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
Living and Writing in the Natural World
Part 2. Early Victories 1960s, 1970s: Cleaning Up America
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
“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
Last weekend my buddy Al and I found ourselves in a Lewis-and-Clark drill, our obstacles posed by a forest that had existed a hundred million years before humans appeared on the scene to challenge it with their puny kayaks.
We had joined old friends of Al’s from his Mendocino days, Don and wife Petra, and were paddling the Big River, putting in 10 miles upstream of its joining Mendocino Bay at the coast. Nestled in a Coastal redwood forest, the north fork of the river here was relatively shallow and narrow, and the swift spring-swollen waters shoved us into Red alder thickets at each of the many bends in the stream, the trees eagerly reaching out to the sunshine mid-stream. Read More
The entrance to San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate is narrow, fog-shrouded, and laced with ship-ripping rocks. No wonder all the original European explorers of the Pacific Coast missed it, from Cabrillo in 1542 to Vizcaino in 1602 and others a further century on. Once you’re in, though, what a series of immense, sheltered bays! San Francisco Bay proper to the south; San Pablo Bay to the north; and to the east, beyond the even-narrower Carquinez Strait, blossoms Suisin Bay. This third bay is the life-blood of the whole system, as it conveys massive (originally) flows of fresh water from California’s two mightiest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, into the three bays via the Delta.
As Al and I drove south through the Sacramento Valley, two kayaks strapped atop the car, our goal was a campground at the edge of the salt marshes of San Pablo Bay—specifically China Camp State Park, Read More
With time for (at least) one more adventure before the winter rains hit California, Al and I strapped the kayaks atop my Subaru and set off for Point Reyes on the coast, to paddle where Sir Francis Drake had careened his Golden Hind 400 years ago, visions of elephant seals, bat rays, and diving pelicans dancing in our heads, only mildly concerned that we’d be camping and kayaking right on top of the San Andreas Fault. After all, what were the odds?
Sitting around the campfire the first night, Al with his corncob pipe, me with a slim cigar and flask of Scotch, it sounded like a freight train approaching, initially, complete with the rumbling of the ground. Then the trees began to sway, as we stared wide-eyed about us. Read More
With the Autumn Equinox approaching, I’m remembering the summer’s activities, particularly when Tammy and I visited the preserved homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson during a trip to the East coast. In some respects the homes are similar: owned and operated by private groups (the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association since the 1850s; the Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1923), complemented by a museum, education center, and gift shop; and hundreds of thousands of visitors escorted through the homes every year. Beyond this, though, the visits were strikingly different experiences, which in some interesting ways reflect on the men they celebrate.
Mt. Vernon is only 16 miles from Washington, D.C. and everything is on a larger physical scale: number of visitors, size and sophistication of the museum and grounds, even the provision of a “Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant” (the ballyhooed Peanut and Chestnut Soup was disappointing, but more than compensated by the fancy Colonial Hoecake laden with ham and crabmeat, and the plain but satisfying cornbread with honey butter, and side-order grits). Read More
After following the Chama River several miles, Al and I turned the rental car off Hwy 84 northwest of Santa Fe at dusk and drove into the canyon where Ghost Ranch is located. The ranch is now a 21,000-acre workshop center. Though not enrolled in a class, we had obtained lodging there, and were directed to one of a cluster of rooms not 50 yards from the “Georgia O’Keeffe cottage,” the principal bungalow where the artist spent the last 50 summers of her life. Some ten miles to the south the distinctive flat-topped mesa Cerro Pedernal loomed in the dying light, immortalized in so many of O’Keeffe’s paintings, as was the Chama River also.
The evening was cold, so we stumbled into the dining room across the dirt road and pirated cups of cocoa. It had been a long day, Read More
The Southwest was the theme of my recent February trip with Al, and it featured large doses of train travel, a passion for my friend ever since his frequent boyhood jaunts to the nearby San Jose train yard with his dad. We boarded the connecting bus in Chico just before 8 in the morning and after a relaxing train ride through the length of California’s San Joaquin Valley arrived in Los Angles by another connecting bus shortly after 7 that evening, sauntering out of the venerable (and newly polished) 1939 Union Station past Olvera Street a block to our hotel.
Turn-of-the-century Los Angeleno Charles Lummis claimed to have christened the New Mexico-Arizona-southern California area as “the Southwest,” so we visited his home, El Alisal, after huevos rancheros in Olvera Street the next morning. Read More
Nowhere else on the planet can you pause on your bicycle on the way back from a morning ocean swim and see five volcanoes arrayed around you. It was my first day on the Big Island of Hawaii, and I stopped at the crest of a small hill on the south Kohala coast, some quarter mile south of Hapuna Beach. Close over my left shoulder to the north was Kohala, the oldest of the island’s volcanoes, some 750,000 years old and long extinct. Straight left rose the bumpy peak of massive Mauna Kea, with some of the dozen or so observatories atop it barely visible. Also extinct, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain if you measure its rise not from sea level but from the ocean floor, which is fair enough. Read More