More on politics & society from The Atlantic's archive.
More on the environment from The Atlantic's archive.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
From the archives:
"An Explosion of Green" (April 1995)
The renewal of the eastern forest is, the author argues, the most important environmental story in the country. Nature has given us a gift; what remains to be seen is whether we can preserve it. By Bill McKibben
"Grey Owl" (January 1990)
He became famous as a half-Scot, half-Apache defender of wildlife, and some believe he should rank with John Muir and Rachel Carson in the environmentalists' pantheon. But he was not exactly what he seemed. By Kenneth Brower
"The Force That Drives the Flower" (November 1973)
"What is it about fecundity that so appalls? Is it that with nature's bounty goes a crushing waste that threatens our own cheap lives?" By Annie Dillard
"River Driftwood" (October 1881)
"My river leads to the sea, and from any port one can push off toward another sea of boundless speculation and curious wonderings about this world familiar, and yet so great a mystery." By Sarah Orne Jewett
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "Thoreau's 'Wild Apples'" (March 8, 2000)
At the end of his life Henry David Thoreau was working on essays commissioned by The Atlantic. One of them, "Wild Apples," has recently resurfaced. David Barber reflects on Thoreau's last writings.
Flashbacks: "John Muir's Yosemite" (May 9, 1997)
From the journals of a young amateur naturalist who changed our relationship to the land.
In Defense of the Forests
December 18, 2002
ast month, as the Bush Administration proposed loosening logging and commercial restrictions in America's national forests, it is easy to imagine what one Atlantic contributor might have had to say about it. John Muir, the pioneering naturalist, wrote seventeen articles for The Atlantic between the years 1897 and 1913. While all of these pieces celebrated America's wilderness, the first seven dealt explicitly with national forests and the government's role in preserving them for the future.
Muir's first Atlantic article, "The American Forests," ran in August 1897, decades after westward-moving settlers had felled and burned much of America's woodland. In strong, poetic language, Muir urged Americans to cherish the forests that remained.
American forests! the glory of the world! Surveyed thus from the east to the west, from the north to the south, they are rich beyond thought, immortal, immeasurable, enough and to spare for every feeding, sheltering beast and bird, insect and son of Adam; and nobody need have cared had there been no pines in Norway, no cedars and deodars on Lebanon and the Himalayas, no vine-clad selvas in the basin of the Amazon. With such variety, harmony, and triumphant exuberance, even nature, it would seem, might have rested content with the forests of North America and planted no more.
While Muir ranked America's forests as the best on earth, he made a point of extolling the superior environmental policies of other nations. In France, he explained, even private landowners could be fined for cutting down their own trees; in Switzerland, each region of the country was responsible for appointing and training foresters. Japan had founded a special government school of forestry in Tokyo, and India had placed 55 million of its wooded acres under government management. In contrast, he lamented, many Americans did not even seem to realize that trees were a limited resource requiring special protection.
Their consciences flinch no more in cutting timber from the wild forests than in drawing water from a lake or a river. As for reservation and protection of the forests, it seems as silly and needless to them as protection and reservation of the ocean would be; both appearing to be boundless and inexhaustible.
At the same time Muir was penning these words, the U.S. government was rewriting its laws for forest management. The Forest "Organic" Act, passed in 1897, placed millions of acres under federal control, authorizing the government to monitor the mining, logging, and grazing that took place there. For the first time, forest rangers were sent to guard and manage the national forest lands.
Muir was clearly delighted with this development when he wrote about Yellowstone National Park in April 1898. Yellowstone, the oldest national park in America, had recently been expanded to twice its original size, stretching into the Teton mountain range. The whole vast area, Muir explained, was now "efficiently managed and guarded by small troops of United States cavalry.... Under this care the forests are flourishing, protected from both axe and fire."
While Muir had no end of praise for Yellowstone's wild geysers, petrified forests and colored "paint-pot" springs, his true love lay several hundred miles southwest in the Sierra Nevada. "Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best," he wrote in "The Yosemite National Park" (August 1899 Atlantic).
