The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
Waking up in a bed, in a room, was strangely silent; no birds, no chickarees, no creek rushing by. Just the muted drone of the generator. I felt wrung out, heavy, ready for a nice, brisk rest.
At the cafe I had a monstrous stack of pancakes that I forced myself to finish even though I had drowned it with butter and syrup. The three engineers were still at it. They told the waitress that, even if she wouldn’t come along on their backpack trip, she could at least serve them coffee on the “yacht” as it took them across the lake. Finally they left.
The waitress and cook, both Chicanas, cleared up from what they called “the breakfast rush” –the three engineers and me–and started talking wistfully about beans and tortillas.
“I haven’t had a nice pot of beans since we got here,” the cook complained. “I’ll make some if you’ll do the tortillas.”
“Does Katie have a Mexican tortilla bowl?” the waitress asked.
“I think so.” The cook rummaged around, her head deep in a cupboard. She emerged triumphant. “Here it is.” It was a big, green Tupperware bowl.
I said, “That looks to me like what my mother used to call a `potato salad bowl.'”
“You must have had a deprived childhood. This is a Mexican tortilla bowl. It says so right in the Tupperware catalogue, page 87,” she retorted.
I left them happily clanging pots and searching out cornmeal and beans and meandered around. The nearby campsite, where I had briefly stayed, was deserted except for a ranger from California Land Conservation, a private company that manages campgrounds on Forest Service Lands.
“Hi! Kinda quiet around here, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yeah, during the week it’s almost always like this. Makes a nice change for me from going to every campsite, telling all these city folks to lock up their ice chests inside their cars out of sight.”
“Bears?” I asked. He nodded.
“Bears. We get one every third night, almost like they’ve got a schedule, a duty roster. They come around, knock over the garbage cans, wake everybody up, eat whatever’s there, then go on to the next site.”
“Nobody chases them away?” I asked.
“Oh, sometimes they do. But the bears are getting tougher to chase. Used to be you could just shout at them. Now you pretty much have to throw rocks. Even so, they’ll just circle around and go at another campsite. It’s getting to be this job isn’t so much fun any more.”
“Then why do you stay?”
“The fishing. I can go up the trail, fish the creeks, and catch as many trout as I want most days.”
“Nah, not really. In these little creeks, a 12-incher is going some. You gotta fish the lower lakes for anything bigger. I think they’re stunted because there are so damn many of them in the creeks, there just isn’t enough for that many trout to eat.”
I wandered back to the lodge and picked up a book, an historical romance about early eighteenth century England and Virginia. Odd reading for a rest stop along the John Muir Trail, though a minor character, William Byrd of Virginia, was actually one of the first to write enthusiastically about the American Wilderness.
I saw my neighbors returning to the room next door. The man carried fishing gear. I asked if he’d had any luck.
“Not much. I got three, the biggest a 14-incher. I had nothing doing for a long time, then finally I switched to worms and got a few bites. It was an awful lot of trolling around listening to the motor going for three little trout. You here to fish?”
“No. I’m resting and fattening up on Katie’s pies. I’m doing the John Muir Trail.”
“From Yosemite to Mt. Whitney?”
“All of it?”
I nodded again.
“Well, all I can say is you’re a better man than I, Charlie Brown. How was Yosemite Valley? Mobbed?”
“Just sort of semi-mobbed. I left just before the Fourth. Everything was full but, you know how it is, if you get up early or stay out late, you don’t really see too many people.”
“Yeah. I remember the first time I was there. Must have been about twenty years ago. I went and camped with some friends and they were late sleepers so I did my usual thing. I got up at five, made some coffee, and then walked all over. Unbelievable. Just me and Yosemite Falls. Just me and Mirror Lake. Just me and the deer in the meadows. I bet I didn’t see twenty other people in two hours. Then I went back and had breakfast. It was so perfect, I haven’t gone back to The Valley to camp since then.”
“You go to the High Country much?” I asked.
“I’ve been to a couple of those High Sierra Camps. I remember the first time I went to one, it was Sunrise Camp, I think. They used to throw out the table scraps for the bears. They don’t do that any more. Had too many problems with some bears who wouldn’t wait until the people were done with the steaks, tried to climb right in the tent and get them off the plates. But I’ll never forget eating my dinner, watching the bears pacing back and forth outside, waiting their turn. Unbelievable!”
I checked out the store. They didn’t have any freeze dried meals, but they had drink mixes, instant oatmeal, potato flakes, candy bars and enough other quick cooking and ready-to-eat foods that a hiker could re-supply adequately if a bear got his food. They also sold fuel for various kinds of stoves, including white gas by the quart, and would pick up and hold, very inexpensively, packages from the post office down the road.
My wife showed up in time for lunch. She had horror stories about the road from the Central Valley. The lodge sold tee-shirts bearing the slogan, “I Survived The Road To Lake Edison” and she said it was that bad. The John Muir Trail was straighter than that road. Some of the heavily built trail sections were more substantial than that road.
Most of the people who drive the road come to fish in Lake Edison. The dam was built as part of a flood control and irrigation project involving three major dams. It was all national forest land, but the Forest Service welcomed dams. They epitomized the “multiple use” philosophy that has guided the Forest Service from the time of Gifford Pinchot down to the present day. Flood control, water supply, power generation, timber production (clearing the land for the lake) and recreation are all served by a dam project. Exactly the sort of philosophy that drowned Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Dams are formed in various ways. Humans use rock-and- earth or concrete (which is simply artificial rock). Beavers use sticks. Some dams are formed by landslides or lava flows. All have the characteristic of altering the local environment. Yet dams created by humans are often hated by other humans. The three greatest fights the Sierra Club has fought have all been over dams, starting with Hetch Hetchy, when Muir was still, “guide and apostle.”
