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"But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls

seems to glow with life" -John Muir-

 

 

Yosemite and Its Father.....John Muir

 

    It would be virtually impossible today think of Yosemite National Park without some aspect of John Muir’s life and works simultaneously coming to mind. The two great figures are so closely related to one another one could almost consider them family, if only it were humanly possible to match the majesty of Yosemite with the passion that John Muir held in his heart for it. The history of Yosemite National Park so closely tied to the life of John Muir one must consider him the father of Yosemite and in turn, its sole protector and guardian. The literary works and actions of John Muir have laid claim, even concerning present day issues, to the creation and preservation of the National Parks Service’s(which Muir also helped create) crowning gem of achievement.....Yosemite National Park.

    The creation of the park follows a time-line which is almost dependent on the life of John Muir. The birth of Yosemite National Park took place on October 1, 1890 when the US Congress signed into action the Land Act Bill, in large part due to the lobbying efforts of John Muir and New York Century Magazine editor, Robert Underwood Johnson. However, this would of never been made possible if it were not for the continuous efforts made by Muir up until that point.

    The parks earliest known history is not without the absence of John Muir. The Mariposa Battalion, under the leadership of Captain James Savage, are the first white men to enter Yosemite Valley. Muir refereed to these soldiers of Savage as "protectors of the park," who spent their time "patrolling for poachers and sheepherders" (Nolte 2-3). These men inspired Muir’s efforts to lobby for a National Park Service which could devote men to protecting Yosemite’s assets. These early soldier’s contributions to the park can be seen even today. The small lakes, that were empty in Muir’s day, now hold fish which "his men carried in coffee cans from one lake to another," stocking the lakes as they went (Nolte 4). Muir welcomed the soldiers because they established only a physical presence in the park without leaving behind anything negatively marking a human inhabitancy of the area. Muir praised these soldiers for their actions and conversed with Savage on many occasions. Muir first set foot in San Francisco in 1868 and made his way south to the Yosemite Valley. As he made his way across central California and up into the Sierra, which he christened "the Range of Light," Muir could never have fathomed his journey into Yosemite would be lifelong and encompass much more than a young man’s wandering into an exquisite wilderness. Upon first seeing the valley he described it and the surrounding Sierras as a "temple {in which}every rock in its walls seems to glow with life" (Muir 8).

    By 1871 he had discovered living glaciers in the Sierras and surrounding Valleys in which he would later use in supporting his theory that Yosemite Valley was carved out by these huge glaciers. Muir’s position as a geologist will never be truly recognized due to the fact his geological studies were so scarce. His views on glaciation were composed "at a time when geologists of great eminence were advancing other theories, and had no patience with any glacial theory" (Colby 2). However, Muir’s theory which he stated in Studies in the Sierra, would later disprove the idea Yosemite Valley was created by massive earthquakes and rockslides. He would establish the now generally accepted theory of glaciation as the origin of the Yosemite Valley which stands as a testament he was no ordinary study in the physical laws of nature. Even greater is the fact he composed this theory after being in the park only a little over two years.

    This first sighting and journey into Yosemite by John Muir would become the initial starting point of all the legislation leading up to its creation as a National Park. Congressional Lobbying in the past had inspired President Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Land Grant, a historic moment which gives the land of Yosemite to the state of California as well as the first seeds of the National Park system. Yet, the park would not be protected from the brutal logging industries and politics which Muir stated "saps the very foundations of righteousness" (Merriam 2). The events leading up to the eventual founding of Yosemite as a National Park and the creation of the National Park Service would be indebted to the John Muir from this point on. Muir’s extensive knowledge of the Valley and his engaging spirit soon made him one of Yosemite’s most popular nature guides. From this he made influential friendships with the very people who held the power to induce change. These friendships with people included Ralph Waldo Emerson and artist William Keith. He was also on personal terms with five presidents including Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt would visit Muir and spend a period of four days touring the Yosemite Valley. He would later refer to Muir as "the man who loves the woods and mountains, the trees, the flowers and the wild things, and has in him some indefinable quality of charm, which appeals even to those sons of civilization who care for little outside the paved streets and brick walls" (Roosevelt 1). He also states he was "a man able to influence contemporary thought and action on the subjects to which he had devoted his life. He was great factor in influencing the thought of California and the thought of the entire community so as to secure the preservation of those great natural phenomena" (1).

