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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

"All the other torches were lighted from his."

Part 2. Early Victories 1960s, 1970s: Cleaning Up America

Considering the disastrous conclusion of Muir’s battle to save the Hetch Hetchy valley from San Francisco water interests, what can we say of his legacy? John Muir left dozens of national parks, national monuments, and forest preserves created by his efforts and those he inspired. He left his name on scores of mountains, glaciers, high passes, groves, and schools.

But a further legacy stands above all the others, a legacy that has changed world history. The scope, intensity, and tactics of the 1902-1913 battle to save Hetch Hetchy created the modern environmental movement, and John Muir, more than any other single person, marshaled that battle. As publisher Robert Underwood Johnson put it in his eulogy to Muir: “To this (movement) many persons and organizations contributed, but Muir’s writings and enthusiasm were the chief forces that inspired the movement. All the other torches were lighted from his.”

Even before the battle over Hetch Hetchy was joined, Muir was clear about the forces that threatened the vast areas of exceptional natural beauty with which America was blessed. “These temple destroyers, devotees of a ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.”  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement

The Father of the Environmental Movement

Part 1. The Battle for Hetch Hetchy, 1902-1913

John Muir came relatively late in life to what became, later, “the environmental cause.” Full of love though he was for the natural world, it was not until 1889, when he was 51 years old, that he was finally persuaded by one determined friend to seriously take up cudgels, and battle to protect and preserve his beloved realm. Prior to this, his abundant energy had simply been directed to other areas. During the 1870s he was exploring California’s Sierra Nevada and other wild areas; the 1880s saw him raising his family and working very hard at the Martinez orchard and ranch to secure their financial security.

To be sure, Muir’s journals reflect early and lasting disdain for “Lord Man” and the general assumption the natural world exists for his sake, particularly Lord Man's constant readiness to sacrifice Nature for monetary profit. Muir had groused for decades about the devastation wrought by sheep (“hooved locusts”) grazing in meadows of the High Sierra. He had penned a letter  Read More 

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A Jubilee of Yosemite Waterfalls

"The might torrent of snowy, cometized water..."

“Today the (Yosemite) falls were in terrible power. I gazed upon the mighty torrent of snowy, cometized water, whether in or out of the body I can hardly tell—such overwhelming displays of power and beauty almost bring the life out of our feeble tabernacle. I shouted until I was exhausted and sore with excitement…
(The mountain waters of Yosemite Creek at the brow of the falls) “finally moved over the brink with songs that go farther into the substance of our being than ever was touched by man-made harmonies—songs that bear pure heaven in every note. The fleecy, spiritualized waters take the form of mashed and woven comets, going with a grace that casts poor mortals into an agony of joy.”

--John Muir, 16 January 1870

If, like Muir a century ago, you’re an admirer of waterfalls and the surge of wonder they provoke, then a springtime pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley is a must. California’s past four years of drought destroyed the annual spectacle, but this winter we managed average rainfall. Though not a banner year like Muir’s 1870, the spring snow melt was producing quite a show. And my buddy Al and I were there,  Read More 

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