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Climbing the Spiral Staircase

March 13, 2013
by Kenneth Brower
An old photograph of children

A son reflects on the home his parents made and the legacy they left behind.

My parents met in 1941 as editors at the University of California Press. To my mother’s annoyance, the press manager assigned my father a desk in her small office. The new hire—a mountain climber, tall, unpolished—irritated her not just by his personality and his invasion of her space, but by his salary. Gender equality was not yet a blip on the radar. (Radar itself, coined just the year before, was not yet a blip on the radar.) My mother had seniority, yet from his first day my father, with his Y chromosome, drew a paycheck nearly equal to hers.

In time she relented. Their conversations grew warmer. My father found he could make her laugh.

It happened one week that Anne Hus, my mother, was struggling with a dull manuscript overloaded with footnotes. David Brower, my father, waited until she was away at lunch and then typed up a page himself and slipped it in. His insert began in the author’s stuffy style, then slowly morphed into parody and finally into ridiculousness, complete with nonsensical footnotes. My mother, pencil in hand, was halfway through the page when she realized her manuscript had been hijacked. The look on her face, and then her laughter—it was a small triumph my father would never forget. There were complications to the stunt, unfortunately: When the author asked for the manuscript back to make some changes, my mother forgot to remove the apocryphal page. The author was not amused.

But it all worked out in the end. As nearly as I can figure, I owe my existence to a slow day at UC Press and a bunch of counterfeit footnotes.

My parents were not a typical university couple, if such a thing exists. My mother was very much of the University of California, having spent 13 years an undergraduate—the period required for her to earn her B.A. in English while working full time at UC, first in the registrar’s office and then at the Press, supporting her family through the Depression. My father was a University escapee. He had entered Berkeley at 16 but dropped out as a sophomore and headed for the mountains. By the time the two met, he was 29, one of the best rock climbers of his generation, and a volunteer Sierra Club activist. Four years earlier, he and Ansel Adams had led the campaign to establish Kings Canyon National Park. It was at the intersection of these two worlds—my mother’s University of California and my father’s University of Vertical Granite—that my three siblings and I grew up.

They were married in 1943 with my father in uniform, and then it was off to war. He departed for the Tenth Mountain Division and camps in Colorado and West Virginia, where he trained troops in mountaineering techniques. My mother departed for the Pentagon and the Historical Division of G-2, where her manuscripts now were blood-flecked, squashed-bug combat journals—gritty primary sources from which she and her colleagues recorded the history of the war as it happened. The message of the bloody combat journals did not elude my mother, and she gave me, her firstborn, my middle name, David, in the event her husband did not come back.

Late in 1944, after a brief emergency leave for my birth, my father shipped out to Italy, where he fought as a lieutenant in the Tenth Mountain across the Po Valley and up into the Alps. In a shallow slit-trench on a knoll in the Apennines, in February 1945, when I was three months old, he heard the whump of a German howitzer and then a tick as the shell passed through the bare winter branches directly overhead. The fuse did not detonate. He watched the rapidly constricting diameter of the shell and then its explosion behind him in a geyser of snow. That was as close as he came. At the end of the war it was back home to UC Press.

Ours was a household full of books, naturally, as the head honchos were both editors. The shelves were unorganized except for the two disparate collections that our parents had brought to the marriage. In my mother’s section were her Milton and Shakespeare, her Boswell’s Life of Johnson, her Steinbeck, her collected poems of Frost and Blake and Donne. My father’s section filled shelves to the right of the fireplace from mantel to ceiling: The Ascent of Nanda Devi, The Ascent of Dhaulagiri, On Snow and Rock by Gaston Rébuffat, several collections by the great alpine mountaineering cartoonist-painter Samivel, and so on. My siblings and I were free to dip into either tradition.

We encountered books not just as finished products, but as half-formed things in the process of becoming. Manuscripts were always lying around, coming back as galley proofs, then as corrected galleys, and finally as bound copies addressed to whichever of our two editors had whipped that particular book into shape.

In 1946, the year my brother Bob was born, my father became the unpaid editor of the Sierra Club Bulletin, and magazine manuscripts were suddenly in the mix. In 1950, the year my sister Barbara was born, my father was asked to lead an expedition to Makalu, fifth-highest peak in the world; with three kids now, he declined. Setting down his piton hammer, he picked up a blue pencil as editor of books such as Going Light with Backpack or Burro and Manual of Ski Mountaineering. In 1952, when the last of us, my brother John, arrived, my father was hired away from UC Press by the Sierra Club to become its first executive director, after which his manuscripts were generated by the expanded book-publishing program he launched at the Club.

I must have absorbed proofreader’s marks by osmosis—much later, on becoming an editor myself, I discovered I knew most of the symbols. In our family we believed in The Chicago Manual of Style, the serial comma, and Webster II over Webster III (prescriptive over descriptive). We avoided the passive voice, of course. When in doubt, we used lowercase. We learned grammar not in a formulaic way, but in the fashion of puppies admonished by rolled-up newspapers learning not to pee in the house.

