Hitched to Everything Else in the Universe: John Muir at the Oakland Museum of California

'Extreme explorations came naturally to Muir...' | Photo Julia Pauels, Courtesy of OMCA

You know what you are going to get when you visit a museum exhibition on John Muir. In California. An ode to Nature's poet.

Muir, after all, is the Golden State's Golden Boy. It was he who gave powerful voice to its wilderness howl, albeit with a Scottish accent. He who cast luminous light on the Sierra, and did so through his legendary tramps through its flowering meadows, along its crystalline rivers, and up into its thin air. In excited prose, he energized Californians and a lot of other Americans to push for the creation of Yosemite National Park (1890) and later for the establishment of the National Park Service (1916). With him as our guide, we've scaled such heights.

It is perhaps predictable then that these words--"The mountains are calling and I must go"--grace the first panel welcoming visitors to "A Walk in the Wild: Continuing John Muir's Journey," a new multi-media exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California (August 6-January 22, 2012). They reflect Muir's charming Romanticism, his conviction that he was helpless before wildlands' magnetic appeal, their irresistible pull; a draw that was sacred, a trust divine.

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Yosemite Journal, 1872. John Muir Papers, Holt- Anderson Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library. ©1984, Muir-Hanna Trust.

So Muir trumpeted to an urbanizing society that seemed anxious about its citified place in the cosmos: "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world," he wrote after returning from glaciered Alaska, "the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness." There, and there alone, the "galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware."

This homage to Thoreau ("In wildness is the preservation of the world") is bound up with Muir's pedagogy: "I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness," a conception of his role as pedant that clearly appealed to the exhibit's curators. As you stroll into the first room, before you is arrayed is a series of scratch-and-sniff displays--you inhale aromatic pine; run your fingers over rough rock and soft bark. Nature is palpable, a sensory delight.

Sensual, too. As Muir put it in an 1872 dispatch to the New York Tribune: "The scents and sounds and forms of Yosemite spring-time are as exquisitely compounded as her colors." Only when our olfactory, aural, and aesthetic sensibilities are well tuned are we ready to receive nature's ephemeral gifts, its quick-time imagery: "Nooned upon a delightful untrodden meadow," Muir wrote in his journal in 1873, "over which insects joyous and busy hummed in the sunshine."

John Muir. Detail, Archival Photograph. John Muir Papers, Holt-Anderson Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library. ©1984, Muir-Hanna Trust.
That you are able to visualize this moment, even while reading over the shoulders of a gaggle of other folk, testifies to Muir's narrative power. The exhibit stimulates this mindful visualization with its reproduction of some of Muir's sketches of plant and animal, stream, rockface, and ridgeline, a deft touch that lets us see his creative instincts.

All of this might well be expected from a curated show about a writer whose Transcendentalist imaginings have captivated so many for so long. Unexpected is the bit of technological whiz-bang that the museum has developed to deepen our appreciation for Muir's grounded doggedness, in this case his epic 1873 hike into the heart of the Sierra.

In September 1873, he set off on a 200-mile trek from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, with Galen Clark, a long-time explorer and resident of the region; botantist Albert Kellogg; and artist William Sims in tow. Along the way, he kept an extensive log of his experiences, a vivid account of the journey's beauties and rigors.

Including this September 30 entry that marked a break point with his companions: "Up early and went with Clark to a divide to view the landscape and plan the route" from their camp on the south fork of San Joaquin up to Mt. Whitney. "The view is awful," Muir confessed, "a vast wilderness of rocks and canyons. Clark groaned and went home." Unfazed, the intrepid Muir pressed on.

What Muir's riveting words cannot fully convey, GPS can: the Oakland Museum, making smart use of Google Earth, has reconstructed Muir's journey, step-by-step, day-by-day and has made it available to its in-house guests on a clutch of computers (and for its virtual visitors, coming through its website). By clicking on different points on the digital map you can you trace his arduous travel through some tough terrain (and you can come quickly to sympathize with Galen Clark's decision to drop out!).

Better, as you slide the cursor over each of Muir's campsites, up pops his daily diary notation; a fragment of a letter written about that particular site; or some other information about this particular place in time. This element is a striking reminder of how technology can unleash our imaginations in ways every bit as profound as if you were in an archive leafing through Muir's journals, watching his hand flow across the page.

Photo Julia Pauels, Courtesy of OMCA
There are two other reasons to spend time in the Oakland Museum's Muir exhibit. Its curators have framed John of the Wilderness in his historic and contemporary contexts. The former comes through the eyes of artists who visited Yosemite Valley or the mid-Sierra, and who like Muir tried to come to terms with its magnificence. The work of Thomas A. Ayres, "The Yo-semite Falls (1855) and Antoine Claveau's "Falls, Yosemite" (1858), which predate Muir's arrival in the valley, helped establish the cultural conversation about this fabled setting in language he would later adapt and extend.

The same can be said for Albert Bierstadt's "Looking Down Yosemite Valley" (1868), which did so much to locate this landscape within a broader dialog about American exceptionalism: as the sun's late afternoon light floods into the valley, illuminating El Capitan to the north and the Sentinel Rock to the south, the viewer is drawn into its beckoning warmth--westward the course of empire.

Although Muir did not consciously traffic in imperial rhetoric, like other interpreters of Yosemite whose art is on display in Oakland--such as Carleton Watkins, Thomas Hill, and Jules Tavernier, he is responsible for identifying its ruggedness with the body politic of the boomingly self-confident New Republic. And he (and they) did so at the height of our nation's late-nineteenth-century expansionist impulse.

Although we have not yet abandoned this fatal outward thrust, (witness our current wars), that is not where the museum situates Muir's contemporary relevance. Instead, it links his writings on nature's glories to the conservation work that park rangers, grassroots organizations, and dedicated citizens are doing across California, in areas rural and urban. Habitat-restoration projects, like neighborhood revitalization, are pieces of a whole; protecting endangered species is akin to bettering human communities.

By their innovative commitments to people and place, these principled activists are living testimony to Muir's bedrock faith in all things mutable:

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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