How John Muir’s Incessant Study Saved Yosemite


Published:

Yosemite National Park

© upthebanner, 123rf.com

Run a Google search on naturalist and preservationist John Muir and you will quickly turn up one of his best-known, yet abbreviated, sayings: “The mountains are calling and I must go.” It’s a compelling quote that says it all for many outdoor lovers, which may explain why it’s printed widely on mugs, t-shirts, posters and jewelry and paraphrased by today’s adventurers.

However, the shortened quote doesn’t fully capture John Muir or his desire to understand and protect California’s Yosemite – a grand glacially cut valley with sheer 2,500-foot walls, now federally protected as one of the oldest of the Sierra Nevada’s four national parks.

As we mark the anniversary of Muir’s birth on April 21, 1838, we should consider the full quote, which appears in an 1873 letter from Muir to his sister: “The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” These words reveal a man who saw responsibility and purpose as well as pleasure in the mountains. Muir was a master observer who enjoyed the constant work of understanding nature.

Letter from John Muir to Sarah Muir Galloway. University of the Pacific, ©1984 Muir-Hanna Trust, Author provided

As the curator of John Muir’s papers at the University of the Pacific, I help researchers to “study incessantly” these raw materials and get the full unabbreviated story. The papers reveal Muir’s determination to interpret and preserve nature, and his seminal role in the creation of the National Park Service which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

You too can participate in not only understanding Muir but making him more accessible by transcribing his handwritten journals. We are enlisting citizen curators to harvest Muir’s words and make his journals keyword-searchable. Of course, the payoff for the transcribers is finding their own meaningful Muir quotation.

Revelry and science

Through Muir’s archives we can trace how his thinking about Yosemite evolved over almost half a century. He first mentioned the valley in an 1867 letter after an industrial accident left him temporarily blind: “I read a description of the Yo Semite valley last year and have thought of it most every day since.”

Muir, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Wisconsin, attended college briefly and “botanized” every chance he could get. He made his living as an inventor and efficiency expert, but the accident realigned his thinking. As he would later recall in his autobiography, he “made haste with all my heart, bade adieu to all thoughts of inventing machinery and determined to devote the rest of my life to studying the inventions of God.”

Before acting on those “every day” thoughts and going to Yosemite, Muir wanted to follow the footsteps of famed naturalist Alexander von Humboldt to South America, so he grabbed some books and a plant press, and started his “thousand mile walk to the Gulf” of Mexico from Indianapolis. However, a bout with malaria in Florida diverted his attention from visiting South America. He decided to make his way to California via steamship as quickly as possible.

Muir arrived at the granite cliffs of Yosemite in the spring of 1868. He was low on money but high on the majestic beauty of the granite faces, the mighty Giant Sequoia trees, and the roaring waterfalls. In a letter to mentor and friend Jeanne Carr, he wrote, “It is by far the grandest of all of His special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter. It must be the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierras [sic].”

The Sierra had called, and he went. Muir studied the “Range of Light” incessantly for the next five years while living in Yosemite Valley. He understood that his studies could be risky – for example, he practically dangled himself over the top of the 2,500-foot Yosemite Falls in order to observe the motion of the water – but expressed no fear, exclaiming “Where could a mountaineer find a more glorious death!

Muir’s intense observations deepened his understanding of the natural world and called him further into nature. Entering a grove of Giant Sequoias, the largest trees in the world, he wrote what historian Bonnie Gisel considers Muir’s pledge of allegiance to the wilderness:

The King Tree and me have sworn eternal love,… and I have taken sacrament with Douglas Squirrel [and drank] sequoia blood…. I wish I could be more tree-wise and sequoiacal, so I could preach the green brown woods to all the juiceless masses.

John Muir took copious notes in his field journals that are preserved and made available for study at the University of the Pacific. University of the Pacific, © 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust, Author providedMuir used his observations to interpret the science of Yosemite and the Sierra. Before Muir arrived, California’s first geologists had theorized that Yosemite was created by cataclysmic dropping of the valley floor through violent earthquakes. But based on his studies and exploration, Muir concluded that glaciers had scraped Half Dome and carved the granite cliffs. Today geologists widely agree that glaciers were key forces in the origins of the valley.

Preserving the Sierra

In the early 1870s, Muir pulled his Yosemite observations together and published articles about the grand scenery. He preached his theories and called those “juiceless masses” to join him in the mountains. Years later he wrote, “[T]ry the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.”

Muir also began to call for protecting Yosemite and the Sierra. He saw major threats from loggers' axes and the livestock industry’s “hoofed locusts” – his description of sheep that were overgrazing and destroying mountain meadows. Two years after Yosemite National Park was created in 1890, he cofounded the Sierra Club to preserve California’s greatest mountain range and make it more accessible.

Muir’s books and articles helped to promote appreciation of wilderness, and attracted political attention. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite with Muir, hoping to “drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.”

In 1908 Muir joined another president, William Howard Taft, in Yosemite, seeking to stop a campaign by the city of San Francisco to build a reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which lay inside the national park. Muir declared in outrage,“Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

The battle to preserve the glorious valley was lost in 1913 when Congress passed a bill authorizing the dam. The loss practically killed Muir as well, and he died of pneumonia in a Los Angeles hospital a year later.

Summing up Muir’s legacy with the statement that “the mountains are calling and I must go” can suggest that he viewed nature as a playground. When he added, “& I will work on while I can, studying incessantly,” we see a more complete picture of Muir’s relationship with Yosemite. He viewed the Sierra with a combination of reverence and scientific fascination, but understood that its future depended on his efforts. Reading Muir’s writing carefully, we can recognize our continuing responsibility to observe, interpret, and celebrate the value of his “sanctum sanctorum.”

