Tag Archives: John Muir

Is Nature mean? Or is She kind?

Or simply indifferent?

Visiting Yosemite National Park in the spring of 2023 I have come to believe it might really be all of the above. Smoke plumes rise and mingle with mist from the multiple waterfalls flowing down from great heights all around.

We see small smoldering pyramids of branches and brush, lit by fluorescent-garbed fire professionals to eliminate underbrush that might spread wildfire.

The National Park Service will be shutting down most of the 747,956-acre Park starting Friday night, two days after our visit, because the place is expected to flood. Some of the roads as we drive already shows signs of dangerously high water.

The snow is melting into music, wrote John Muir, he who knew Yosemite through and through, sunshine to snow melt. The waters of the Merced River rise and rush, a bathtub of soap bubbles.

Yosemite is breathtaking, lush with grasses after all of California’s precipitation this year.

It is probably impossible to do justice to El Capitan or Half Dome or the rest without a tripod and fancy camera, and myriad shutterbugs throng the route’s turnoffs.

But actually, any picture in these parts is a good picture, so divine are the views.

It is hard to believe the Nature is angry even as the fires burn and the floods rise, the mountains are so majestic, such a boon to humankind.

We cannot ascend to the high peaks as the roads through the passes will be closed until May due to snowpack.

We knew this coming in, but chose to make the trip anyway, taking the dreamy highway down from San Francisco through the Central Valley. We saw some happy dairy cows noshing on green grass in roadside fields and others reveling knee-deep in spa-like shady watering holes. Once in a while bull would wander off, doing his own lazy thing, and I was of course reminded of sweet Ferdinand.

Wait, do cattle have knees?

The funky resort where we stay at the edge of the Park, known as the Yosemite Bug, bears a discernable southern California-hippie-Charlie Manson vibe.

All the little cabins have been set into the hillside, necessitating a clamber up to get to your room.

It is a place that offers rentable snow shoes and tire chains in the icy season. Now it appeals mainly with insect art, hung everywhere. The Junebug seems to be the totem animal.

Entomology is not my thing, but I know that Junebugs and mayflies are identical. Mayflies do not bite. The reason: they have no mouths. Their life span is a mere 24-72 hours.

Seeing the celebration of insect life all around the lodge I recall mayflies I saw on Star Island off the coast of New England one summer years ago, how wet and gross and omnipresent they were, flying against the lights at night, as well as the daytime vision of a doomed one being crunched between the diminutive jaws of a chipmunk perched on a pine stump. My mind was not entirely well at the time, and I recall how the sight seemed a metaphor for the futility of human existence.

At the Bug, we find ourselves startled by a bison head looming over the door of the canteen.

I had no idea bison were so gi-normous. Bison factoid number one: bison and buffalo are two different creatures, and it is bison that roamed America before their population was decimated in the course of the genocide campaign against Indigenous Americans of the Plains. Photo documentation reveals bison skulls ultimately used for fertilizer.

Bison factoid number two: the animal was never native to California. Bison factoid number three: in 1891, in a burst of Wild-West fervor, bison were introduced into Golden Gate Park, where a now-all-female herd lives in a paddock and cannot possibly charge innocent day trippers. Having all females just keeps everything a little bit more calm, the general manager of San Francisco Recreation and Parks has been quoted as saying. Ain’t it the truth.

The food at the Bug is scrumptious, and after a dinner of kimchee ramen, a sleep worthy of Ferdinand and a pancake breakfast we begin our adventure through the lowlands and bluffs.

The road in to Yosemite Valley ought to be called red bud highway.

Nature is indeed kind to bestow this flaming fuschia everywhere, now just going from bud to blossom.

Which is more beautiful, the shape of the trees themselves or the showy flowers, ready for their closeup? Additionally, the blooms make a delicious addition to salads.

Making our way past rockslides takes patience.

Even windshield views reveal amazing plants making a life in the granite.

John Muir wrote: When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.

We are rewarded with the sight of iconic formations. Passing under Arch Rock is like entering a magic zone.

Many people have obviously come this way, with some comical results.

We worship at a spot marked by history, the very place were Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir sat down together in 1903 and talked forest good. Not sure exactly what that means but it sounds like a positive.

I kvell, imagining Muir lighting his campfire here—serving up a salad with redbud blossoms?

I also think of him walking here all the way from San Francisco and seeing this landscape for the first time. Muir wrote that he was overwhelmed, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower. Less jumping now, apparently.

We come across quaint old interdenominational Yosemite Community Church nestled beneath the sheer face of Half Dome.

Built in 1879, it predates the Park itself and is in fact the oldest building in Yosemite. It would have been there when John Muir first sauntered through (he preferred the word saunter to hike). The church is closed, it being Wednesday, but I enjoy the sign outside.

Some people might prefer a meeting to a stiff drink after whooping and howling down these mountains.

Ponderosa pines are everywhere. Muir: Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Nature nurtures us. We are so fortunate to have these trees, along with the other 36 species in Yosemite, including black oaks and sugar pines, Douglas firs and incense cedars. And giant sequoias, of course, some of them 300 feet tall, although on this trip we do not see many of the earth’s oldest living specimens.

