John Muir’s religious environmentalism and the Yosemite National Park

John Muir is a towering figure in American environmental history. He was a geologist, botanist, mountaineer, journalist, author, confidant of Presidents and industrial leaders, co-founder of the Sierra Club and much more. His opinions were eagerly sought and often acted upon. By 1905, the Yosemite Valley’s final shape was complete. It included 1200 square miles of the surrounding Sierra Mountains a massive increase on the original 1864 Federal protection of the valley alone. Yet immediately prior to his death (1914) he suffered a crushing defeat. The Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was claimed to be a second Yosemite Valley, and therefore equally inviolate. From 1905 the Hetch Hetchy Valley was Federally protected and as previous attempts had been stymied, the Raker bill looked likely to fail as well. After all what had materially changed? Hetch Hetchy was still in the Yosemite Valley National Park and there were still alternative supplies. Also Hetch Hetchy was a grandiose engineering enterprise, which would be hugely difficult and expensive to complete. Hetch Hetchy did not have the utilitarian charm of ‘low hanging fruit’, easy economic wins at low cost. Therefore explaining Muir’s defeat is challenging. I will argue that Muir’s stellar achievements and iconic status ill-prepared him for this battle. Politicians from San Francisco’s offered tangible and compelling justifications for damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The basis of John Muir’s opposition was crisply unequivocal, justified by a lifetime of commitment expressed in numerous articles and book length treatments. Therefore the passing of the Raker Act was a personal defeat. His ideas were simply rejected: the utilitarian propositions of San Francisco were accepted.

John Muir was a child-emigrant to America and lived in Wisconsin. He left university before graduating and claimed that he was exchanging one university for another, better one. “I left the university…urged on and on in search of beauty and knowledge. Away I wandered happy and free and poor into the glorious American wilderness.”1 Aged twenty-five Muir pursued his new ‘university’ studies with an extended series of exploratory walks. These included Canada and an astonishing 1000-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico completed in 1867. His valedictory journey was intended to be one to California. On March 28th 1868 he arrived in San Francisco, aged thirty and intending to have a “final fling (which) would satiate his wanderlust.”i He left immediately the city for the Sierra Mountains. For Muir the wilderness was more than a university it was also an expression of God’s presence on earth. The wilderness appeared to authenticate him.
The intellectual excitement and spirituality that Muir found in the Sierra was powerfully expressed. In the Muir Papersii, “The wilderness is rather frugal in food for body but prodigal in its ministry to the mind.” He continued, “More wild knowledge, less arithmetic and grammar- compulsory education in the form of woodcraft, mountain craft, science at first hand.”iii In a letter to his brother, David, he wrote “Yet this glorious valley might well be called a church for every lover of the Great Creator who comes within the broad overwhelming influences of the place fails not to worship as they never did before.”iv An intense, almost rhapsodic ecstasy pervades his early writings. Of the Yosemite Valley he asks, “How did the Lord make it? What tools did he use?”v They were God’s ‘written rocks’vi, writing, as it were to him.vii This intensely idiosyncratic ‘relationship’ with rocks gradually transformed into an anthropomorphic one.viii Yet Muir was not an ecstatic pure and simple. He was also a serious scholar who contributed to significant research on geology. As he remarks, “This was my ‘method of study’: I drifted about from rock to rock, from stream to stream, from grove to grove.”ix
The Yosemite Valley appears to have made explicit Muir’s bonding with nature. The valley had federal protection (1864) and was acknowledged to be a premier site of natural beauty. Muir’s arrival did not therefore create a special understanding of the power of Yosemite’s spectacular beauty but he contributed his holistic concept of context. His book, The Mountains of California,x offers a critique of the totality of Yosemite National Park. It was published in 1894, prior to the incorporation of Hetch Hetchy Valley, and is predicated on the importance of completeness. The basis of the inclusion of Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park can be found here. It details the interaction of every element of the animate and inanimate in the mountains. His fine line drawings illustrate the parts of the environment but they also show their essential interaction. For example Muir felt that the integrity of grasslands was as crucial to the grandeur of the Yosemite as waterfalls and cliffs. Writing about the Mono Pass:
“the vegetation of the pass has been in great part destroyed, and the same may be said of all the more accessible passes through-out the range. Immense numbers of starving sheep and cattle have been driven through them into Nevada, trampling the wild gardens and meadows almost out of existence. The lofty walls are untouched by any foot, and the falls sing on unchanged; but the sight of crushed flowers and stripped, bitten bushes goes far toward destroying the charm of the wildness.”xi
Even the wind and the storms of the Sierra were part of his sublime experience. Muir sets out his position, “The mountain winds, like dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty.”xii John Muir however wanted to share the storms with the forest,
“the Silver Pines were now the most impressively beautiful of all. Colossal spires 200 feet in height waved like supple golden-rods chanting and bowing low as if in worship, while the whole mass of their long, tremulous foliage was kindled into one continuous blaze of white sun-fire.”xiii
Muir on one occasion climbed a “comparatively young…100 feet high…(tree which was) rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy” and found himself swept in an “arc of from twenty to thirty degrees.”xiv
His exploits as a mountaineer are readily recognisable to fellow mountaineers. The exhilaration, terror, physical stresses and, if successful, triumph are brilliantly expressed. Shocking to a modern mountaineer is his lack of ‘necessary’ equipment, which has introduced sophisticated technology to the sport.
“Oftentimes in climbing canyon walls I have come to polished slopes that seem too steep to venture on. After scrutinising them, carefully noting every dint and scratch that might give hope for a foothold, I have decided they were unsafe. Yet my limbs, as if possessing a separate sense, would be of a different opinion, and cross the condemned slope against the remonstrances of the will…In like manner the soul sets forth at times on rambles of its own.”xv
Muir did not mountaineer for sport, just as he did not climb trees in storms for sport. The mountains of the Sierra were there as a further opportunity to become at one with both wilderness and God, which on one reading are synonymous. The appositely named Cathedral Mountain was described by Muir as being the place where:
“This is the first time I have been in church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshipper”…xvi

