For the week of April 21, 1999  thru April 27, 1999  

A pause to remember John Muir

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


"I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found."

"Going to the mountains is going home."

John Muir

Today is the 161th anniversary of the birth of John Muir, the great naturalist and the first leader of the movement to preserve the wilderness areas of the world from man’s excess.

April 21st was declared John Muir Day by Presidential proclamation in 1988, and it is appropriate on this day to pause and remember a truly great man.

In 1976, he was even given that designation by members of the California Historical Society, who voted Muir the Greatest of All Californians. Muir, who died in 1914 in Los Angeles, would have likely appreciated the gesture, but California’s environment in 1976 just as likely would have saddened and bewildered and made the Historical Society’s honor both hollow and incongruous for him.

It is equally incoherent that Ronald Reagan was the president who proclaimed John Muir Day and called "upon the people to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities." Reagan set the standard for paying lip service to politically expedient environmental activism when he said, "If you’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen them all." He was the antithesis of John Muir in ways that would take volumes to describe, but suffice it to say that Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior was James Watt.

Still, Reagan’s insincerity in mining political gold by touting values he did not share should not let us overlook the fact that today is John Muir Day; and it is Muir’s values, not Reagan’s, that are worth a pause to remember.

Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838, and emigrated with his family to Wisconsin in 1849. His father was a harsh disciplinarian, understandable for a new immigrant trying to make a way for his family in an unfamiliar country, and the entire family worked long hours daily on their farm.

For recreation, John and his younger brother roamed the fields and woods of the lush Wisconsin countryside, and early on Muir became an astute and loving observer of the natural world. As a boy he perceived the reality of nature that many years later he described in what has become his most quoted words: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the Universe."

Muir was an inventor and "a carver of curious but practical mechanisms in wood." He made clocks that kept accurate time. He attended the University of Wisconsin, earning good grades, but left after three years to wander the United States and Canada. In 1867, while working in Indianapolis, he was blinded in a work accident. When his sight returned a month later he resolved to turn his sight to the fields and woods and mountains and rivers of the world, rather than to the trenches of commerce.

He walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He sailed to Cuba and then Panama, and he crossed the Isthmus and then sailed up the Pacific to San Francisco. He arrived there in 1868, and, while he traveled throughout the world the rest of his life, when he arrived in California it became his home.

His description of the Sierra Nevada when first seen has not been rivaled: "Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light."

By 1871 he had conceived his then controversial theory of the glaciation of Yosemite Valley. He was one of only a few people who wandered the high country of the Sierra, spending long periods of time there and in the incomparable Yosemite Valley. He observed the devastation of the Sierra Nevada mountain meadows and forest by commercial sheep and cattle, and through a series of articles he wrote for Century magazine he drew the public’s attention to the destruction of their land and worked to remedy such annihilation of the earth.

Yosemite National Park, as well as Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks were created with the help of Muir. He is deservedly called the "Father of Our National Park System."

Muir is the most influential naturalist in American history. He founded the Sierra Club, arguably the most influential conservation group in the country. Many believe the Sierra Club has grown too conservative and, even, reactionary; and it is undeniable that the Yosemite Valley and our other national parks are as much stressed out, over crowded havens for those who would experience wilderness from a Winnebago as they are a place where, in Muir’s words, "…the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees…" Still, Muir’s accomplishments and sagacity are solid, available and worthy of our contemplation.

Muir’s writings, like those of Thoreau, Emerson, Leopold, Abbey, Snyder and Berry, are full of wisdom, inspiration and direction for our time. For example, he wrote, "Our crude civilization engenders a multitude of wants, and law-givers are ever at their wit’s end devising. The hall and the theater and the church have been invented, and compulsory education. Why not add compulsory recreation? Our forefathers forged chains of duty and habit, which bind us notwithstanding our boasted freedom, and we ourselves in desperation add link to link, groaning and making medicinal laws for relief. Yet few think of pure rest or of the healing power of Nature."

Right on, John.

 

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