For days of infamy -- Pearl Harbor and Newtown school -- December has a handful. In remembrance of other national anguish, two anniversaries loom. One hundred years ago, on December 19, 1913, Congress passed 43-25 (with 29 abstentions) The Raker Act, drowning the natural twin of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park and taking federal lands to provide water and power to the proximate city of San Francisco. On December 24, 2014, John Muir died.
Everyone and everything dies, from gnats to galaxies, but people believed the famously, indefatigably ebullient John Muir died of heartbreak. Yes, he was hardy. Known for first ascents, he climbed steep, high mountains with his bare hands. He crawled through jungles on his knees. He went without sleep, without food, without blankets, on freezing nights. He was fearless, jubilant, an action hero.
Yet, his conviction of wilderness as holy and intrinsic to our nation's health led to his determination to help save it, and the way he sought to do this was by inspiring others to love it. If we loved it, he reasoned, we would care for and protect it. How would he inspire our love? He wrote about what he "beheld" in the wilderness, a place the dictionary defined as "barren" and "wasteland," being destroyed relentlessly by timber, mining and ranching, with belief that words of enthusiasm for it could shape the positive way we think and feel and act. And somehow words had failed. He had failed.
The man who is on California's quarter as a symbol of the state, for his wilderness advocacy efforts, had fought for the establishment of Yosemite National Park since he entered this land on foot in 1868, only four years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed into law the Yosemite Grant. This was an unprecedented act to protect a valley and forest forever, by giving it to the care of a state in the name of the people. Muir saw that the new state of California was powerless to protect this land -- it was already being desecrated. Thousands-year old trees were being cut down, meadows razed, streams polluted. He wrote letters home: "It needs legislative interference!" He believed in letters, he believed in words, and he believed in legislation.
And so he wrote his heart out.
In 1913, in part directly due to his passionate writings, Yosemite was a national park. But it was in trouble. Muir lifted his inextricably connected spirits and pen as he always did, and tried to rouse our national spirit in defense of the valley. In days when words held sway, he wrote The Yosemite, which was published in 1912. He describes the majestic wonders of the park, building up to his last pages, the case for preserving the valley from destruction.
Stirring Words As Action Plan:
Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life, whether leaning back in repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, their brows in the sky, their feet set in the groves and gay flowery meadows, while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music -- things frail and fleeting and types of permanence meeting here and blending, just as they do in Yosemite, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.
Sad to say, this most precious and sublime feature of the Yosemite National Park, one of the greatest of all our natural resources for the uplifting joy and peace and health of the people, is in danger of being dammed and made into a reservoir to help supply San Francisco with water and light, thus flooding it from wall to wall and burying its gardens and groves one or two hundred feet deep. This grossly destructive commercial scheme has long been planned and urged (though water as pure and abundant can be got from sources outside of the people's park, in a dozen different places), because of the comparative cheapness of the dam and of the territory which it is sought to divert from the great uses to which it was dedicated in the Act of 1890 establishing the Yosemite National Park.
No one writes like John Muir -- well, except for the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Thoreau, Wordsworth; because, those are the writers who fired the neural moxie of this botanist/geologist. His words on why drowning Hetch Hetchy was unthinkable, were meant to make this act impossible.
The last words of The Yosemite ring with sermonic fervor:
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.
In a decision that was so controversial at the time that many believe its backlash led Congress directly to the creation of legislation for our National Parks in 1916, Congress voted to build a dam to drown the valley as a "water tank." Muir couldn't believe it. He literally couldn't believe that -- given the words, given the obvious case -- a valley owned by the nation's people would be drowned.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, the anniversary of the Raker Act, a fresh wound in his mind, John Muir died, surrounded by pages of a book in progress. Many people said -- and still say -- it was from a shocked and broken heart from this legislation he could not prevent.
We can't change history. But we can make it. Sometimes we have a second chance to undo something and make it right. We amend laws as a way of marking our progress as a society. When city and state and federal leaders restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley on behalf of the American people, we can change two dates of national remorse into good -- or as John Muir would say, glorious -- news. One hundred years later, the Raker Act wound will be healed, as the valley itself begins to reestablish its flowers and falls and flowing streams and fauna. In these dark December days, these sad dates for our country, the 19th and the 24th, will be days of redemption and hope. The anniversary of John Muir's death will be a celebration of his role as a writer above all of light; his beauty of language will have proved indomitable. His rousing ending of The Yosemite will be read as a successful call to conscience, courage, national heart.
And we can get comfort and joy from his Christmas eve words Muir was writing and reading as he lay dying, the pages of his book on Alaska. The last words describe his gratitude and awe at the northern lights:
I had seen the first bow when it stood complete in full splendor, and its gradual fading decay. Now I was to see the building of a new one from the beginning. Perhaps in less than half an hour the silvery material was gathered, condensed, and welded into a glowing, evenly proportioned arc like the first and in the same part of the sky. Then in due time over the eastern mountain-wall came another throng of restless electric auroral fairies, the infinitely fine pale-gray garments of each lightly touching those of their neighbors as they swept swiftly along the under side of the bridge and down over the western mountain like the merry band that had gone the same way before them, all keeping quivery step and time to music too fine for mortal ears.
While the gay throng was gliding swiftly along, I watched the bridge for any change they might make upon it, but not the slightest could I detect. They left no visible track, and after all had passed the glowing arc stood firm and apparently immutable, but at last faded slowly away like its glorious predecessor. Excepting only the vast purple aurora mentioned above, said to have been visible over nearly all the continent, these two silver bows in supreme, serene, supernal beauty surpassed everything auroral I ever beheld.
To "behold" something is to see it with reverent wonder. Muir wanted us to behold nature, modeling his own ecstatic, exuberant and exhilarated response to nature's light. He wanted to write the poem with the news that William Carlos Williams -- who as an OB/GYN in his day job, knew whereof he spoke -- said would save our lives: "Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."
At the anniversary of his death, and the possibility of new news for the fate of Hetch Hetchy Valley, which lies like Sleeping Beauty's castle under a hundred-year-old spell, we can imagine the valley restored, and Muir's faith in words to save our world, faith in us to read them.
Quotations from John Muir, The Yosemite (New York: Century, 1912), 255-257, 260-262. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, The American Environment: Readings in The History of Conservation (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1968).