Yosemite, John Muir & Robert Underwood Johnson

The Three Brothers, taken just east of El Capitan, by Carleton Watkins, ca. 1865. “A sharp earthquake shock at 7:30 a.m.,” Muir wrote in his journal on January 5, 1873. “Rotary motion tremored the river. . . . A boulder from the second of the Three Brothers fell today.” (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

This book review in the LA Times will be of interest to those who find the history of conservation innovations entertaining:

The odd couple that saved Yosemite

John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson were unlikely allies in the war to preserve Yosemite. Muir, son of a Scripture-quoting Scottish immigrant father, was raised poor on a Wisconsin farm, but he wrote and spoke with the fervor of a prophet, and his craggy visage, tough constitution and unshakable devotion to the natural world drew admirers like a magnet. The urbane and cultured Johnson was an insider with a vast network of contacts in publishing and politics. The editor of one of the country’s preeminent magazines, Johnson hosted New York literary salons, mingled with America’s elite and eventually became the U.S. ambassador to Italy.

John Muir in California nature, 1902, left, and Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of the Century Magazine, at his office on Union Square in New York City. Their complementary skills helped carve out Yosemite National Park.(Courtesy of the Library of Congress; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It was improbable that they even met — Muir was on the West Coast, Johnson on the East. But on one memorable journey into the California kingdom now known as Yosemite National Park, the two agreed to pull together to wage the nation’s “first great environmental war,” battling through the administrations of seven presidents to save Yosemite. It’s fair to say that the valley’s matchless terrain and fragile ecosystem would have been logged, plowed and plundered without their relentless efforts. Veteran nonfiction writer Dean King tells their story in “Guardians of the Valley: John Muir and the Friendship that Saved Yosemite.”

Muir arrived in California in 1868, after years of wandering and barely two decades after the Gold Rush opened the floodgates to white settlement of California. He headed straight for Yosemite. Abraham Lincoln had signed legislation giving the state authority to preserve the valley, but soon it was under assault anyway — giant trees cut down so tourists could get a better view, virgin wildflower meadows denuded by herds of grazing sheep.

By 1889, Muir was a nationally known author and activist. When Johnson arrived in San Francisco to edit a series on the Gold Rush for the Century magazine, he wanted to meet Muir, and he wanted to see Yosemite. They hiked, climbed and camped together, and on the journey Muir shared his gloom about Yosemite’s fate. The valley was already getting 5,000 visitors a year, and he feared its decimation was inevitable.

Johnson had other ideas. He had experienced Muir’s powerful charisma firsthand, writing that “In the wilderness, Muir looked like John the Baptist. … He was spare of frame, full-bearded, hardy, keen of eye and visage, and on the march eager of movement.” Johnson had edited the likes of Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, and he believed that Muir’s transcendent prose could help save Yosemite. The two joined forces…

Read the whole review here.

One thought on “Yosemite, John Muir & Robert Underwood Johnson

  1. I am reading this! So much of this debate, between environmentalists and industrialists, sounds so current! How long can we live in denial of the fact that we are dependent upon the wilderness’ natural and spiritual resources? Great read!

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