Still, we have to look up. Ponderosas can reach 200 feet, so they’re no slouch in the reach-for-the-clouds department.

And Ponderosas have it over sequoias in the department of fragrance. We stick our noses up close to the tree’s rough-plated bark and get a good hit of butterscotch. We admire the plant life enjoying itself, having a good old life in the tree bark’s grooves, its nooks and crannies.

We look down to see the ground littered with cones and breathe in the intoxicating breeze wafting up from the carpet of brown needles.

Muir wrote about his first summer in the Sierras: Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue. 

I want to come back and stay in a platform tent here some day. Unit 309 will do just fine, thank you.

Muir was not always serious. He must have had a sense of humor to describe himself as poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!! On another occasion he wrote: Surely all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes – all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them. 

So let’s have fun when we camp out in the Valley. I will bring the n/a beer, you bring the salty snacks.

Muir, once more: Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail. 

It’s not only old trees here. Fetching young ones spring up all around as well.

We break open our box lunch brought from the Bug and I devour the most delicious sandwich with which I have ever filled my gut, crispy bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado. Happy makes hungry.

A current storm not of Nature’s making involves recent controversy surrounding John Muir’s views about people of color. He was criticized a few years ago by the then executive director Michael Brune of the Sierra Club for his comments about the Indigenous people he came across on his travels through America. Brune asserted in a 2020 blog post that the group must “take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.” He said that the storied conservationist must be chastised for his “derogatory comments … that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.” In one oft-quoted remark, Muir spoke of the strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness

Brune’s assertion drew pushback from traditionalist board directors and he had to step down, but not before Muir received a public trouncing.

Who knew that blog posts could be so influential? Poet W.H. Auden famously said, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and I was always under the impression that blogs ranked even lower than verse in the category of inconsequentiality.

Now the Sierra Club takes a measured view. A History and Future Task Force concluded in 2021: The Sierra Club acknowledges that John Muir used derogatory language about Indigenous people that created harm. Muir later recognized and appreciated the achievements of Indigenous people and spoke about the equality of all people and the importance of making public lands accessible for all.”

What did he say as he matured? He wrote after visiting with Alaska’s Native Americans in 1879 that:

“The most striking characteristic of these people is their serene dignity in circumstances that to us would be novel and embarrassing. Even the little children behave with natural dignity, come to the white men when called, and restrain their wonder at the strange prayers, hymn-singing, etc. This evening an old woman fell asleep in the meeting and began to snore; and though both old and young were shaking with suppressed mirth, they evidently took great pains to conceal it. It seems wonderful to me that these so-called savages can make one feel at home in their families. In good breeding, intelligence, and skill in accomplishing whatever they try to do with tools, they seem to me to rank above most of our uneducated white laborers.

While the current thinking regarding Muir’s views might or might not contain some truth, what is clear is that the ecosystem he did so much to preserve still thrives.

Muir wrote: Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

In recognition of this truth, the Park Service has now taken the controversial step of expanding the built environment at Yosemite to allow for more comfortable tourism. Off to the edges we see earthmoving machines and cut trees and construction workers hard at pouring concrete to create expanded viewing platforms.

Five million people from all over the world descend up the Valley and the Peaks in the warm months, wanting to get just a taste of John Muir’s elation over the Sierras.

Muir: Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality. 

All in all it strikes me that Nature is mostly indifferent to our presence here. These stern mountains and this sumptuous valley will go on for eon upon eon regardless of what we careless and sometimes stupid humans do to each other, making our tiny, flailing forays up her wildflower-rich greenscapes. All we can do is be a little less mean, a little more kind in the day to day. Nature’s job is to remain magnificent. Ours is to rise, somehow, however improbably, to the example She sets.

That’s all we can do, and the effort is hard. But the attempt means something, now more than ever.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

I fall in love

with the big old trees the moment I walk into Muir Woods. Same as everyone.

It’s a funny place. On the one hand these redwoods, ancient marvels of nature, on the other a precious tourist attraction.

I go there accompanied by two smart people, Bay Area denizen Lisa, my friend of fully 45 years, and local landscape architect and pro urban forester Karla.

We enter amid the startling hush of trees, relatively uncrowded because it’s not yet the height of the season.

Lisa says, The new foliage looks so soft, doesn’t it? It’s gorgeous.

Karla: Did you know that the redwoods get fifty percent of their water from the fog? And the fog patterns have been changing.

Muir Woods is a careful, considered sort of place.

At the entrance you’ll find a carved map of the terrain, helpfully imprinted in braille. Interesting choice. As a young inventor John Muir nearly went blind when a piece of metal flew off of a project and damaged his cornea. He recovered his sight, thankfully.

It is no wilderness. The paths are paved or wood plank. Over them tower the gentle giants. We admire them, same as everyone.

We see some marvelous wildflowers. Trees and trees and more trees. A creek. We experience awe, same as everyone.