Michael Wurtz is the Head of Special Collections, University Library, University of the Pacific.

See also:
Setting Aside Half The Earth For ‘Rewilding’: The Ethical Dimension
Staying Human in a Time of Climate Change: New Author on Science, Grief, and Hope

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

January 26, 2020

The recently new Moon in Aquarius chugs along void of course until evening. The laid back atmosphere is perfect for a restful, relaxing day. Dreams of the future as well as actual events can appear to play out in languid slow motion. Restive cabin fever…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

January 2020

What is an animal totem/power animal? Does everyone have them? Do animals communicate with us? Join us! Get these questions answered and more. We will explore the world of animals, learn how...

Cost: $65

Where:
Private Office
Andover, MA


Sponsor: Diana Harris
Contact Name: Diana Harris
Website »

More information

Come shine with us! Join us in harmony and in our goal to bring the light of Spiritualism forward to all those who are searching.

Where:
VFW Post 2597
775 Boston Rd, Rt 3A
Billerica, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiritualist Fellowship Church Of New England
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join the Initiating Inspiration Book Club, a partnership with the Waltham Public Library and the Agape Spiritual Community. We are reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Copies of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Waltham Public Library
735 Main Street
Waltham, MA  02451
View map »


Sponsor: Waltham Public Library
Telephone: 781-314-3429
Contact Name: Louise Goldstein
Website »

More information

Discover Beauty. Discover Goodness. Discover Yourself. Your soul’s gifts are waiting. Breathe. Find stillness. The spark you need to ignite your life is here, within. Max Meditation...

Cost: $15

Where:
Modern Mystery School Boston
132 Charles St
3rd Floor
Auburndale, MA  02466
View map »


Sponsor: Modern Mystery School Boston
Telephone: 617-694-0994
Contact Name: Jordan Bain
Website »

More information

2nd and 4th Monday of every month This psychic message circle is for anyone wishing to raise their connection using their psychic centers known as the “clairs.” Learn how to use...

Cost: $20

Where:
Messages From Heaven Healing and Learning Center
646 Central Street
Suite 3
Leominster, MA
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join us for this special evening with Magdalena of My Metaphysical Maven. The topic is fear and anxiety and how to tell what's anxiety versus what's a message from the universe. We'll...

Cost: Free

Where:
Waltham Public Library
735 Main Street
Waltham, MA  02451
View map »


Sponsor: Waltham Public Library
Telephone: 781-314-3441
Contact Name: Debora Hoffman
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Did you know that practicing energetic hygiene plays an important role in maintaining a healthy mind, body, spirit and even your home? Everything is made up of energy including us! Energy can...

Cost: $10

Where:
Center For Inner Wellness
26B Main Street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center For Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

January 29–March 25 With Jody Daniels, MBA and Natalia Cepeda, MA Why take Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)? To better manage your stress and enhance...

Cost: $600–$650

Where:
CHA Center for Mindfulness and Compassion
1035 Cambridge St
Suite 21A
Cambridge, MA  02141
View map »


Telephone: 617-591-6132
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join the Marion Institute for our Winter Film Series, a curated line-up of health documentaries that will change the way you think about food, medicine, and disease. Each film will be followed by...

Cost: Free

Where:
St. Luke’s Hospital McBratney Amphitheater
101 Page Street
New Bedford, MA  02740
View map »


Sponsor: Marion Institute
Telephone: 508-748-0816
Contact Name: Patti Rego
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

"Master your breath, let the self be in bliss, contemplate on the sublime within you.” —Krishnamacharya Join us for an evening of deep exploration and transformation using the...

Cost: $40

Where:
Friends Meeting House
5 Longfellow Park
Cambridge, MA  02138
View map »


Sponsor: Allen Howell, M.Ed. LMHC
Website »

More information

January 31–February 2, 2020 Enjoy heart-opening talks, music, spiritual discussion, connect with like-minded people. Free and open to the public. Attend any or all sessions.  Guest...

Where:
Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel
Springfield, MA


Telephone: (508) 754-9042
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Led by Chuck Raffoni ( E-RYT200) named a “person making postiive change in the world for the LGBTQ Community” by Pride Connections and featured on NBC's Today Show for...

Cost: $50

Where:
The Athlete's Yoga
Woburn, MA


Sponsor: www.yogawithchuck.com
Contact Name: Chuck
Website »

More information

Participate in the fourth annual Lincoln Holistic Wellness Fair!  Saturday, February 1, 2020 from 11:00am–5:00pm in Lincoln, Massachusetts The Lincoln Holistic Wellness Fair...

Cost: $50

Where:
The Pierce House
17 Weston Road
Lincoln, MA  01773
View map »


Sponsor: Lincoln Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur

More information

This free event showcases an impressive variety of wellness practitioners offering complimentary sample treatments, short classes, demos, presentations, and healthy treats. Mark your calendars...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Pierce House
17 Weston Road
Lincoln, MA  01773
View map »


Sponsor: Lincoln Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur

More information

Get a personal teaching for Brother Granite's new Visionary Shamanism Tarot. This class includes the new Visionary Shamanism Tarot deck as well a 90 minute one on one class with Brother Granite...

Cost: $80

Where:
407 Deans Plaza
407 Rte 44
The Enchanted Forest Taunton
Raynham, MA  02767
View map »


Sponsor: Brother Granite
Telephone: 774-208-6195
Contact Name: Granite
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags