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Writing About the Grandeur of Yosemite

Few places inspire more awe than the view of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point. The Scotsman, John Muir, fell in love with the rugged beauty of the landscape and through his writing and political activism convinced lawmakers to preserve Yosemite Valley and much of the surrounding country.
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” –John Muir in a letter to his wife Louie in July 1888

John Muir has inspired Yosemite’s travelers to see under the surface through his poetic imagery: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees.” Muir, who came to California seeking the solitude of nature, decided to stay—dabbling as a glaciologist, a wilderness activist, and a writer who published persuasive ecological articles with a quill made from a golden eagle feather found on Yosemite’s Mount Hoffmann.

Portrait of John Muir
John Muir arrives in Yosemite at age 30.

Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir immigrated to Wisconsin with his family when he was 11 years old. Life on the homestead did not inspire him, and Muir soon found employment in a factory. The change proved to be inspiring but in an entirely unexpected way. After he was nearly blinded by an industrial accident, Muir found himself driven to learn everything he could about a world unaltered by man or machine. He briefly studied natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin but, ultimately, chose to spend his lifetime enrolled in what he called the “University of Wilderness.”

Muir first visited Yosemite in 1868. He was so impressed with his week’s visit that he decided to return the following year, finding work as a ranch hand, as he settled in the area. The next year, he landed a shepherd job for $30 per month that suited him fine. While Muir guided a flock of 2,000 sheep to the Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, he studied the flora and fauna and sketched the mountain scenery. (His experiences and illustrations were later published in My First Summer in the Sierra.)

Yosemite Valley in fall
Once, overgrazing doomed the survival of Yosemite Valley.

After a stint as a shepherd, Muir found regular work at a newly constructed sawmill alongside the present-day Lower Yosemite Fall trail in the Valley. During the two years he worked at the mill owned by James Mason Hutchings, Muir started building his own Yosemite Creek cabin, if only so he could hear the sound of the water as he slept. Muir’s newfound prominence as a Yosemite spokesman bothered Hutchings, who fancied himself the definitive authority on the subject. Tempers flared, and Muir quit in 1871.

In September 1871, two months after leaving the sawmill, Muir wrote his first article for publication on glaciers, published in the New York Tribune. His ability to cultivate connections with literary, scientific, and artistic celebrities rapidly enhanced Muir’s reputation as a naturalist. Botanists Asa Gray and Albert Kellogg, artist William Kieth, poetess Ina Coolbrith, editors Charles Warren Stoddard and Henry George, writer Jeanne Carr, educators J.B. McChesney and John Swett, and photographer J.J. Reilly all became early confidants.

Throughout the 1870s, the popularity of Muir’s newspaper publications grew steadily. The prolific writer became particularly concerned about natural landscape preservation. Published in the Sacramento Record-Union in 1876, “In God’s First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests?” chided California legislators for standing by while the state’s woodlands were recklessly depleted. During the 1880s, he focused his attention on the destruction of natural resources in areas surrounding the state-administered Yosemite Grant, set aside in 1864. Muir was alarmed at the extensive damage livestock animals caused to the delicate High Sierra ecosystems, especially the “hoofed locusts” he had so carefully guarded a few years earlier.

In 1889, Muir took Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, to Tuolumne Meadows so he could see how sheep were damaging the land. Muir convinced Johnson that the area could only be saved if it was incorporated into a national park. Johnson’s publication of Muir’s exposés sparked a bill in the U.S. Congress that proposed creating a new federally administered park surrounding the old Yosemite Grant. Yosemite National Park became a reality in 1890.

While in the midst of his environmental efforts that turned political, Muir’s match-making friend, Jeanne Carr, insisted that the bachelor find a mate. Muir married Louisa Strentzel in 1880. Nine years his junior, “Louie” was the 32-year-old daughter of a notable Polish horticulturist and fruit ranch owner in Martinez, California. After his marriage, Muir’s visits to Yosemite became less frequent, but Muir returned with his wife to Yosemite in 1884. Louie’s fear of bears and her difficulty climbing at Muir’s pace, however, made her first trip to Yosemite her last.

The wedded Muir continued to pursue his scientific study with fervor, and just three months after his marriage, he traveled to Alaska as a correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin and again the following year with the Bulletin team to look for the lost naval exploration ship USS Jeanette. Continuing adventures out of state, Muir achieved an historic ascent of Mount Rainier in Washington in 1888 and numerous journeys to Alaska.