    Those statements were proved entirely accurate due to the fact he was able to persuade President Harrison to set aside 13 million acres of forest, and President Grover Cleveland to set aside another 21 million acres and create what was to become the United States Forest Service. His greatest work came from his friendship with Roosevelt. With the publication of Our National Parks, Muir attracted the attention of Roosevelt in which he contacted Muir and requested the chance to camp with Muir in Yosemite Park. "There, together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Teddy Roosevelt’s innovative and notable conservation programs" (Downing 7). After that meeting, Roosevelt would go on to establish 148 million acres of National Forest, 5 National Parks and 23 National Monuments during his term. John Muir had laid the framework on what was to become today’s Yosemite National Park.

    Up to this point, Yosemite and John Muir have been in direct relation concerning the parks earliest recorded histories and past events but the relation between Yosemite and John Muir would not end here. The man which could be considered the founder of Yosemite National Park proceeded to strengthen his relationship to the park by founding the Sierra Club in 1892. He would become the Sierra club’s first President and hold the position for the next twenty-two years, until his death. He would ensure the safety and protection of Yosemite by creating an organization that would eventually become "an organization reputed to be perhaps the most influential environmental organization in history; an organization that still shares with John Muir his love for, devotion toward, and desire to preserve the wild and beautiful places that God placed upon our planet" (Downing 1). This organization is composed of over 600,000 members located throughout the world with the single mission of preserving the majesty that is Yosemite National Park.

    The first battle which Muir and the Sierra Club would wage against the destruction of the park would come against the assaults of sheepherders and stockmen that continually tried to invade its boundaries. Muir would first observe this potential enemy upon his initial visit to the park. He noticed the serious depletion of the parks natural fields and vegetation which was being consumed by all the herds and flocks of livestock let loose to graze. "With the help of Century’s associate editor, Robert Underwood Johnson, Muir worked to remedy the devastation," in which he gained the attention and support of Congress through a series of articles appearing in Century Magazine (Exhibit 2). Yosemite was saved from the livestock and Muir would achieve his first victory in his campaign to remain the park’s lifelong guardian.

    However, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 would bring an entirely different threat to the preservation of Yosemite National Park; one which would consume Muir and the efforts of the Sierra Club until his death. The city of San Francisco would not be devastated so much by the earthquake but the fires which consumed it in the wake of the earthquake. The politicians which Muir feared more than anything saw their chance to capitalize on this event. They submitted a plan to Congress which would place a lack of a sufficient water supply as the result for the devastating fires and the only remedy to prevent future incidents would be to dam up the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The dam would flood the basin of the Hetch Hetchy Valley within the Yosemite National Park in order to supply the Bay Area with a clean water source. The Hetch Hetchy area was Muir’s final battle that "lasted seven years, with Muir at the forefront, vociferously protesting the proposed dam: "Dam Hetch Hetchy!...As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has been consecrated by the heart of man"(Muir 3). Unfortunately, in 1913 the battle was lost and the valley that Muir likened to Yosemite Valley itself was doomed to become a reservoir, eventually burying all the beauty beneath 200 feet of water. This would become the only loss Muir would engage in during his relationship with the park. Many who were close to Muir stated the death sentence of the Hetch Hetchy not only killed a part of his beloved Yosemite National Park it would ultimately kill him. Carl Nolte claimed, "It broke the old man’s heart" (Nolte 1).

