John Muir is widely viewed as the father of the national park system in the United States. A conservationist, naturalist and writer in the late-nineteenth and early 20th centuries, he was most at home in places where trees outnumbered people. Muir is best-known for his successful effort to save Yosemite National Park from development, and for his failed effort to stop the flooding of one high mountain valley there to create the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir for San Francisco’s drinking water.
I grew up in the town where Muir spent many of his middle and late years. He lived in a grand old Victorian mansion once constructed by his wife’s father, ran the family’s successful fruit orchard and wrote prolifically to raise awareness about the value of wild places. On a recent visit to my childhood home, I stopped in to the John Muir National Historic Site.
I rode the school bus past this place every day for many years. Forty years later, I am suddenly aware of the influence Muir’s ghost-presence had on my own value system as a writer. I can’t say I read much of Muir’s work until I was well into adulthood, but something about his profile in my home town must have sunk in to my way of thinking about wild places and the value of natural systems. As I strolled around the wonderfully preserved grounds and climbed up to the second story of his home to his “scribble room” where he wrote many books and articles, I felt a growing debt to this great writer. I can see now how his family’s link to my community quietly bent my thoughts: in a direction capable of seeing and valuing wild, no matter where I am, no matter how much our culture has destroyed.
Muir once said that any fool could cut down a tree, but only a special person could save one. My current research into the value of ancient rainforests is proving to me again that we are pretty good at taking, and not so good at connecting to and caring for landscapes that have been so tirelessly generous.
In the late 19th century, Muir planted a wild sequoia from the Sierra Nevada wilderness on his property. It is a grand old tree today and offers a rare opportunity to see a mountain-loving sequoia thriving in the same place as a palm tree.
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