For me, each of these old lessons is imbued now with the colors of the parent who imparted it—almost a kind of synesthesia. “Over 70,000 acres have burned in the Idaho wildfires,” the television weatherman might intone. “More than 70,000 acres have burned,” I correct him, or rather my mother does, for hers is the voice in my ear. Spelling was more the province of my father. Today when I write liquefy or accommodate or misspell, it is with a subliminal nod to his corrections of my habitual misspellings of those words.

My father, driven by the climber’s urge for the summit, scouted out a site for us on a ridge top in Berkeley and designed our house on an envelope. Early on, our society was rock climbers who gathered at our place on weekends. Among the rank and file were the stars, the innovators—it was in Berkeley that American rock climbing distinguished itself from European. The dynamic belay was invented here. In 1939, on the first ascent of Shiprock in the New Mexico desert, my father and three companions from Berkeley inserted some of the first expansion bolts ever used in American climbing (to considerable guilt and regret afterward—the bolts felt too much like engineering, and they scarred the rock). These pioneering techniques were worked out on the Berkeley climbing rocks, Indian, Cragmont, and the others. On these same local boulders, our father taught his four kids the basics.

Every summer, David Brower led one or more of the Sierra Club’s High Trips, ten-day or two-week outings to the Sierra Nevada, or the Tetons, or the North Cascades. The family went along. It was at evening campfires on these trips, I am convinced, that my father, a shy man, discovered his voice. In his campfire talks he began composing what he would call “The Sermon,” the insights and tenets of which would inform everything he did. The initial idea was this: We have all been enjoying these mountains and experiencing a kind of rebirth in them; it is now our duty to reciprocate, to work hard toward preserving these mountains. At High Sierra campfires, as I watched the circle of fire-reddened faces listening raptly to The Sermon, I realized that this was not just your normal father; that he had a gift, that there was something very large in him.

As our patriarch shifted his emphasis from preserving Sierra wilderness to saving the entire planet, the climbers thinned at our place, replaced by environmentalists. My mother welcomed the change and so did I. Climbers are not famous for their social graces. For the most part, the environmentalists made better conversation.

In 1958, at Ansel Adams’s house in San Francisco, my brother Bob and I, keeping quiet at the edge of a big table littered with black-and-white prints, watched as Adams, Nancy Newhall, and my father put together This Is the American Earth. It was the first volume in what my father would name “the Exhibit Format Series”—oversized Sierra Club books of nature photographs and environmental advocacy. I remember the creative excitement. They were inventing a genre. Six years later, at the end of my freshman year at Berkeley, my father persuaded me to take a sabbatical and edit one of these books, and I found I could do it. In the end, I would edit or write 14 Exhibit Format books for him.

It was also in the late ’50s that John, the youngest sibling, started school, freeing my mother to return to editing. The maternal fork of the manuscript river, gone dry through four maternities, resumed flowing. My mother became an editor for the University’s Department of City and Regional Planning and then for the Department of Anthropology.

All four of us kids had developed, perforce, some sense of what good writing is. That sense was accentuated now by exposure to the opposite, as weekly my mother brought home manuscripts demonstrating the awfulness of most academic writing. One game at our house was to pick out particularly egregious passages and read the impenetrable jargon aloud. Of course, there were also wonderful manuscripts. My mother edited Jane Goodall early in her career with chimpanzees. She edited fine Nelson Graburn work on Eskimos. She edited a chapter by George Schaller, in which that indefatigable field biologist described, in the simplest language, 15 minutes in the life of a gorilla he called Junior. (Now Junior lies on his back. Now he bends a shrub toward him indifferently. Now he strips and eats half the leaves from one branch. Now he loses interest and lets the shrub spring back.)

Fifty years later, I can still see Junior. I can still feel what Schaller, by his close observation and clear language, imparted of the rhythm of gorilla life. My mother’s Anthro connections even provided us with a kind of little sister: Isabella, a Malaysian macaque whose mother refused to defend her against other monkeys in a research compound in Strawberry Canyon. Isabella lived with us for 23 years. When the foster child is a primate, she becomes a member of the family in a way that even the most faithful of canids cannot.

“David dropped out of school before they could teach him what he couldn’t do,” my mother liked to say.

This was astute. My mother loved university life, yet had lived enough of it to know that academic discipline, even as it enlarges the spirit, can sometimes also whittle it down. My father’s three preparatory semesters at Berkeley, followed by finishing school on Sierra granite, proved the perfect curriculum for him: It left him ignorant that he could not be a staff photographer, filmmaker, essayist, ad writer, grassroots organizer, Washington lobbyist, magazine editor, book publisher, itinerant speechmaker, and CEO—all skills that, as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, he needed.

But my mother’s formulation is a little too simple, for in another sense my father never really left the University. In leading the transformation of the Sierra Club into the most powerful conservation organization in the country, and later in creating Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and his other outfits, he recruited his brain trust on campus.

