. This happened several times. It was like a marriage; it was rocky but mostly good. It’s an outfit with the longest tradition of any activist outfits and a great history to be part of for sure. 

Describe what you feel is your father’s greatest accomplishment.

Stack o Books DRBI suggest it in the book. On one hand, organization building, which seemed like a big legacy. The other thing he did with the Sierra Club was advance this whole genre of books, a large exhibit format book that didn’t exist before This is the American Earth was published. It was just a new idea. Publishers kept telling them, “We can’t display this book. We don’t have shelves for it.” But they wrote the books anyways.

But I really think it was more one-on-one, one-on-three, one-on-auditorium. He would do his sermon; he would evangelize. He would do this at colleges, and it was very typical for him to talk to a college audience in the evening, and then close bars with those students at night. Nobody could stay up with him drinking. Many of these college students became leaders in the environmental movement. They came down after these speeches in the auditorium, gathered round the podium, and said, "Sign me up in your movement." He was so persuasive on this need for young people to do this, to step up and guarantee their own futures.

What advice do you think he'd give to young people today?

First he would listen to them and appreciate their ideas. Then, whatever the idea was, he'd tell them, “You have to do it, you have to take the ball and run with it. Your future and the future of this planet depend on you doing your part to get us out of this mess, to fight for wilderness and fight for clean environment."

He got a lot of people coming into the Sierra Club wanting to work. Obviously he couldn't take all of them, so he'd tell them, "What you have to do is go back to whatever business you’re in, whether you’re a lawyer or an economist. You have to go back and be the best green lawyer you can be. Within whatever discipline you’re in, you need to mainstream the ideas of this movement. Because business runs the world, and unless business mainstreams these ideas, the movement is lost. These ideas have to become universal if we’re going to make it. Just keep doing what you’re doing."

--interview by Laura Hayden/photos courtesy of Earth Island Institute

LauraLaura Hayden is an editorial intern at SIERRA Magazine. She is a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College, where she is pursuing a major in Environmental Studies, and a minor in Journalism. She has a passion for all things pertaining to growing (and eating) food, and renewable energy.


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