Saturday, December 17, 2011

McPhee --> Brower --> Dominy

In The New Yorker of November 14, 2011, John McPhee, reflecting on his writing life, structures a "Progression" that takes off from the pieces he wrote using David Brower as a common denominator, Encounters with the Archdruid.

For me, the most memorable of the three encounters is, of course, the raft trip Brower, McPhee, and Archdambuilder Floyd Dominy took through the Grand Canyon. (Although the line I remember best comes from the hike into the North Cascades, when rain led Brower to the reassurance: "Clothes'll dry; skin's waterproof.") Dominy was Commissioner of Reclamation in the 1960's and building a Grand Canyon dam would have been his triumph. 

In this article, McPhee uses up a column encapsulating Dominy, including a long quote where the latter demonized Brower (p.40). What struck me while reading this passage is how it validates my strong and long-held view that people like Dominy -- builder types, construction mavens, hard-headed bull-dozers, engineers full of facts and numbers and blueprints -- are romantics: Dreamers who use their formulas and figures to fill out fantasies of re-making the world in their own images of concrete and steel, dams and developments. Oh, the products they do get to carry through on are solid enough, but what drives them are the visions they have -- the gleam of the tower, the sweep of the damfront, the endless spread of the house-and-lot. They see a landscape and fantasize smashing it with their gigantic thumbprints pressed into the Earth. They pretend they deal with the "real world", and yet all their hard facts are just selected out and shaped to give color and shape to their dizzy imaginings. They convince themselves they have their feet on the ground and everybody else's head is in the clouds. 

And so they end up like Dominy in McPhee's quote, saying "because (Brower)'s so God-damned ridiculous(,) I can't even reason with the man." When Dominy said "Brower hates my guts", he was projecting his own anger and frustration at his dream being thwarted. He put his dam fantasy for the Canyon up against Brower's vision of a natural Canyon, and he lost. No wonder Brower reminds him of a steer he owned, "an independent bastard" that he shot "right in the head", as "the only way I could get rid of the bastard". 

It was a pleasure to defeat him and his dam dream.

And he was wrong, anyway, about Brower hating his stuffing. Brower was not a hater nor a prophet full of "Pentateuchal" anger. What drove him was love, of the land and of people. He did not rage and rant; he reached out and inspired. He dreamed and spoke out so that lots of people could know they shared that dream, and that it was worth working for. Who could be surprised that he gave Dominy's ilk hissy fits?

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