For days of infamy — Pearl Harbor and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — December has a handful. In this list of national anguish two anniversaries of deaths loom. One hundred and six years ago: on Dec. 2, 1913, Congress passed 43-25 (with 29 abstentions) a law drowning Hetch Hetchy, the natural twin of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, in order to provide water and power to San Francisco. On Dec. 24, 1914, John Muir died.
Everyone and everything dies, but people believed the famously, indefatigably ebullient John Muir died of heartbreak. Yes, he was hardy. Known for hair-raising first ascents, he climbed steep high mountains with his bare hands. He crawled through jungles on his knees. He went without sleep, without food, without blankets, on freezing nights. He was a Tarzan prototype, fearless, jubilant, an action hero. Yet he was also a writer, and not necessarily by choice. This eminent botanist and geologist wrote to us about what he “beheld” in the wilderness, in his mind, a holy place critical to our nation’s spiritual health and well-being. Seeing it being destroyed relentlessly by timber, mining, and ranching, he determined to help save it, and the way he sought to do this was by inspiring others to love it. If we loved it, he reasoned, we would care for and protect it. How could we love a place the dictionary defined as “barren” and “wasteland?” How could we love it so much that a living tree would be more precious than board feet? He believed that words of enthusiasm can shape the way we think and feel and act. And somehow words had failed. He had failed.
The man who is on California’s quarter as symbol of the state for his wilderness advocacy had fought for the establishment of Yosemite National Park since he first entered this land on foot in 1868, only four years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Yosemite Grant. This law was unprecedented — an act to protect a valley and forest forever, by giving it to the care of California in the name of the people. Muir saw that the new state was powerless to protect this land — it was already being desecrated. Thousands-year-old trees were being butchered, meadows razed, streams polluted. He wrote letters home: “It needs legislative interference!” He believed in letters, he believed in words, and he believed in legislation.
And so he wrote his heart out.
In 1913, in part directly due to Muir’s passionate writings, Yosemite was now a national park. But it was in trouble. He lifted his inextricably connected spirit and pen as he always did, and tried to rouse our national heart in defense of Yosemite’s twin valley, Hetch Hetchy, within the park. In days when words held sway, he wrote The Yosemite, which was published in 1912. He describes the majestic wonders of the park, building up to his last pages, the case for preserving Hetch Hetchy from destruction.
“Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life. . . Sad to say, this most precious and sublime feature of the Yosemite National Park, one of the greatest of all our natural resources for the uplifting joy and peace and health of the people, is in danger of being dammed and made into a reservoir to help supply San Francisco with water and light, thus flooding it from wall to wall and burying its gardens and groves one or two hundred feet deep.”
No one writes like John Muir — well, except the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Thoreau, Wordsworth, because those are the minds who fired the neural moxie of this botanist/geologist. His words on why drowning Hetch Hetchy was unthinkable were meant to make this act unhappenable. The passage’s last words ring with sermoniac fervor:
“Dam Hetch Hetchy! One may as well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
In an act so controversial at the time it passed that many believe the immediate national backlash led Congress directly to legislation for our National Park System in 1916, Congress voted for the Raker Act to build a dam to drown Hetch Hetchy to serve as a city’s “water tank.” Muir couldn’t believe it. He literally couldn’t believe that a Yosemite valley governed by the nation’s people would be drowned.
On Christmas Eve 1914, the anniversary of the Raker Act still a fresh wound in his mind, John Muir died, surrounded by pages of a book in progress. Many people said — and still say — it was from a shocked and broken heart from this legislation he could not prevent.
We can’t change history. But we can make it. Sometimes we have a second chance to undo something and make it right. We amend laws as a way of marking our progress as a society. When city and state and federal leaders restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley on behalf of the American people, we can change two dates of infamy into good — or as John Muir would say, glorious — news. The Raker Act wound will be healed, as the valley itself begins to re-establish its flowers and falls and flowing streams and fauna.
These dark December dates for our country, the 2nd and the 24th, will be days of redemption and hope. The anniversary of John Muir’s death will be a celebration of his role as a writer of above all of light, whose beauty of language proved indomitable. His rousing ending of The Yosemite will be read as a successful call to conscience, courage, national heart. And we can get joy and comfort from his Christmas Eve words Muir was writing and reading as he lay dying, the pages of his book on Alaska. The last words describe his gratitude and awe at the northern lights:
“I had seen the first bow when it stood complete in full splendor . . . Excepting only the vast purple aurora ... said to have been visible over nearly all the continent, these two silver bows in supreme, serene, supernal beauty surpassed everything auroral I ever beheld.”
To “behold” something is to see it with reverent wonder. Muir wanted us to behold nature, modeling his own ecstatic, exuberant and exhilarated response to nature’s light. At the anniversary of his death, and the possibility of new news for the fate of Hetch Hetchy Valley, which lies like Sleeping Beauty’s castle under a hundred-year-old spell, we can imagine the valley restored, and Muir’s faith in words to save our world.
Barbara Mossberg, former city poet of Pacific Grove whose academia career includes the University of Oregon and Goddard College, now lives in Pasadena.