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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Window

After tossing for hours last night as I wrestled with things in my head, I opened my eyes, noted it was two in the morning, and glanced out my window. Since I keep the blind levered to allow me unimpeded views outside, I could clearly make out the black lateral branch of our large walnut snaking across gray-black sky, and the branches of the oak behind it. Through the branches shone two large stars (planets, probably) and a myriad of other stars. I felt better, seeing these reminders of the grand spectacle of which I’m merely a very small part. And I thought of the windows in John Muir’s bedroom, which I had stood before three days ago.

I had been returning from a visit to my kids and grandkids in San Francisco. (Surely it is a grandparent’s dream to have all three of your kids and both your grandkids in one city.) John Muir’s home in Martinez, now a National Historical Site, is not far out of the way, so I stopped for my fourth visit there, a continuing pilgrimage. Climbing the stairs, I turned right to the bedrooms instead of my customary left to Muir’s study. His daughters’ bedroom, first. Then through the connecting door to Muir’s bedroom, in the front facing due east, by my reckoning. It’s a sparsely-furnished room, probably more so since Muir was alone the last nine years of his life there, his beloved wife Louie having died in 1905 and his daughters grown and moved away with husbands. But what strikes you about the room is the lack of curtains or blinds on the two tall ceiling-high windows in the bedroom. Muir’s bed faces these windows, so as he lay in bed he looked out into the universe, the stars and clouds entirely visible on clear nights, the rainfall visibly streaking down the windows on stormy nights.

I’m completely confident that Muir’s intent was to open the room to what was going on in the natural world outside. To remind himself where he was. What he was a part of. His wife was dead and his children moved away, but he was still a child of the universe. And he gloried in it.

The same feeling—of feeling good about being part of something grand—came to me later that day as I drove north over the Suisin Bay-San Francisco Bay juncture and into the Sacramento valley. To either side of me large flocks of snow geese circled the ponds and marshes, their black-tipped white wings flashing as their gyres periodically intercepted the sun’s direct rays. I turned off Highway 5 and wended my way through the “rice fields” route, flooded fields and ponds aplenty now, thronged with dozens of species of ducks as well as the geese—snow, Canada, Ross, cackling, white-fronted—and tundra swans and sandhill cranes. I was in the midst of tens of thousands of birds in the Sacramento Valley’s great Pacific Flyway. The cackling geese had flown two thousand miles from Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim delta to overwinter in our Sacramento Valley. The snow geese and many of the most plentiful ducks, the gorgeous pintail, had migrated even further, from Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia above Alaska.

I was in awe of the wildfowl congregated in my home valley. And I was aware that the tens of thousands of birds I was passing among were but a whisper of the migration two hundred years ago, before Americans wrested California from its coast-loving Spanish overlords. In those days, as for thousands of years before, the Pacific Flyway drew waterfowl not in the thousands but in the millions to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys from Alaska and Siberia. Before the appearance of fields and dams and levees, much of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys flooded every winter, and millions of ducks, geese, swans, and cranes thronged the valley, their bugling calls and honking and quacking echoing from the Sierra Nevada to the Coastal ranges.

What I wouldn’t give to have seen the Sacramento Valley in those days! The Sacramento river was choked with salmon from the ocean. Grizzly bears were common up and down the valley and the foothills, early pioneers reporting seeing a dozen grazing within every view. Tule elk by the thousands lived in the marshes, and drew wolves down from the mountains and foothills. And when the winter floods receded and spring came, many of the waterfowl returned to Alaska and Siberia, but the wildflowers replaced them. Muir writes that as he walked acorss the central valley from San Francisco to Yosemite in 1868, with every step he trod upon more than a hundred individual flowers--for forty miles!--and all around him as far as he could see flowed a golden carpet of wildflowers, mainly the Compositae daisies and such.

Going back not 200 but 20,000 years, before humans of any sort had entered the continent, this Sacramento Valley was populated not only by the waterfowl and flowers and mammals mentioned above, but in addition by a rich mammal megafauna of dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, mammoths, cheetahs, several kinds of pronghorns, giant bison, and more. This megafauna disappeared between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago, coincident with the arrival of hunting humans flooding onto the continent from their refugium in Alaska as the great glaciers receded, the first Amer-Indians. A variety of evidence strongly suggests that this wave of humanity hunted the great large mammal herbivores to extinction, and that the large predators followed suit without their accustomed prey.

The “Late Pleistocene Extinctions” affected only the large mammals, though. The Pacific Flyway still brought the millions of waterfowl to the Sacramento valley for another 12,000 years, the valley resounding every winter with the calls of the ducks, geese, swans, and cranes. Then Euro-Americans arrived in the valley, in small numbers in the late 1700s and early 1800s, then a great mass of us from 1848 onwards. It was not so much the hunting, this time, that diminished the Flyway, but rather habitat conversion, as the fields were leveled for planting and the rivers tamed by levees and dams. Today the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys are among the richest and most productive agricultural areas of the entire planet. But that distinction has come with a cost.

Yet as I drove last week through the rice fields of the Sacramento valley, the remnant of the Pacific Flyway that persists still overwhelmed me. The beauty and exuberance of what is left is still amazing, inspiring. Like the view of walnut, oak, and stars out my bedroom window, passing through even the diminished winter Pacific Flyway utterly convinces me that I am a part of a rich spectacle of life. The same grand evolutionary and ecological processes that produced the waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway produced primates also, including humans and their near kin the chimpanzees and bonobos and gorillas. We are all players in the same play, integral parts of a spectacle that involves millions of other living things stretching back not just thousands but millions of years. That makes me feel good. Important. Thrilling, to be a part of all this.

To be sure, my kind have brought about changes that disrupt and diminish the pageant. We must resist that, and many of us work to restore the richness and diversity. The flyway itself is protected and strengthened by many groups today, from the sportsmen of Ducks Unlimited preserving and improving habitat to the environmentalists of River Partners restoring degraded habitat. This is all good and necessary. But there is also a larger lesson, the realization that John Muir had when he looked through his windows uncluttered by curtains every night. We are part of the spectacle. We belong here, and our kids, and their kids. The earth is our home. The spectacle is gorgeous and thrilling and ongoing and we are in the midst of it even today. Hallelujah!
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