    Despite the death of Muir and the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite and the legacy of John Muir still live on to this day. The battle over Hetch Hetchy Valley is still being waged by the Sierra Club and the hopes of restoring the valley are not totally lost. Yosemite National Park is engaged in a battle to this day over the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley and other issues threatening to destroy the majesty of its beauty. Leading this engagement is no other than Muir’s very own Sierra Club and it is drawing more attention than ever from the press. Twelve years ago the secretary of the Interior was moved to propose a bill draining the reservoir and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley but it met fierce opposition from politicians again and "ridiculed as ‘dumb, dumb, dumb’ by Mayor Dianne Feinstein and never approved" (Bee 3). Yosemite still finds protection in the legacy left behind by Muir due to the relentless efforts of his followers who are characterized as "cantankerous, irascible, quarrelsome, and passionate people because of your attraction to this place. I can’t escape John Muir when I’m up here. Everyone is quoting him like he has just gone out for a beer and will be right back" (Martin 1). The above characterization was stated by Bruce Babbit upon being attacked by the Sierra Club for his proposed Yosemite Management Plan. His hostility towards members of the Sierra Club only prove Yosemite has not been forgotten thanks to the past efforts of Muir.

    The Park Service eventually listened to the Sierra Club’s protests and Yosemite revised a new plan which seeks to reduce the amount of traffic and development within the park while still protecting the fragile areas of Yosemite. This is just another victory Yosemite National Park owes in large part to its father John Muir and his founding of the Sierra Club. Furthermore, the written works of John Muir have left behind a basic blue print which is still being used to this day for determining the purpose of Yosemite, that it be, "as John Muir so passionately pleaded for, a place of inspiration, of reflection, of contemplation" (Olmsted 1).

    Yosemite lives on today just as it did a hundred years ago when Muir first set foot in the unbelievable beauty of Nature’s greatest achievement. The history of Yosemite was set in stone due to the efforts of John Muir and its preservation will be ensured by the legacy he has left behind. Yosemite remains today much as it did over a decade and a half ago when explorers first set foot in the Yosemite Valley. In his book, Yosemite, Muir stated, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike" (6). Well Yosemite has remained that place and withstood the test of time and man with unmatched resilience. The fights waged in the park’s history helped preserve and protect all there is to this day. Without the literary works and relentless efforts of Muir what we call Yosemite National Park might never have existed. His works continue to "inspire people who are, to this day, striving to protect the environment from the threats Muir could not have predicted--toxic wastes, acid rain, ozone depletion, groundwater contamination, mass destruction of tropical rain forests, extinction of whole species, and many more" (Downing 8). Muir’s writings on Yosemite National Park awakened America from a deep sleep and made them aware that in our efforts of preserving Yosemite we are also putting ourselves in touch with something greater than ourselves. Yosemite National Park may not be able to rest easy in regards to its future but it can be confident in the fact that no matter what the threat, the legacy of its founding father will be there to combat it.

 

Works Cited

"Hetch Hetchy Overhaul Approved." Modesto Bee. http://www.yosemite.org/newsroom/clips2000/september/09052000.htm (5 September 2000).

Colby, William E. "John Muir - President of the Sierra Club." John Muir Exhibit. http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/colby_tribute_scb_1916.html (January 1916).

Downing, Lawrence. "John Muir and The United States National Park System." http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/muir_and_nps_downing_1992.h tml (7 October 1992).

"John Muir: A Brief Biography." John Muir Exhibit. http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/muir_biography.html (29 April 2001).

Martin, Glen. "Yosemite Valley Plan Tries to Turn Back the Clock; Blueprint Brings an End to 30 Year Battle." San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.yosemite.org/newsroom/clips2000/november/11142000a.htm (15 November 2000).

Merriam, Hart C. "To the Memory of John Muir." John Muir Exhibit. http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/memory_jm_c_hart_merriam.ht ml (January 1917).

Muir, John. The Yosemite. New york: The Century Co., 1912.

Nolte, Carl. "Serene Splendor Of Sierra Endures; Backcountry Beloved by Muir is Little Changed." San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.yosemite.org/newsroom/clips99/september/090499.htm (4 September 1999).

Olmstead, Gerald W. "In Yosemite, the Only Distraction Should Be Valley’s Dignified Scenery." San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.yosemite.org/newsroom/clips 2000/december/120500.htm (5 December 2000).

Roosevelt, Theodore. "John Muir: An Appreciation." Outlook.      http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/appreciation_by_roosevelt.html (16 January 1915).

Russel, Carl P. One Hundred Years In Yosemite. Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1947.

"John Muir -- Earth-planet Universe." John Muir Exhibit.          http://www.terraquest.com/highlights/valley/muir.html (29 April 2001).

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