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Nature: The Brand

Doug Tompkins, prematurely deceased at age 72 by way of a kayaking accident, leaves a cadre of older conservationists behind, many of whom are still on the front lines of nature protection. Still, his passing sounded the note of an era’s end and a changing of the guard. Old time enviros turned out in good form for Tompkins’ memorial service last week, held at Herbst Pavillion in San Francisco’s Fort Mason. Herbst is usually filled to the rafters with antiques, art work, used books, or racks of clothing for sale and at first I was taken aback by the plushly perfect art direction that transformed the space into a gigantic sun-filled aerie. A large cadre of volunteer attendants in uniform green Patagonia vests dispensed mint and Earl Grey tea with Tcho chocolates, almonds, and orange slices ahead of the proceedings. Banks of unobtrusive catering stations lined the walls and after several hours of testimonials to the life and times of Doug Tompkins, wine and food were served. To about 400 people.

Doug Tompkins took this photo of John Davis and Dave Foreman back in the day. Tompkins’ aesthetic gifts were many.

Is this the right tone? I wondered, taking my seat and scouting the audience for wilderness celebrities – and sighting among them Terry Tempest Williams and Gary Snyder. A wall-sized photograph of the Andes anchored the stage. It was all simple, and not. The place expressed exactly the kind of understated overstatement that is a hallmark of San Francisco today. But what about Tompkins’ message, that protecting nature is our moral imperative? Among many other initiatives Tompkins founded the Foundation for Deep Ecology, building on the philosopher Arne Naess’ conception that nature exists for its own sake beyond its utility for people. It’s not that loving nature need always be equated with bad granola. Believe me I was very happy to have a cup of tea and a good chocolate (or two), but still, the setting induced some cognitive dissonance.

As those close to Tompkins testified, the perfect surroundings began to cohere with their portraits of the man. With his wife Kris, Tompkins protected more than 2 million acres of Argentina and Chile. As she described living remotely and even arduously in the wilds of South America, the picture of a restless and relentless perfectionist emerged. Susie Tompkins Buell, Tompkins’ former wife and co-founder with him of the North Face and Esprit clothing companies, reminded those gathered that before he was a conservationist, “Doug was a capitalist.” Doug and Susie built their brands the way Doug and Kris protected nature – thinking big, and following beauty.

There were many highlights, fine words from fine people, and music. One friend talked amusingly about Tompkins’ fastidious attention to art. For me, however, the most moving depiction of Tompkins came from his daughter Quincy Tompkins Imhoff, who managed to portray her father’s strengths with appreciation and to indicate his failings with depth but not rancor. In Imhoff’s description Tompkins at last sounded like a real person. Imhoff recalled the heady days of growing up with the Esprit brand in full fettle, traveling to its stores all over the world in corporate gangs, with great energy and purpose. “We were a tribe,” she said. Imhoff talked about a period in her life when she wondered about organized religion, not present in her upbringing. It wasn’t until quite recently, she said, that she realized just how much “spirit” she had been raised with. “Espirit de Corps” suddenly meant something bigger than a line of youthful clothing.

Doug Tompkins eventually shifted his retail ardor to the natural world but he couldn’t have done the enormous things he did without big capital. He wanted man-made things to be beautiful and available to a lot of people. He wanted natural beauty to remain so and also available to a lot of people. But we’re all still stuck with the problem of how to protect more nature without depleting big swaths of it to finance the project. Somewhere in all this there lurks a potential to tap brilliant branding to promote saving nature so that it’s as compelling as consuming it. This was my thought as I bit into some sort of smoked cheese potato frittata. The vision is generous, and the food is very, very good. But we’re still eating beauty.

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