Tag archive for John Muir

the Lyell mountains and glacier chain

The high ridge on the upper right overlooking a north face still heavy with ice and snow is Mt Lyell, at 13.100 the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. In that whiteness a hundred and fifty years ago John Muir discovered the first “living glacier” in California.


From a wonderful trip led by Pete Devine for the Yosemite Conservancy. Highly recommended.

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The John Muir Way — now in Scotland too

Mark Grossi, a California reporter of long standing, recently retired, and his paper republished some of his best work, notably this recounting of a stretch on the John Muir Trail, walked in memory of Gross’s late father.

Speaking of John Muir, recently a wonderful story in the Wall Street Journal described a new trail through Scotland in honor of this great immigrant American hero.

Here in his homeland, however, Mr. Muir remains surprisingly little-known. Until recently there was not much to mark his memory apart from this statue and the small, white, pebble-dashed house across the road, where he was born in 1838 and which today houses the John Muir’s Birthplace museum.

Last year, Scotland inaugurated the John Muir Way, a new walking route that traverses the country west-to-east for 134 miles between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. It was conceived both to resurrect Mr. Muir in the Scottish consciousness and, as environmentalist Keith Geddes, one of the Way’s architects, explained, to “help today’s young Scots develop a relationship with the countryside around them.”

The trail takes a few days, and has industrial and architectural parts as well as wild parts. But walking on past Loch Lomond, the first and most famous of Scottish national parks, Henry Wismayer finds a certain peace.

Throughout the afternoon we rarely saw another walker. And if we looked in the right direction at the right moment even here, 30 miles from Glasgow, we could glimpse the pre-human innocence Mr. Muir coveted, away from what he called the “tyranny of man.”

Perhaps, I thought, as we rolled down toward the Way’s end in coastal Helensburgh, the intrepid nature-lover, who described himself as “hopelessly and forever a mountaineer,” might have selected a trickier route through these hills.

But accessibility is what the Way is all about: coaxing people to dust off their boots, pack a bag and set out to explore the many colors of Scotland’s coastline and countryside. And that is no doubt a mission that Mr. Muir would have commended.

From the story, here’s a new statue of Muir stood up in his hometown, ancient Dunbar.


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Blogging the Pope’s “Praise Be”: on Nature as a book

In Chapter 12 of Pope Francis' encyclical, "Praise Be," in our language, just before he launches into an appeal to all people to come together to save the world, the pontiff brings up the idea of nature as a book.

He writes (in a passage that is, may I say, too rich to be truncated):

12. What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.[21] Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.

The metaphor of nature as a volume of writings has been with us long before the paperback – since the Greeks. The Book of Nature, the idea was called, and (as usual) Aristotle has a lot to do with whipping it into a shape we can recognize. The metaphor/idea was inculcated in many of the Christian faith growing up over the centuries. To give an example John Muir grew up with the concept and in his youth likened Nature to a book, with Scripture to be revealed. He talked of glaciers writing their stories on the walls of Yosemite.

But as Muir grew older, and as he grew as a writer, he moved away from that metaphor. (As discussed in Frederick Turner's biography "Rediscovering America.") Nature was too fluid, too alive, to be likened to dead things, even if they were words on paper.

The pontiff doesn't directly confront this weakness in the thinking, but he has an answer for it. Because Saint Francis so loved wild things, and connected wild things with God, he reserved a part of the friary garden for that divine purpose. So the Pope sanctifies wilderness.

Here's Albrecht Durer's simply unbelievable watercolor of much the same idea, called, in our language "Great Piece of Turf." It's said to be painting's discovery of ecology:



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Between every two tall cacti is a door to a new way of life

On the PCT, in the Anza-Borrego desert, seeing two ocotillo beside the trail like gate posts reminded me of a famous quote of John Muir's. (Okay, I'm a nerd, I admit it.) 

The quote, from a note Muir made in a margin, goes something like this: 

Between every two pine trees is a door leading to a new way of life. 

Could the same be said of two ocotillo on the PCT?


Hope so. 

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“Sheepwrecked” in Yosemite, Santa Cruz I., and the UK

140 years ago sheep were devastating the slopes and meadows of the Sierras and John Muir launched an effort — which took decades — to remove them. He wrote:

It is impossible to conceive of a devastation more universal than is produced among the plants of the Sierra by sheep…The greass is eaten close and trodden until it resembles a corral… Where the soil is not preserved by a strong elastic sod, it is cut up and beaten to loose dust and every herbaceous plant is killed. Tees and bushes escape, but they appear to stand in a desert very different from the delicately planted forest floor which is gardneed with flowers arranged in open separated groups. Nine-tenths of the whole surface of the Sierra has been swept by the scourge. It demands legislative interference. [from his journals for September 19, 1873]

Recently the well-known environmental columnist for the Guardian, George Monbiot, has launched his own campaign against the destruction wrought by sheep on a landscape, bY opposing — in a contrarian fashion — the designation of England's famous Lake District as a World Heritage site. He writes:

The celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheepwrecked: the forests which once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green. By eating the young trees that would otherwise have replaced their parents, the sheep wiped the hills clean. They keep them naked, mowing down every edible plant that raises its head, depriving animals of their habitats. You’ll see more wildlife in Birmingham. Their sharp hooves compact the soil, ensuring that rain flashes off, causing floods downstream. This is the state which the bid would help preserve in perpetuity, preventing the ecological restoration of England’s biggest national park.

This is part of Monbiot's rewilding campaign, as he states in a manifesto:

Through rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – I see an opportunity to reverse the destruction of the natural world. Researching my book Feral, I came across rewilding programmes in several parts of Europe, including some (such as Trees for Life in Scotland and the Wales Wild Land Foundation) in the UK, which are beginning to show how swiftly nature responds when we stop trying to control it (18,19). Rewilding, in my view, should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back. It’s about abandoning the Biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world.

