John Muir’s Yosemite

The father of the conservation movement found his calling on a visit to the California wilderness

“Everybody needs beauty... places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike,” wrote Muir (c. 1902). (Corbis)
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In early 1871, Muir had been obliged to leave his idyllic creek-side cabin, which Hutchings wanted to use for his relatives. With his usual inventiveness, Muir built a small study in the sawmill under a gable reachable only by ladder, which he called his "hang-nest." There, surrounded by the many plant specimens he'd gathered on his rambles, he filled journal after journal with his observations of nature and geology, sometimes writing with sequoia sap for added effect. Thanks to Jeanne Carr, who had moved to Oakland and hobnobbed with California's literati, Muir was beginning to develop a reputation as a self-taught genius. The noted scientist Joseph LeConte was so impressed with one of his theories—that the Yosemite Valley had been formed by glacial activity rather than a prehistoric cataclysm, as was widely, and incorrectly, thought—that he encouraged Muir to publish his first article, which appeared in the New York Tribune in late 1871. Ralph Waldo Emerson, by then elderly, spent days with Muir peppering him with botanical questions. (The pair went to Mariposa Grove, but much to Muir's disappointment, Emerson was too frail to camp overnight.)

By the end of 1872, Muir was making occasional appearances in the salons of San Francisco and Oakland, where Carr introduced him as "the wild man of the woods." Writing for outdoor magazines, Muir was able to put his ideas about nature into the vernacular, but he wrestled not only with the act of writing but with the demands of activism. Part of him wanted to simply return to the park and revel in nature. But by the fall of 1874, having visited the valley after a nine-month absence, he concluded that that option was no longer open to him. He had a calling, to protect the wilderness, which required his presence in the wider world. "This chapter of my life is done," he wrote to Carr from Yosemite. "I feel I am a stranger here." Muir, 36, returned to San Francisco.

"Yosemite had been his sanctuary," says Gisel. "The question was now how to protect it. By leaving, he was accepting his new responsibility. He had been a guide for individuals. Now he would be a guide for humanity."

As a celebrated elder statesman of American conservation, he continued to visit Yosemite on a regular basis. In 1889, in his early 50s, Muir camped with Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor of Century magazine, in Tuolumne Meadows, where he had worked as a shepherd in 1869. Together they devised a plan to create a 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park, a proposal Congress passed the following year. In 1903, the 65-year-old Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt were able to give Secret Service agents the slip and disappear for three days, camping in the wild. It was during this excursion, historians believe, that Muir persuaded the president to expand the national park system and to combine, under federal authority, both Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, which had remained under California jurisdiction as authorized by Lincoln decades before. Unification of the park came in 1906.

But just when Muir should have been able to relax, he learned in 1906 that a dam was planned within the park boundaries, in the lovely Hetch Hetchy Valley. Despite a hard fight, he was unable to stop its construction, which Congress authorized in 1913, and he succumbed to pneumonia the next year in 1914, at age 76. But the defeat galvanized the American conservation movement to push for the creation in 1916 of the National Park Service and a higher level of protection for all national parks—a memorial Muir would have relished.

Frequent contributor Tony Perrottet wrote about Europe's house museums for the June 2008 issue of Smithsonian.


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