October 6, 2012


John Muir's Yosemite : The father of the conservation movement found his calling on a visit to the California wilderness (Tony Perrottet, July 2008, Smithsonian magazine)

"There are an amazing number of misconceptions about John Muir," says Scott Gediman, the park's public affairs officer. "People think he discovered Yosemite or started the national park system. Others assume he lived here all his life." In fact, says Gediman, Muir lived in Yosemite off and on for only a short but intense period from 1868 to 1874, an experience that transformed him into a successor to Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later in life, Muir would return to Yosemite on shorter trips, burdened with his own celebrity and the responsibilities of family and work. But it was during the happy period of his relative youth, when he was free to amble around Yosemite, that Muir's ideas were shaped. Some of his most famous adventures, recounted in his books The Yosemite and Our National Parks, were from this time.

"As a young man, Muir felt he was a student in what he called the 'University of the Wilderness,'" Gisel said. "Yosemite was his graduate course. This is where he decided who he was, what he wanted to say and how he was going to say it."

When he first strode into Yosemite in the spring of 1868, Muir was a scruffy Midwestern vagabond wandering the wilderness fringes of post-bellum America, taking odd jobs where he could. In retrospect, visiting Yosemite might seem an inevitable stop on his life's journey. But his later recollections reveal a young man plagued with self-doubt and uncertainty, often lonely and confused about the future. "I was tormented with soul hunger," he wrote of his meandering youth. "I was on the world. But was I in it?" [...]

Muir left Yosemite abruptly in late 1870; some scholars suspect he was fleeing the romantic interest of Lady Yelverton, who had long been separated from a caddish husband. A short time later, in January 1871, Muir returned to Yosemite, where he would spend the next 22 months--his longest stint. On Sunday excursions away from the sawmill, he made detailed studies of the valley's geology, plants and animals, including the water ouzel, or dipper, a songbird that dives into swift streams in search of insects. He camped out on high ledges where he was doused by freezing waterfalls, lowered himself by ropes into "the womb" of a remote glacier and once "rode" an avalanche down a canyon. ("Elijah's flight in a chariot of fire could hardly have been more gloriously exciting," he said of the experience.)

This refreshingly reckless manner, as if he were drunk on nature, is what many fans like to remember about him today. "There has never been a wilderness advocate with the kind of hands-on experience of Muir," says Lee Stetson, editor of an anthology of Muir's outdoor adventure writing and an actor who has portrayed him in one-man shows in Yosemite for the past 25 years. "People tend to think of him as a remote philosopher-king, but there's probably not a single part of this park that he didn't visit himself." Not surprisingly, Native Americans, whom Muir regarded as "dirty," tend to be less enthusiastic about him. "I think Muir has been given entirely too much credit," says Yosemite park ranger Ben Cunningham-Summerfield, a member of the Maidu tribe of Northern California.

In early 1871, Muir had been obliged to leave his idyllic creek-side cabin, which Hutchings wanted to use for his relatives. With his usual inventiveness, Muir built a small study in the sawmill under a gable reachable only by ladder, which he called his "hang-nest." There, surrounded by the many plant specimens he'd gathered on his rambles, he filled journal after journal with his observations of nature and geology, sometimes writing with sequoia sap for added effect. Thanks to Jeanne Carr, who had moved to Oakland and hobnobbed with California's literati, Muir was beginning to develop a reputation as a self-taught genius. The noted scientist Joseph LeConte was so impressed with one of his theories--that the Yosemite Valley had been formed by glacial activity rather than a prehistoric cataclysm, as was widely, and incorrectly, thought--that he encouraged Muir to publish his first article, which appeared in the New York Tribune in late 1871. Ralph Waldo Emerson, by then elderly, spent days with Muir peppering him with botanical questions. (The pair went to Mariposa Grove, but much to Muir's disappointment, Emerson was too frail to camp overnight.)

By the end of 1872, Muir was making occasional appearances in the salons of San Francisco and Oakland, where Carr introduced him as "the wild man of the woods." Writing for outdoor magazines, Muir was able to put his ideas about nature into the vernacular, but he wrestled not only with the act of writing but with the demands of activism. Part of him wanted to simply return to the park and revel in nature. But by the fall of 1874, having visited the valley after a nine-month absence, he concluded that that option was no longer open to him. He had a calling, to protect the wilderness, which required his presence in the wider world. "This chapter of my life is done," he wrote to Carr from Yosemite. "I feel I am a stranger here." Muir, 36, returned to San Francisco.

"Yosemite had been his sanctuary," says Gisel. "The question was now how to protect it. By leaving, he was accepting his new responsibility. He had been a guide for individuals. Now he would be a guide for humanity."

Posted by at October 6, 2012 7:38 PM

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