A Walk in Yosemite Valley

On a walk last spring through Yosemite National Park with the filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan – I was there with them to screen their upcoming film ”The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” – John Muir stopped us to describe in his Scottish drawl where he slept when he wandered into Yosemite Valley in the late 1860s.

John Muir – actually the actor and Muir scholar Lee Stetson – was a real life echo of a long-ago conservation movement that gave us the National Park system and helped create the larger sustainability movement that continues today.

Muir is a constant presence throughout the film (which will air on PBS beginning on September 27th). He is a prescient voice of warning – ”How far destruction may go is not easy to guess. Every landscape low and high seems doomed to be trampled and harried”- but also one that speaks to the rejuvenation of the spirit through the immersion into nature:

”Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day. . . .Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer”¦.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.”

Muir and others in the early parks movement set out to protect these wild places in part because they allowed humans to find their true selves. There’s a spiritualism that stems as much from his religious upbringing as it does from a belief that the flurry of change in the late 19th century was unhinging mankind, disconnecting us from what was true and good.

The voice is one that is completely of its time but yet relevant – it rings true even when the soaring language seems so noticeably distant from the snarky cynicism of today.

But most, from his writings and during the walk (and certainly in the film), there’s this thankful sense that something came first – that Muir and many others came together forcefully in their time to create something that we can experience today. There’s an appreciation, a moment of recognition, that what is there – in Yosemite and other places – was there before. But equally satisfying is the awareness that we have a history – that we are not the end of history or history’s greatest moment. We are just part of it.

There’s also the irony that in nature’s wildest places we are reminded not just of nature and wildlife, we are reminded of us. At a conference in San Francisco in April on diversity and the national parks, one participant noted that the early park advocates saw nature as saving mankind. Today, he continued, it is mankind trying to save nature (more aptly, trying to reverse what we destroyed). Regardless, there’s a story to all of it – a human story with real people fighting real battles. It is all refreshingly kind of familiar.

”The battle for conservation will go on endlessly,” Muir wrote toward the end of his life in 1914. ”It is part of the universal warfare between right and wrong. Fortunately wrong cannot last, soon or late it must fall back home to Hades, while some compensating good must surely follow. They will see what I meant in time. There must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls. Food and drink is not all. There is the spiritual. In some it is only a germ, of course, but the germ will grow!”

The John Muir quotes cited above were taken from Burns’s film. You can follow the outreach for the film on Facebook: National Parks: America’s Best Idea (PBS)

Posted by: Joe DePlasco – Managing Director