Muir’s budding re-awakening to literary and political activity was brought to fruition by Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century, one of the most prominent magazines in the country a hundred years ago. The catalyst was their famous camping trip to Tuolumne Meadows in 1889. Each seemed to have thought the trip was a way to inspire the other to do something to save the High Sierra from the sheep which Muir felt were rapidly altering the sub-alpine environment. In the end, they were both caught. Muir wrote two long articles on Yosemite, advocating a National Park to surround the still state-run grant of the Valley. Johnson published the articles and lobbied energetically. Congress complied with this emotional and literary onslaught, creating a National Park that included almost all the present-day park plus the southeastern area down to Devil’s Postpile that was excised in 1905 when the Valley was taken from state control and added to the National Park.
Another fruit of this budding friendship was the creation, in 1892, of the Sierra Club, with Muir as President, apostle, guide, and inspiration.
The Club grew slowly and quietly for a few years, then a little faster after 1901 with the start of the High Trips. But not until the City of San Francisco began its push for a dam on the Tuolumne at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley was the whole idea of preservation vs. use articulated on the front and editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers.
Muir summed up the basic arguments against the dam in some of his most elegant, most elevated prose:
“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.
“Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
Since the early days of this century, a large and growing movement considered Nature to be an expression of the idea of the Holy. This belief was manifested by treating certain parts of the earth “untouched by man” as “holy ground.” Once you accept a place as holy, certain kinds of behaviors and artifacts are inevitably considered spiritual pollution, blasphemy, heresy. Muir makes the connection overt in this passage. Those who would dam Hetch Hetchy are “temple destroyers” who worship the “Almighty Dollar.” Clearly, he was trying to keep the money changers out of the temple. To drive home the parallel, he offered the image of using churches themselves as “water-tanks.”
Yet when the Lake Edison Dam was built, no similar voice cried in the wilderness to save that particular mountain valley. The national forests, it was generally accepted, were to be used. At that time, even the Sierra Club was willing to allow extensive logging and dam construction in National Forests, anything to preserve the National Parks.
The idea that Nature exists for the use of Man is widespread even among cultures that do not venerate the phrase, “replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Pinchot’s extension of this grant of the earth and every animal was his idea of conservation– “Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.”
A recent book, Reforming The Forest Service, suggests the way to reduce the excessive lumbering and dam and road building in the National Forests is to charge all users the true value of their use, whether, hunting, fishing, hiking, tree cutting or dam building. A rational idea. Too rational, perhaps. It won’t satisfy those for whom the forest is “sacred space.” It also won’t satisfy those for whom the forests are a personal possession, who feel they have a vested interest in the resources of the forest, an interest of Divine origin. One of the epithets hurled against Muir and other defenders of Hetch Hetchy was “nature lovers” –as if the love of Nature, itself, was an impious or foolish emotion. In the recurrent battles over use vs. preservation, these conflicts are always grounded in this same dichotomy–those for whom the natural world is “holy” fighting against those who claim an ownership interest in everything under the sun unless it is owned by another. The colonists initially confused Native Americans when they wanted to buy their land. To the “nature lovers” –the Indians were right.
Annual Physical John showed up that afternoon from the ferry. By the time I saw him, he had showered and shaved. He was barely recognizable as the grubby camper I remembered. That evening after dinner, he and I and my wife talked about the trail, the weather, Wilderness and other topics of interest. Somehow we got on the subject of Milton. John talked about hearing an author’s voice as he read.
“I once asked somebody to read a bit of Paradise Lost and he immediately put on this big, deep, Orator’s voice. That’s not how I hear Milton at all. I hear him as a thin, high, slightly reedy voice speaking softly but with absolute conviction.”
Just then a sharp jolt shook the room. An earthquake. We all looked up, suddenly very alert as always, when you don’t know yet if this is a minor shaker or, “The Big One.” It was minor, but it was enough to change the subject. Soon John left, saying slyly, “Well I’m sure you two are more than ready to go to bed by now.”
When Muir took his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, he carried three books–a New Testament, Burns’ poems, and Milton. When he wrote to his daughter Wanda, many years later, giving suggestions for poems to memorize, he mentioned the Bible and Milton. “…the sayings of Christ in the gospels, & selections from the poets. Find the hymn of praise in Paradise Lost– ‘These are thy glorious works Parent of Good [sic] Almighty,’ and learn it well.” Even Gifford Pinchot, when he toured the western forests at the turn of the century, carried his Milton, as did Teddy Roosevelt on his grand African safari in 1910.
Muir, Roosevelt, and Pinchot never say what they thought, reading Milton in the depths of some forest in Georgia or Washington. What did they make of Milton’s description of The Garden?
“a circling row
Of goodliest Trees loaden with fairest Fruit,
Blossoms and Fruits at once of golden hue
Appear’d, with gay enamell’d colors mixt:
… so lovely seem’d
Images like these must have been a powerful stimulus, absorbed with the primeval forests of Muir’s travels. Peter Schmitt has placed the origins of the National Parks movement within the context of a longing for a classically-derived Arcadia. But this affinity for Milton suggests a deeper vision. Though Milton’s lushest poetry described a walled garden, Muir certainly must have seen this as Nature itself, before Man polluted it with the machines that Milton presents as inspired by the Devil. If God’s creation was a luxuriant Garden, surely cities, factories and machines were born of Satan. And Dams, as well.