Karla worked at the nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest off and on for two decades, most recently as vice president of operations, before going off on her own as a landscape architect. She also is helping the Society of Municipal Arborists fine tune its high-level leadership program, called the Municial Forestry Institute, to better serve the urban foresters of the future, looking at possible gaps in curriculum, study materials, teachers. Karla and I both graduated from MFI in different years. Rethinking the program is a big job, and she’s “like the head spider, weaving it all together.”

We stop at a fairy circle of redwoods as we go – the center one burned in a long-ago fire and youngsters sprung up around it. This piece of land was saved when the wealthy couple John and Elizabeth Kent saw the future and bought 611 acres in 1905, afterward deeding it to the federal government and insisting it be named after Muir.

We wonder at the felling of these incredible trees before the turn of the twentieth century. How could people do such a thing? I have often found that arborists can be counterintuitive when it comes to trees, even unsentimental. Karla comments, My apartment is built of redwood. The gold rush helped build the city too, but without the redwood trees San Francisco would not exist.

People come from all around the world to experience these trees, to learn about nature.

Us too. I am wowed by some intricate fungi.

We admire the velvety moss all around, same as everyone. I tell Karla and Lisa that in the Muir biography I am reading I have learned that Muir had a close relationship with a married woman who started him on his naturalist road and who had a proficiency in mosses.

We speak of peoples’ feelings about trees in everyday life, apart from spectating in Muir Woods. Karla says, In San Francisco there really are some people that just don’t want a street tree. Either they don’t want you to put a tree there, or they don’t trust that the city will take care of it, or multiple people live in one house and there’s no parking, so they want to park on the sidewalk.

I mention the bugaboo I’ve come across in New York City, where people complain that falling acorns dent the roof of their car or that leaves are a mess to rake up. We admire the plants edging the paths here.

I ask Karla about invasives, a hot topic where I live on the east coast. If you’re asking about whether only native plants should be planted, or are invasive plants destroying our natural ecology, it’s two different things, she says. In California we have a type of broom that is invasive. When we have a massive fire and it grows under the trees, the flames spread even more quickly. Broom is really difficult to get rid of.

Karla says she wants do more professionally with fire protection, telling me, It’s a national problem, not only in California, as well as all over the world. And it’s only going to get worse.

We pass lots of educational signage.

Commemorative plaques.

I say, I know a lot of people who are serious hikers who might not touch this place with a ten-foot pole, it’s so civilized.

Karla says, Not everybody has the ability to travel far or hike long distances, or even to figure out where to go and make their way there. And in fact, despite the paved paths and inescapable signage, you can still hear the trees rustling in the breeze, the waters of the stream burbling, the birdsong all around. It’s pretty great that a person confined to a wheelchair can come here and experience these wonders.

Lisa shows me some graffiti. You know that humans love a place when they make the effort to carve an autograph.

Emily from Australia comes over with grandmother to chat, her pigtails swinging as she jumps up and down. She makes us guess her age. Six. I saw a spider web hotel!

Down the path, I insist that Karla and Lisa take a pose in a redwood crevice so I’ll have a souvenir, same as everyone.

We ooh and ahh about the redwood sorrel. They fold up when direct sunshine hits them. Little umbrellas, says Karla.

Lisa notices a plant that looks orchid-like, and in fact is a type of orchid.

And a giant horsetail.

Karla says, That might be one of the most primitive plants, along with gingkos.

Then we come to a massive timeline.

It gives the usual chronology of Muir Woods, but has been annotated to relay different facts, facts that might have been thought unimportant in the past.

What about the timeline? I ask Karla.

What about adding all those new factoids? What’s up with the revisionist history?

I would say it’s the broader history, the true history, she says firmly. THE history.

Karla was good enough to spend time with me and make sense of some of the more important issues of our day. The National Park Service was not quite as forthcoming. In answer to my query about meeting with a ranger on May 25, Public Affairs Specialist Julian Espinoza with the Office of Communications & External Affairs at Golden National Recreation Area sent apologies for the delay in getting back to you on this. Unfortunately, given the limited capacity of our staff at Muir Woods, we aren’t able to participate in an interview of that length. Okay.

In the very-small-world department, we discover that Lisa’s aspiring landscape architect nephew Alex, who attends the Merritt College Urban Forestry Program, founded in 2018 to train workers for the blossoming tree industry, just recently interviewed Karla for an assignment, asking questions about her career, how she got to her position, and what a typical day is like.

One of the most significant things I took away from the Municipal Forestry Institute was the suggestion that we find a mentor, she says, someone that I could go to for guidance, advice, unconditional support. Having someone who was always in my corner gently pushing me gave me the encouragement I needed to make big career decisions. It’s become important to me to do the same for others. I love giving support to people who are beginning their careers and helping grow new urban forestry leaders. Sharing my own work experiences seems to give hope, inspiration and motivation – and we all need a little bit of that no matter where we are in our careers.

Karla, Lisa and I make our way to the exit. We see a token of the recent past, already hopelessly dated, oddly out of place in these pristine but yet not so pristine woodlands.

Exiting through the gift shop there are carved bears.

There are baubles.

I forego the fog globe but get a few books, John Muir’s writings on the wonders of the natural world. I want something to take with me that will help me remember Muir Woods.

Same as everyone.

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