Muir first visited the Yosemite Valley in 1868; he spent much of the next two decades camping among its forests and lobbying for their protection. As early as 1869, he wrote of the damage that overly ambitious shepherds, with their flocks of "hooved locusts," had inflicted on the land. In 1890, largely thanks to Muir's eloquent articles and speeches, 1,500 square miles of Sierra woodland became Yosemite National Park.
In "The Yosemite National Park," Muir swept readers through a tour of the region's dramatic scenery:
... snowy mountains soaring into the sky ... arrayed in open ranks and spiry pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous cañons and amphitheatres; gardens on their sunny brows, avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges, and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completing their sculpture; newborn lakes at their feet, blue and green ... like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars.
Capturing the park's landscape on paper seemed an impossible task to Muir. "The leanest sketch of each feature would need a whole chapter," he wrote. Fortunately, The Atlantic gave Muir the space to write four other pieces about the park, each dwelling on a single aspect of its wilderness.
In "Among the Birds of the Yosemite" (November 1898), Muir enumerated the many feathered species that nested in the park. "Knowing nothing of guns," he wrote, "they allow you to approach within a half dozen paces, then quietly hop a few branches higher or fly to the next tree without a thought of concealment, so that you may observe them as long as you like." Muir himself spent untold hours peering into Yosemite's trees, watching a mountain quail picking at berries or a baby sagecock learning to fly.
The piece's most rapturous description of Yosemite's bird life centered on a water ouzel perched above the rapids of a mountain stream:
No wonder he sings well, since all the air about him is music; every breath he draws is part of a song, and he gets his first music lessons before he is born; for the eggs vibrate in time with the tones of the waterfalls. Birds and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong,—the bird ever in danger in the midst of the stream's mad whirlpools, yet seeming immortal.
In "The Wild Gardens of the Yosemite Park" (August 1900), Muir turned his gaze downward to study numerous varieties of floral life. Long fascinated by geology, Muir detailed the ancient forces that had fashioned Yosemite's soil and landscape. The resulting hardy plant life could flourish in dry earth and take root in innumerable niches between rocks. "Nature, like an enthusiastic gardener," he wrote, "could not resist the temptation to plant flowers everywhere."
"The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite Park" (April 1901) celebrated Yosemite's water, a beverage so fresh and delicious, Muir asserted, that many of his friends called it "that wonderful champagne water." He advised scooping it from the streams by hand "lest the touch of a cup might disturb its celestial flavor."
Muir turned once again to the topic of geology when he described the paths of the rivers, obstructed throughout the park by a series of ten-thousand-ton boulders. He had wondered about the formation of these huge mountain taluses until, one night, he awakened to feel the earth rumbling:
I ran out of my cabin, near the Sentinel Rock, both glad and frightened, shouting, "A noble earthquake!" feeling sure I was going to learn something. The shocks were so violent and varied, and succeeded one another so closely, one had to balance in walking as if on the deck of a ship among the waves, and it seemed impossible the high cliffs should escape being shattered.... Out of the strange silence and strange motion there came a tremendous roar. The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in the thousands of great boulders I had been studying so long, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle,—an arc of fire fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow.... The sound was inconceivably deep and broad and earnest, as if the whole earth, like a living creature, had at last found a voice, and were calling to her sister planets. It seemed to me that if all the thunder I ever heard were condensed into one roar it would not equal this rock roar at the birth of a mountain talus.
Muir reveled in nature's cycles of destruction and creation. His only true worry seemed to be the indiscriminate power of human beings. In "The Forests of the Yosemite Park" (April 1900), Muir acknowledged that the entire California park would have become a barren wasteland without protection from timber companies:
Had the Sierra forests been cheaply accessible, the most valuable of them commercially would ere this have fallen a prey to the lumberman. Thus far the redwood of the Coast Mountains and the Douglas spruce of Oregon and Washington have been more available for lumber than the pines of the Sierra.... Fortunately, the lately established system of parks and reservations has put a stop to any great extension of the business hereabouts, in its most destructive forms.
