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Urban Idyl: John Muir in the New World of Los Angeles

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This profile portrait of John Muir comes from the Charles Lummis Photograph collection located in Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library at The Claremont Colleges. It is an albumen print, was photographed in an unknown location and is undated.
This profile portrait of John Muir comes from the Charles Lummis Photograph collection located in Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library at The Claremont Colleges. It is an albumen print, was photographed in an unknown location and is undated.

John Muir, who dubbed the snow-capped Sierra the "Range of Light," and whose musings about their divinity shaped his generation's faith in nature's holy beneficence, spent a lot of time in Los Angeles. To this flat land would he repair to craft his sermons on the mount, its desert-dryness a counterpoint to the oxygen-thin high-country he adored. In West Adams he imagined the Yosemite; in Pasadena, Mt. Whitney.

And why not? There is no reason that the imagination of a place must be tied down to it, that Muir could not fully recapture the rough Sierras from the then-fashionable districts of urbanizing Southern California.

To be precise, it was often in a third-floor garret in the sumptuous manse of John and Katherine Hooker, located at 325 West Adams, that Muir would transcribe his detailed journal entries about the mountains' natural history into countless articles and books. He reveled in the Hooker's generous hospitality: "when Muir needed a warm place to recoup his strength," his biographer Donald Worster has written, he would seek out the enveloping embrace of this affluent family--and others like them--where he would "sleep on luxuriant white sheets, wear a fresh garden rose in his buttonhole, eat and drink rich foods and wine, and be chauffeured around town in a new automobile." In sun-kissed LA, this abstemious Scotsman found welcome release.

That is another way of saying that Muir was a complicated man. Just how complex emerges in a new documentary, "John Muir in the New World," which premiers during Earth Week (American Masters, April 18, 9 p.m.). Working on this project as a historical consultant and on-camera interviewee gave me a renewed appreciation for Muir's paradoxical passions. To wit: he crafted a rich poetic language by which we have learned to appreciate wilderness, to accept its systemic integrity; at the same time, his rhetoric deliberately barred some people from the very landscape he believed would set others free.

As Muir liked to say: "wildness is a necessity," and not simply in an economic sense: "mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." Among its other virtues, this elemental force could also revive the human soul: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home." There's a reason why the word we use to describe hiking, boating, camping, skiing, fishing, or climbing is re-creation. Out there, we are re-born.

His conception of our needs is also problematic. For all its clarifying insights, Muir's ethic pits human civilization in opposition to Nature (which he always capitalized), thus separating us from the very lands he wanted us to call "home." We can visit its pristine beauty but we have no place in it. As the founding president of the Sierra Club, Muir would have applauded the contemporary mantra confirming our temporary visitation rights: leave only footprints, take only photographs.

Even the native peoples of Central California must be be exiled from a terrain they had lived within for millennia. In The Mountains of California (1894), Muir details an encounter with the Mono Indians to underscore his argument that only certain individuals--in essence, white men seeking to test their masculinity--could lay claim to nature as Nature.

One day, high up in the Sierra's "bracing air," Muir sauntered through a chiseled mountain pass whose "huge rocks began to close around in all their wild, mysterious impressiveness." Its magnificence was quickly marred, his reverie broken, when he spotted "a drove of gray hairy beings...lumbering toward me with a kind of boneless, wallowing motion like bears." Although these beings were "hairy as bears and as crooked as summit pines, the strange creatures were sufficiently erect to belong to our own species. They proved to be nothing more formidable than Mono Indians dressed in the skins of sage-rabbits."

Their very rootedness in this terrain--from the way they walked to the clothes they wore--disqualified them as models for how humans should interact with this sacred landscape:

The dirt on their faces was fairly stratified, and seemed so ancient and so undisturbed it might almost possess a geological significance. The older faces were, moreover, strangely blurred and divided into sections by furrows that looked like the cleavage-joints of rocks, suggesting exposure on the mountains in a castaway condition for ages. Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.

The Mono were older than time and their time was over. A new order of wilderness---for which Muir was one of the chief apostles--had arisen, and it was of a piece with the larger removal of indigenous people across the continent. His beloved National Parks became the inverse of reservations, spaces Indians no longer could inhabit.

Yet for all Muir's insistence that wilderness must be kept pure so that it could serve as an antidote to humanity's imperfections, he had little trouble traversing what he insisted was the sharp divide between rural and urban, wild and civilized. John of the Mountains loved coming to Los Angeles, this balmy city of valleys.

Most poignantly, as he faced the end. Hoping the Southland would revive him, in late December 1913, suffering from an as-yet undiagnosed case of pneumonia, worn down and coughing, the 76-year-old naturalist fled the thick winter fogs swirling through the Alhambra Valley, his Northern California homeland. Seeking respite in the Mojave's crisp aridity, he took a train south to stay with his daughter Helen in Daggett, a small town just east of Barstow.

Obituary clipped from the December 24, 1914 edition of the Los Angeles Record | Honnold/Mudd Library at The Claremont Colleges
Obituary clipped from the December 24, 1914 edition of the Los Angeles Record | Honnold/Mudd Library at The Claremont Colleges

The natural prescription did not work. A Los Angeles physician, with whom Muir had previously consulted, hastened out to the desert community to assess his patient's weakened condition, and as quickly escorted Muir back to the city, checking him into California Hospital on Hope Street. He died there the next day, Christmas Eve.

To keep his memory alive, Angelenos, like other Californians, have named a spate of schools, libraries, and other public spaces for Muir. The state even celebrates John Muir Day on April 21, appropriately during Earth Week.

For the man himself, however, such encomiums would have been of little matter. He never lost his uncomplicated belief in nature's restorative power, a divine salve he exulted in during his first visit to Yosemite in 1868. "I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and the crystal waters of the mountains," he wrote his mentor and confidante Jeanne Carr; and "were it not for a thought now and then of loneliness and isolation, the pleasure of my existence would be complete."

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