Book Review: Two Recommended Reads for the Passionate Conservationist

Nola Peshkin, Staff Writer

If you’re someone who builds at least a little of their identity around outdoor recreation and the places you visit as part of that, it’s likely you have personal feelings attached to the conversation surrounding the preservation of wild areas. Whether you’re an ecosystem geek or just out to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors, these books will inspire you to protect the land you use for recreation and ask you to see the ways that land use arguments are multi-faceted. With two of the greatest environmental writers of our time at the helm, the choice to read either book is guaranteed to be rewarding.


Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

If there is one book that I fervently recommend to everyone I meet, even in casual conversation with total strangers, it’s this one. John McPhee is the godfather of creative nonfiction and has created a masterpiece with this set of three connected narratives. Written in 1980, this book is still wholly relevant and entirely perspective-changing. David Brower was a powerhouse environmentalist, longtime president of the Sierra Club, and well-known for his role in preventing notable dam developments, among the rest of a resume far too long to list here. McPhee takes Brower into the outdoors in the company of three of his largest ideological opponents: a mineral engineer, a real estate developer and dam proponent Floyd Dominy. Among mountains, rivers and islands, these four men debate their views on environmental preservation and use while McPhee documents their candid conversations. This may seem like a setup for a binary view of how humans treat landscapes, but McPhee beautifully reveals the nuances of both sides and the spaces between. While we should indeed realize and appreciate the inherent value of the land, we must also notice and accept our own reliance on its resources and the consequences of that reliance. Additionally, McPhee wraps these narratives up under the umbrella of one of the most enduring personal portraits of Brower, giving readers insight into just how much of a zealot he was in terms of environmental preservation. Brower was an extremist in his fight for the land — the “archdruid,” as McPhee dubs him — and a controversial figure, even within pro-conservation circles. This book is perhaps one of the greatest exercises in empathy for those on any side of the conservation debate.


The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

In true Terry Tempest Williams fashion, this book is a declaration of love to the land; a poetic portrait of landscape; a political statement against oil, gas and climate change; and a vessel for connection between readers and the physical places within the words. Williams wrote this collection of essays in honor of the National Park Service centennial, exploring the unique position of America’s national parks at the intersection between wild earth and industrial humanity. Each of the twelve essays focuses on one park and uses a mix of letters, records of conversations, stories and even poems to illustrate their complex histories and to explore what nature and its preservation mean to us. Some pieces focus on exploring the consequences of modern human impact on the environment and the threat we pose to its well-being. Others pieces ask us about our relationships to the land, delving into the deep emotions we hold for places so extraordinary in their beauty and meaning. There are over 300 million national park visitors each year, and even those who have never visited feel an undeniable tug at their heartstrings while reading this work. From Acadia to Canyonlands, it’s hard to come away from this book without a greater understanding of one’s own relationship to nature, the hand that industry-seeking human powers have had in curating these sites of preservation, and why we must set aside select areas for that purpose.