Earlier this week I spent three nights camping in Yosemite Valley with my parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, and though it rained all three nights, we spent our days hiking to Vernal Falls, taking in the views of El Capitan, and cooling our limbs in Merced River. On my last day I picked up a copy of The Wild Muir in one of the gift shops, and that night, among the light fall of rain, beneath a tarp lit only by one lantern, I read a couple of Muir’s adventures to my eight year old nephew. We laughed at Muir’s childhood “scootchers” or dares that had him hanging by windowsills and smiled at his well-meaning encounter with a bear: “In my first interview with a bear we were frightened and embarrassed, both of us, but the bear’s behavior was better than mine” (43). In the morning, before I packed up my car and hurried back to L.A. to teach an evening class, I asked my nephew for his impressions of Muir and Yosemite and he said, “Within every tree there is a soul that can never be beaten.”
For more on John Muir, here is an article I first published at The Immigration Project on 5/25/11.
Last month I had planned on writing a focus on John Muir in honor of Earth Day on April 22nd and John Muir Day (recognized in California) on April 21st,* but unfortunately, I never got to it. And as I am starting to enjoy the beginnings of the summer break and a respite from teenagers and grading, I thought I would finally get to an Immigration Project Focus On. Such IP focuses have included John Lennon, Dith Pran, and Jacob Riis, and I hope to continue this tradition as a way of celebrating the contributions of immigrants from all parts of the world to our nation’s history and culture.
Muir is a name I have heard of all my life as it is the moniker for high schools, streets, trails, mountains, and campsites. As a Californian, I learned of John Muir’s contributions to our National Parks, namely Yosemite, in the 4th grade when I learned about Spanish Missions, the Gold Rush, and other highlights of California history. The Muir name has always been in my Californian consciousness, (if only in name) and as something that reflects innately American much like the names Wilson, Jefferson, and Franklin. So I was surprised on my visit to Scotland in 2006, to find that Muir was a Scotsman. The Scotch pride seemed to have Muir’s image and name everywhere, even more so than in California, and this is when I learned that John Muir, father of our national parks and co-founder of the Sierra Club, was a Scottish immigrant.
There are too many things to be said about Muir and his contributions, but I will try to give you a few highlights. John Muir was born on April 21, 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland and emigrated to New York by way of Glasgow as a child with his family in 1849. He is known as an early naturalist and conservationist, and believed our natural surroundings were nature’s churches, often describing the peeks and domes of Yosemite as the spires and arches of European cathedrals. Different from other conservationists of his time who believed in conserving natural resources in order to sustain their use for human consumption, Muir believed that natural areas should be preserved and left virtually untouched as spiritual places for rest, worship, and appreciation.
He was a celebrated nature writer who wrote countless articles about the Yosemite, Mount Shasta, Alaska, sequoias, glaciers, etc and was published in such places as Atlantic Monthly, Outlook, New York Tribune, and Harper’s. He had the opportunity to meet another great essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited Yosemite in the twilight of his life, and though Muir wanted to take the writer on a backwoods private camping trip through Yosemite, he declined due to his age and health. Muir was greatly influenced by Emerson’s writings as well Emerson’s contemporary and another great nature writer, Thoreau, and according an article by John Swett, after Emerson met Muir he stated, “He is more wonderful than Thoreau.”
But Emerson was not the most famous person to have visited the mountain man in the Yosemite Valley. That title goes to President Theodore Roosevelt who took a three night, four day trip through Yosemite in 1903. Muir convinced the President to join him on the trip Emerson could not, and after leaving behind his secret service and aids, Roosevelt enjoyed a private hiking and camping excursion through Yosemite where Muir spoke about the importance of preservation and a national park system.
You can read President Roosevelt’s memory of the visit in this Outlook article from January 16, 1915. There is a funny anecdote where Muir inadvertently insults Roosevelt.
Roosevelt on Muir: “He was emphatically a good citizen. Not only are his books delightful, not only is he the author to whom all men turn when they think of the Sierras and northern glaciers, and the giant trees of the California slope, but he was also – what few nature lovers are – a man able to influence contemporary thought and action on the subjects to which he had devoted his life. He was a great factor in influencing the thought of California and the thought of the entire country so as to secure the preservation of those great natural phenomena – wonderful canyons, giant trees, slopes of flower-spangled hillsides – which make California a veritable Garden of the Lord.”
Can you imagine being in the quiet of a sequoia grove with these two giants of history? What a moment that must have been to have these two men bundled by a fire beneath snow sprinkled trees and the wide starry night above their heads. How else, but to bring the President to the source, could Muir have convinced Roosevelt to work for the preservation of natural areas like Yosemite and the expansion of federal parks?
Muir was successful in saving Yosemite from sheep grazing, farming, and other development by helping it become a national park, but unfortunately he was unsuccessful at saving another beautiful natural area, Hetch Hetchy Valley, that Muir believed was Yosemite’s smaller twin: “Most people who visit Yosemite are apt to regard it as an exceptional creation, the only valley of its kind in the world. But nothing in Nature stands alone. She is not so poor as to have only one of anything.” Unfortunately, Hetch Hetchy, though within the federally protected Yosemite Valley, could not be saved after the Raker Act of 1913 was passed by Congress, which allowed the damming of the valley to create a water supply for San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. The battle for Hetch Hetchy was late in Muir’s life and career as a conservationist, and was a major blow to the man who made his life’s work saving these natural cathedrals.
Muir’s description of Hetch Hetchy from the article “Features of the Proposed National Park”: “Here you will find a glorious view. Immediately beneath you, at a depth of more than 4000 feet, you see a beautiful ribbon of level a ground, with a silver thread in the middle of it, and green or yellow according to the time of year. That ribbon is a strip of meadow, and the silver thread is the main Tuolumne River. The opposite wall of the cañon rises in precipices, steep and angular, or with rounded brows like those of Yosemite, and from this wall as a base extends a fine wilderness of mountains, rising dome above dome, ridge above ridge, to a group of snowy peaks on the summit of the range. Of all this sublime congregation of mountains Castle Peak is king: robed with snow and light, dipping unnumbered points and spires into the thin blue sky, it maintains amid noble companions a perfect and commanding individuality.”
The founding of the Sierra Club was to help stop development over natural areas like Hetch Hetchy Valley and it continues to do this type of work today. Where I live in the San Gabriel Valley such a battle has been boiling for the last couple of years over the Whittier Narrows Natural Area–which sits along the bank of the San Gabriel River. The natural area is a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the suburban expansion and development of San Gabriel Valley and is home to countless species of birds and plants. Currently, there is a plan to build a 14,000 square foot building for a “Discovery Center” (a museum focused on watersheds and life along the river) and a 116 space parking lot over the natural area. The idea of destroying a wildlife sanctuary in order to build a museum educating children on nature is ludicrous and goes against Muir’s own belief that the structures of nature are much more spectacular than any structure made by man.
For more on the Whittier Narrows Natural Area or to find out how to help go to Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area.
For more about John Muir and the Sierra Club go to Sierra Club website, which has a fantastic collection of Muir’s writings and journals and a great bibliography.
For more on Muir’s adventures check out The Wild Muir.
*John Muir’s birthday is April 21st, and though he is seen as a father of conservation, the date of Earth Day has no affiliation with John Muir.