It's so difficult for us to imagine a landscape before the arrival of us and our domestic animals. Monbiot quotes a forester named Ritchie Tassell sarcascitally wondering: "How did nature cope before we came along?"  

Herdwich sheep lake district large


"Rewilding" is a concept introduced in this country by Dave Foreman, of Earth First! fame.  I think it's best-known example in the U.S. is the idea of a route built over or under a highways to allows animals, especially migrating animals, to pass safely

But removing the sheep from the Lake District sounds like a start.

Anyone who has been to Santa Cruz Island, in a national park off the coast of Southern California, can can readily imagine how different and pleasant that island would be with hills of vineyard, producing tens of thousands of gallons of wine, instead of the unimaginably huge sheep farm that took over. 

For many years, dating back to the Spanish era, Santa Cruz island produced wine for the entire state, until a rancher named Ed Stanton took control, idled the vineyard, and imported thousands of sheep. A sucessful sheep operation resulted, and produced revenue while devastating the island, but eventually was bought out by the parks service. The sheep were eradicated in recent years. 

Point being: the Lake District too could benefit from a rewilding — and sheep removal. 

[We have no pictures, apparenlty, of Ed Stanton having the wine casks emptied and 26,000 gallons of wine poured out on the ground, but we do have a history of his operation. ]

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Muirtweets: Like a wind full of thistledown

A year or two ago I launched a Twitter stream devoted to the thoughts of a hero of mine, John Muir, believing that no one better inspires a person to explore nature. 

To be honest, found myself overwhelmed by life and dropped that thread for a while, only to pick up my current edition of Sierra magazine and find that the executive director of the Sierra Club writing a column about how if Muir were alive today, he'd be tweeting. In a piece headlined "Muir tweets." 

Muir's newspaper and magazine articles described and exalted wilderness and opened the eyes of the American people to its value. Those short pieces, together with the detailed journals he kept during his travels, formed the basis for the books he wrote later in his life (he didn't publish his first one until he was 56). Muir had a gift for distilling profound thoughts into short sound bites. Sample "tweet": "None of Nature's landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild."

Well, in an Emersonian sense, Muir still is alive, and here's a tweet to prove it:

Those of you who like Twitter and/or nature, please check out Muirtweets. Thank you.

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John Muir, meet RuPaul. RuPaul, meet…

You have to know hiking/backpacking is surging in popularity when TV stars take it up. From the fluffy Saturday section in the Los Angeles Times, a charming interview with the famous drag queen/unway artist RuPaul:

How has your life changed since you picked it up?

feel great throughout the day because I've gotten so much done so early
in the morning. I'm 51 years old, and I feel stronger today than I have
in my whole life.

It's also good to experience what a body feels
like when it's working at its full capacity. Your lungs are actually
doing what they're supposed to do.

This is also my time to meditate and to clear my head, work out issues and listen to music and actually get a good workout also.

By hiking, I really fell in love with Los Angeles.

fact that you can be in one of the most major metropolitan cities in
the world and then be in the wilderness, five minutes from the busiest
street in the city, is incredible. It's a great way to center myself in
one of the biggest cities in the world.

Now all we need to see on the trail, to prove the trend, is Kobe or LeBron…but for now, RuPaul looks good: 


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Indian summer snowfall in the Sierra: John Muir

John Muir wrote poetry almost unconsciously. Or so it seems. For him metaphors — such as the idea of a land of clouds — were embedded in his thinking from his early days, and evolved easily into poems (though they're easier to see with a few line breaks).

Here's an entry in his journal from April 21, l871, refering (I think) to an early snowfall, but also the mutability of natural forms, the flowing from one state of beauty to another: 

In the calm thoughtful Indian summer
when the earlies of the Cloudland meadows are in bloom
they shed their radiant snowflowers
like apple orchards in the spring
in the brown grasses
and tasseled needles of the pines
falling hour after hour
day after day
hither wither
glinting against one another
rays interlocking
lovingly silently

and soon the dry grasses
and the trees
and the moraines
and the meadows
are all equally ablaze again.

Jeff Sullivan, who likes to share his photos on Google+, captures a sense of this in a photo of clouds from the north fork of Bishop Creek early last October, which developed into a big snow days later.  


Like Muir, he urges folks to go see these visions, to get past our fears. Will try soon, I hope.  

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The richness of the light of these days: John Muir

Warm and bright, the valley was spanned by fibrous bows of white cloud, heated masses of air from currentless ovens of chambered and bushy rocks lifted by newborn winds and bourne whole or in fragments about the open gulf of the valley…the richness of the light of these days recalls our best mellow autumns and springs. 

John Muir, January 24-26, 1869    

(via my new Twitter stream, Muirtweets)

(image from an astounding HD video posted today on YosemiteBlog)                                                                                        

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Dreamed in the sunbeams: John Muir

From his unpublished journals written in his sheep-herding days, before Muir came to stay in Yosemite Valley:

Dreamed in the sunbeams, when the sheep were calm, the plan of a hermitage: walls of pure white quartz, doors and windows edged with quartz crystals, windows of thin smooth sheets of water with ruffling apparatus to answer for curtains. The door a slate falke with brown and purple and yellow lichens. And oh, could not I find furniture! My table would be a grooved and shining slab of granite from the bed of the old mountain glaciers, my stool a mossy stump or tree bracket of the big dry, stout kind, and a bed of the spicy boughs of the spruce, etc., ad infinitum

John Muir, January 21, 1869 [from John of the Mountains]

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