To Muir, the national forests were more than a set of picturesque backdrops. He described the trees as though they were his intimate friends, each with its own unique personality. The pinus attenuata was "an admirable little tree," the nut pine "small, hardy, contented-looking," the juniper "stubborn and unshakable," the sugar pines "kings and high priests, the most eloquent and commanding preachers of all the mountain forests." And the conifer seedlings seemed to Muir to fly with a "quick merry motion," distinct from "the sober dignified sailing" of more feathery seeds. The longer Muir spent in the forest, the deeper his kinship with the trees became:
To see them in their varying aspects through the seasons and the weather, rejoicing in the great storms, in the spiritual mountain light, putting forth their new leaves and flowers when all the streams are in flood and the birds are singing, and sending away their seeds in the thoughtful Indian summer when all the landscape is glowing in a deep calm enthusiasm, like the face of a god,—for this you must love them and live with them, as free from schemes and cares as the trees themselves.
Muir's deep, intuitive study of the forest is reminiscent of the Transcendentalists, the New England philosophers who had immersed themselves in nature one generation before. As a young man, Muir had been deeply influenced by the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Following in their tradition, he went to the woods to understand nature's laws in all their intricate harmony. In 1871, in his own beloved Yosemite, Muir finally had the opportunity to meet Ralph Waldo Emerson in person.
Muir described Emerson's visit in "The Forests of the Yosemite Park," using the reverent prose he generally reserved for describing nature. "It was a great pleasure simply to be near him," wrote Muir, "warming in the light of his face as at a fire." Inspired, he asked the aging philosopher to join him for a night of camping among the giant sequoia trees. Emerson "consented heartily," but the other members of his party, fearing for his health, insisted that sixty-eight year-old Emerson sleep in a warm hotel room. "And to think of this being a Boston choice!" Muir complained. "Sad commentary on culture and the glorious transcendentalism."
The next day, as Emerson prepared to leave Yosemite, Muir tried to persuade his hero to stay. In what must have been his highest words of praise, Muir compared Emerson to a sequoia tree:
"You yourself are a sequoia," I said. "Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren." But he was past his prime.... It was the afternoon of the day and the afternoon of his life, and his course was now westward down all the mountains into the sunset.... I followed to the edge of the grove. Emerson lingered in the rear of the train, and when he reached the top of the ridge, after all the rest of his party were out of sight, he turned his horse, took off his hat, and waved me a last good-by.... Though lonesome for the first time in these forests, I quickly took heart again,—the trees had not gone to Boston, nor the birds, and as I sat by the fire, Emerson was still with me in spirit.
Unlike Emerson, Muir was not slowed down by old age. He remained intensely active virtually until his death in 1914. At the age of seventy-three, he explored the Andes and the Amazon rain forest, and at seventy-four he visited Victoria Falls in Southern Africa to study baobab trees. Only after a battle with pneumonia, at age seventy-six, did Muir's life of adventure and activism finally come to rest.
A year after Muir's death, Theodore Roosevelt recalled his own 1903 visit to Yosemite in an article for Outlook Magazine. Halfway through his first term as President, he had arrived in the park with a large party in tow; however, he was able to escape his entourage and run off to the woods with Muir to "claim from him the treatment he had wished to accord Emerson." The President was as enchanted by Muir as he was by the grove of giant sequoias where the two set up camp. As he wrote simply, "There was a delightful innocence and good will about the man."
In his protectiveness toward the nation's forests, Muir deeply valued the support of leaders like President Roosevelt. Among his many friends were President Howard Taft, whom he also led through Yosemite, and U.S. congressman William Kent, who donated the redwood forest that became Muir Woods National Monument in 1908. To Muir, the nation's leaders were the guardians of a rare and irreplaceable treasure: the forests of America. As he wrote in The American Forests:
It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods,—trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests.... Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time—and long before that—God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools,—only Uncle Sam can do that.
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Jennie Rothenberg is a new media intern for The Atlantic. This past spring she earned a Master's in Journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.
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