Berkeley honors David Brower’s environmental legacy

Kenneth Brower at Yosemite: with his sister Barbara, and others, he has put together a year-long celebration of the life of his father, David Brower, widely considered to be one of the greatest environmental activists of his time

When Kenneth Brower was finishing up his freshman year at UC Berkeley, his father – the famed environmentalist David Brower – recruited him to work on a project: a book featuring stunning photos of the Big Sur coast entwined with the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

Never mind that Kenneth Brower, born and raised in the hills of Berkeley, was still in his teens. Never mind he had never edited anything before. The younger Brower moved into the home of famed photographer Ansel Adams in Carmel and started to make forays into the studios of other celebrated photographers.

The result was Not Man Apart and when it was published in 1965 it became one of the most popular of the large-format nature coffee table books that the elder Brower produced. Kenneth Brower went to work on or edit 14 books in the series, including one on the Galapagos Islands during his sophomore year at Cal, before launching his own career as a noted nonfiction writer.

2012 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of David Brower, widely considered to be one of the greatest environmental activists of his time, and second only to John Muir in calling attention to the critical need to preserve America’s wilderness areas.


David Brower. Photo by G. Paul Bishop 1978

To commemorate David Brower’s legacy, Kenneth Brower and his sister Barbara, and many of the organizations that Brower founded, have put together a year-long celebration of the environmentalist’s life. The commemoration kicked off May 17 with the opening of a stunning wilderness photography show, Thinking Like A River: Art, Advocacy, and the Legacy of David Brower, co-curated by Kenneth and Barbara Brower and now on display at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. The show features many of the covers of Brower’s large-format nature books, as well as deep-sea photos by Bill Curtsinger and landscape photos by Joseph Holmes.

“We’ve shown artists ranging from Sebastio Salgado to Amy Franceschini here in the gallery,” said Amy Tobin, executive director of the David Brower Center. “This exhibition is a chance for us to look back at the man who inspired so many others to use art for advocacy.  In a world driven increasingly by images and viewed through short attention spans, we cannot underestimate the impact of Brower’s legacy. It’s one thing to hear a story about clear-cutting rainforests or a toxic dump in your neighborhood. It’s another thing to see it, to feel it.”

A photo by Bill Curtsinger currently on display at the David Brower Center

Kenneth Brower has also written a book that takes a look at his father’s legacy, and the book launch is tonight, June 14, from 6 to 8 pm at the Brower Center. The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower, which was published by Berkeley’s Heyday Press, features interviews with 19 noted environmentalists and thinkers who reflect on David Brower’s impact on the world.

Kenneth Brower grew up in a house off of Grizzly Peak Boulevard in Berkeley, but spent much of his childhood in the Sierra Nevada and the wilds of the west. From an early age, the Brower home was full of mountaineers, outdoors men, and environmentalists (the Sunday waffle breakfasts were legendary) and the focus on preserving the wilderness intensified after David Brower became the first executive director of the Sierra Club in 1952. Brower transformed the club into a potent political force and successfully fought against the construction of a dam in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, helped pass the Wilderness Act in 1964, and stopped the Bureau of Reclamation from building two dams that would have flooded portions of the Grand Canyon, among other achievements.

Most Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s had never been exposed to the beauty of the wild when Brower, Adams, and Nancy Newhall came up with the idea to turn an Adams’ exhibit, This is the American Earth, into a book in 1960. The idea was to show people in urban America the beauty of the wilderness – and prompt them to take greater responsibility for the land.


This is the American Earth immediately established a new genre: that of the large format nature coffee table book, something that is common in 2012 but was unusual back then.

“People forget this kind of book really didn’t exist,” said Brower. “My father, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall really invented this genre, the large format nature book. There were art books that were oversized but this was a new kind of book and it was kind of brave because nobody thought it could be done. The bookstores used to tell us there was no room for this kind of book. The booksellers didn’t want to have to sell it because they couldn’t display it. It was kind of a pioneering era in that kind of book.”

Brower and the Sierra Club went on to publish dozens of these books. Many observers believe they were largely responsible for bringing in 10,000 members to the organization.

Brower left the Sierra Club in 1969 after battles over financial matters (the large format books were selling well but were losing money) and founded Friends of the Earth. He started the League of Conservation Voters in 1970 and the Earth Island Institute in 1982.

Brower’s relationship with some of the organizations he founded or led was testy, and his son explores this dynamic in The Wildness Within. Brower was often ahead of his boards in his thinking, and this led to frequent clashes, said his son. For example, when Brower sought to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant which was going to be located on an earthquake fault, the board of the Sierra Club said he couldn’t argue about the safety of the plant. Since the Sierra Club was an outdoors group, the board thought Brower should emphasize how it would spoil the scenery.

“He didn’t like authority,” said Kenneth Brower. “He didn’t like being told what to do, and that attitude caused him endless trouble.”


That attitude, in fact, got Brower kicked out of both the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

Brower interviewed numerous people about his father, including Paul Ehrlich, Harold Gilliam, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Randall Hayes, and Nancy Skinner to create a “chorus of different voices, each with a different angle on my father.” He was surprised by what he learned. “It was illuminating,” said Kenneth Brower. “I found out things about him I hadn’t known. I got to spend some time with my father ten years after his death. Not many people get to do that.”

The Brower family, Heyday Books, the Earth Island Institute, UC Berkeley, and the David Brower Center are working together to put on the centennial celebration. Other events include a waffle breakfast and birthday celebration on Sunday July 1, a benefit auction and closing reception for the art show, Thinking Like a River, on Aug. 23, a speaker series in the fall, and more.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.