Aldo Starker Leopold, a Berkeley professor of zoology, was an early advisor and ally. So was Starker’s brother, Luna, a UC hydrologist whose expertise helped my old man in his successful campaign against dams in the Grand Canyon. For our family, the Professors Leopold were a direct connection back to their father, Aldo Leopold, the preeminent environmentalist of the first half of 20th century and author of A Sand County Almanac, one of the four holy books of environmentalism. In a pool on Starker’s ranch as a boy, I caught breeding California newts, brown dorsally, and burnt-orange ventrally. From Starker I learned, in a casual aside, that neurotoxins in newt skin will kill the dog that mouths it. (“Eye of newt,” the witches of Macbeth chant above their cauldron. “Skin of newt,” I correct them.)

Other resident eminences who allied with my dad included Dr. Carl Koford, a Berkeley research biologist and the world’s foremost expert on the California condor, and Professor Robert Stebbins, the UC herpetologist and the world’s most gifted scientific illustrator of lizards. In Big Springs Canyon of Tilden Park, Stebbins taught me how to noose Western fence lizards harmlessly. My sister Barbara, under the influence of Stebbins, spent much of her childhood determined to become a herpetologist herself. In Big Sur as a teenager, knowing that she would appreciate it, I employed a crude version of the Stebbins noosing method to catch her a small rattler. I parked the snake in an apple-juice jug on the family mantelpiece and forgot all about it until I heard the alarmed voices of my parents. They made me chauffeur the rattler back down to Big Sur.

Another Berkeley professor, archeologist Robert Heizer, partnered with Theodora Kroeber, author of Ishi in Two Worlds (the best-selling UC Press book of all time), to create Almost Ancestors, the Sierra Club Press’s haunting album of photographic portraits of California Indians, each one the last of his or her tribe. Theodora was a close friend of my mother’s. At our house we called her by her nickname, “Krakie,” and she is representative of a confusion I now suffer. Did Krakie come into our operation from the environmental side or the University side? Did Carl Koford approach my father directly with his condor concerns, or was it through my mother, who had worked with Carl’s wife Kitty at Berkeley? Did Ralph Nader and my father join forces on their own, or was it through Ralph’s sister, UC anthropologist Laura Nader, whose stuff my mother occasionally edited?

Two worlds came together at our house. We formed, I think, according to something like the Colliding Planetesimals Theory by which some astronomers explain the moon. Orbiting debris—the fluted granite of the University’s Doric columns and the unworked granite above timberline—conflated nicely at our place and made the smooth little sphere we had.

The David Brower Center, a four-story office building and convention center at Oxford and Allston Streets in Berkeley, opened its doors three years ago. I serve on the board. Before meetings I usually find a parking place a few blocks north on Oxford and hurry south, a route that takes me past the old University Printing Plant, an abandoned WPA building at Oxford and Center. The façade is blank and null, the windows sightless. It is easy to pass the dead building without seeing it at all, but sometimes, if I am ahead of schedule, I pause at the front door and look in, my nose to the glass.

The atrium is dim. The interior walls are covered in graffiti by vandals and squatters. The one surviving grace note, still almost elegant, is the spiral staircase to the second floor. I vaguely remember climbing that spiral. In my childhood, UC Press had its offices up there. It was on the second floor that my parents met. It was there that my father, at his Royal, typed up that bogus page he slipped into my mother’s manuscript. Back then, in 1941, she had a boyfriend, Paul Gordon, who had given her a tiny wooden duck. Occasionally my father would blast the duck from her desktop into the next office with a rubber band. My mother would laugh. Just before he departed for Officer Candidate School, she sent him a postcard of a railroad crossing light, showing green. He understood. The Paul Gordon problem had been eliminated; the tracks ahead were clear.

The ruin of the old printing plant is sad. This is where my family began. Stopping here was a mistake, I realize; it made me feel old.

But one morning last summer, halfway between the derelict old building and my board meeting a block away, I had a change of heart. Behind me was the ruin. Ahead was the David Brower Center, a LEED Platinum building, rated the greenest of green architecture. The urinals are waterless; the toilets flush with rainwater. More than 50 percent of the materials are recycled. The photovoltaic panels double as sunshades. The convention center downstairs is doing great business, with Berkeley its steadiest client, the caterers laying out their hors d’oeuvres and long-stemmed wine glasses in the lobby almost every night.

The three floors of office space above are 100 percent rented, mostly by environmental and social justice nonprofits. Earth Island Institute, the last outfit founded by my father, and Friends of the Earth, an organization that my father created and my mother named, are both there. Hanging at this very moment in the ground-floor gallery is an exhibit my sister and I co-curated, a celebration of our father’s photo-book publishing. My sister designed the best thing in it, “the Quilt,” she called it, a tall tapestry reproducing the jacket covers from all 30 volumes in his Exhibit Format Series.

Nearing the building, I had my epiphany. The hermit crab! The hermit crab has the right philosophy. The crab is not sentimental. When it grows too large for its shell, it discards it for a larger one. Its hind parts probe backwards up the spiral staircase inside. If the shell feels roomy and right, the crab sets off in its new house down the sands of Oxford Street and it never looks back.

Kenneth Brower’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other magazines. He is also the author of several books, including The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower (2012, Heyday Books). He lives in Berkeley.
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