A Mountain

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"A Mountain"

Book excerpt

By: John McPhee

Date: 1988

Source: McPhee, John. "A Mountain." Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

About the Author: American author John McPhee (1931–) has written more than twenty nonfiction books, many of them notable contributions about humans and their interaction with the environment, since 1965. A native of Princeton, New Jersey, he attended both Princeton University and Cambridge University before embarking on a career in journalism with Time magazine. Two of his books, Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy, were nominated for National Book Awards. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977 and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World, his collected writings about geologists and their work.


Encounters with the Archdruid consists of chapters describing three trips that author John McPhee took with former Sierra Club executive director David Brower (1912–2000), perhaps the leading conservationist of his time, and men who he described as Brower's natural enemies: mining geologist Charles Park (1903–1990), land developer Charles Fraser (1929–2002), and dam builder Floyd Dominy (1909–). Each of the trips was to a location chosen to provoke discussion on salient environmental issues. Reference to the "archdruid" was drawn from a comment by Hilton Head Island developer Fraser, who considered all conservationists to be modern-day druids who were, in his opinion, followers of a religion that worships trees and sacrifices people. Brower, as an outspoken conservationist, was implied to be the archdruid.

In his book, McPhee gives an account of a backpacking trip into the Glacier Peak Wilderness of northern Washington with Brower, Park, and two medical students. A company had filed a mining claim before federal declaration of the wilderness area, which would have allowed it to take ownership of the land and operate a copper mine in the midst of an otherwise undeveloped area renowned for its scenic beauty. The dialogue between Brower and Park revolves around the competing needs to preserve wild areas and provide the metals, fuels, and other resources needed to maintain a comfortable and prosperous lifestyle.


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The controversy that motivated the Glacier Peak Wilderness trip was rooted in the American Mining Law of 1872, which has stood without major modification for more than a century. The law recognizes that rich mineral deposits are extremely rare and assumes that the production of so-called hard rock minerals such as copper, gold, and molybdenum is in the public and national interest. Coal, petroleum, and commodities such as gypsum and gravel do not fall under the Mining Law of 1872. Companies or individuals who discover a mineral deposit on public land in the United States are allowed to file claims under the law and, if subsequent exploration and analysis shows that the deposit can be mined at a profit by a prudent person, patent the claim in much the same way that an inventor patents an original idea. Once the claim is patented, the land can be purchased from the government for a few dollars per acre.

Opponents of the law object to the fact that a private company can take permanent ownership of public land for a price well below its market value. Once ownership is transferred, moreover, no royalties on mineral production must be paid to the public treasury and the land does not even have to be used for mining. In contrast, coal, petroleum, and so-called industrial minerals such as potash are leased. Companies must pay royalties on their production and never take ownership of the land being mined. Proponents of the law argue that mineral production in necessary to maintain a healthy and comfortable standard of living, that hard rock mineral deposits are so rare that they must be given special consideration, and that companies would not spend millions of dollars to explore for and mine mineral deposits without the possibility of substantial economic returns on their risk.

Encounters with the Archdruid is significant for at least two reasons. First, the book provides a readable and insightful account of thinking during the late 1960s, when the environmental movement was just beginning to take an important place in the public conscience. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, while Encounters with the Archdruid was being written. Recycling was a novel concept, ecology was a word just beginning to be heard in everyday conversation, and concerns about energy supplies arising from the Arab oil embargo of 1973 were unimaginable to most people. Decades of ensuing discourse about issues such as petroleum exploration in pristine wildlife refuges and mining on public lands in the western United States have been framed using the same vocabulary that McPhee documented in his essays. Second, McPhee writes as a disinterested journalist whose neutral voice does not unduly influence the conversations he is reporting. Both Brower and Park (as well as Dominy and Fraser in other parts of the book) are presented as articulate and thoughtful proponents of diametrically opposed philosophies, neither one being solely a villain or a hero.



Brower, David, and Steve Chapple. Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run: A Call to Those Who Would Save the Earth. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

Park, Charles F. Affluence in Jeopardy. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper, and Co., 1968.

Web sites

U.S. Geological Survey. "Sustainability and Societal Needs." 〈http://minerals.usgs.gov/sustain.html〉 (accessed February 12, 2006).

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A Mountain

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