Muir’s wonderful contribution to American and world environmentalism stemmed from his profound religious experiences. This connexion with the wilderness as a sublime life-changing insight in to the meaning of life underpins Muir’s personal biography but it also offers a compelling argument for the defence of wildernesses against exploitation by resource based industries.

i Robert Engberg and Donald Wesling (ed.) John Muir: To Yosemite and Beyond: Writings from the years 1863 to 1875 (London, 1980) p26 The Pelican Bay Mss. Muir left Wisconsin university in 1863 for the ‘university of the wilderness’ p.xv
ii John Warfield Simpson, Dam! Water, Power, Politics, and Preservation in Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite National Park (New York, 2005) p 39-40
iii Engberg and Wesling (ed.), John Muir p 54
iv loc.cit
v Ibid, p61 Letter dated 20th March 1870
vi Ibid p 70 Letter to Mrs Carr 8th September 1871
vii Ibid p69
viii loc. cit.
ix Ibid p113 “Rocks have a kind of life perhaps not so different from ours as we imagine. Anyhow their material beauty is only a veil covering spiritual beauty- a divine incarnation…” Autobiographical Fragments.
x Linnie Marsh Wolfe, John of the Mountains: the Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Madison, 1979) p 69 Explorations in the Great Tuolumne Canyon
xi John Muir, The Mountains of California (New York, 2001)
xii Ibid, p 72 Compare his attitude to the indigenous wild sheep that he admired. Once describing them as “these animal mountaineers” (p 227) quite unlike domestic sheep which, “is only a fraction of an animal.” (p 229) Muir devoted an entire chapter (XIV) to The Wild Sheep once again confirming his holistic view of the Sierra’s.
xiii John Muir, Mountains, p177
xiv Ibid p181
xv Ibid, p 183 That he could continue with a very analytic appraisal from that dangerous perch could be ‘artistic licence’ but it does actually match many other aspects of Muir’s mountaineering exploits, where he showed comparable ease in the face of danger. Compare also “Though Muir didn’t worship the trees, he did seem worship with the trees and through the trees.” (italics added) http://hummingbirdworld/com/spiritnature/index.html
xvi Wolfe, John of the Mountains, p78 No mention here of high tensile ropes, hammers, pegs, helmets, technologically enhanced boots and socks: indeed on other occasions he mentions removing his hob nailed boots and climbing bare footed.
xvii Graham White (Introduction) John Muir: the Wilderness Journey’s (Edinburgh, 1996) p 144

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