Muir’s Influence with Teddy Roosevelt

The last 25 years of Muir’s life were consumed with constant travel, writing, and oversight of the Sierra Club—for which he served as president from its creation in 1892. He lobbied successfully for the creation of Yosemite Park in 1890 and then asked for additional protections when he toured President Theodore Roosevelt in the park in 1903. Muir’s persuasive words to Roosevelt and state authorities led to the return of Yosemite Grant to the federal government in 1906. His published writings were also instrumental in the creation of Grand Canyon and Sequoia national parks.

Muir and Roosevelt
“Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point,” Digital Public Library of America,

At the end of his life, Muir and the Sierra Club fought a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful crusade against construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. This was reportedly the first major battle of the environmental movement. On Christmas Eve, 1914—just more than a year after Congress authorized the dam’s construction—Muir died. Even though he died in a Los Angeles hospital, the great wanderer had remained active and on the move until the last few months of his life.

Although Muir only truly lived in Yosemite for a few years, from 1868 to 1874, his short time in the Sierra changed him forever more. Muir has inspired us to protect natural areas not for their beauty alone but also for their ecological importance. In The Yosemite, published in 1912, he wrote: “But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”

Ere dawn had kissed the level valley floor / He climbed to summits through the sleeping wood / By the inerrant guide of forest lore, / And found companionship in solitude / He feared no beast and by no beast was feared / And none was startled when his shape appeared.” — Excerpted from the poem, “With Muir in Yosemite,” by Robert Underwood Johnson (as printed in the 1938 Yosemite Nature Notes, 17)

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Jack London: Work-Life Balance

Jack London and his second wife Charmian are shown on the porch of the modest ranch house that became their refuge after their dream house caught fire.

I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

Jack London

Jack London’s Home and Ranch, near Glen Ellen, California is on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain. At the ranch, he wrote his books (and finished by noon), conducted his agricultural experiments, entertained friends, and tried to live an intentional life. The ranch is now the Jack London State Historic Park, managed by a private foundation. This fascinating, 7,000 acre ranch includes the ruins of a house that was to have been his masterwork, Wolf House, a center for entertaining, writing, and enjoying the region’s natural beauty.

War Correspondent

Jack had made his reputation as a journalist. As a war correspondent covering the Russo-Japanese War for the San Francisco Examiner,  London arrived in Yokohama on January 25, 1904. He was arrested by Japanese authorities in Shimonoseki, but released through the intervention of American ambassador Lloyd Griscom.

Jack London in Japan
London not only wrote dispatches about the Ruso-Japanese war. He was an excellent photographer, able to capture unstaged images. This was true for his history as a war correspondent, and even more true when he sailed to the South Pacific.

With the success of London’s career as a journalist and the sales of his early novel, Call of the Wild, London was confidant that his adventuresome spirit and strong work ethic would make it possible to live the life he wanted to live. Jack and Charmian spent more than $80,000 in pre-World War I money on their dream house–Wolf House. It was to be 15,000 square feet (1,393 square meters), have custom made furniture and decorations, and feature a reflecting pool stocked with mountain bass. On August 22, 1913, while the Londons were away from their ranch, they received word that their new mansion was on fire. Unfortunately, just as the ranch was about to be finished, painters left linseed-oil-laced rags unattended. The house burned to the ground, leaving only the remnants of its massive, rock walls. Jack London and Charmian were forced to continue living in their small, Winery cottage, where they displayed souvenirs from their adventures in the South Pacific aboard London’s sailboat, the Sea Wolf.

The Winery Cottage at Jack London's ranch
Objects displayed in the cottage included masks, baskets, and tapestries collected on the Londons’ travels. London was devastated after the fire burnt down Wolf House. This put him in debt and forced him to literally work to death, as he tried to earn enough money to run his ranch, never as profitable as he might have liked.

Sustainable Agriculture

London’s ranch, which he called Beauty Ranch, had originally been the site of the Kohler & Frohling winery. When the winery went belly up in 1905, London, hoping to become a rancher and try out some of the innovative agricultural practices he had observed in the Far East, purchased the property. Between 1909 and 1911, London bought more land to expand his ranch.

London had seen terraced agriculture in Japan. He brought the technique home and experimented with terracing and dry farming techniques.

Jack London was one of the first ranchers to practice sustainable agriculture. Having seen the terraced hillsides of Japan, he terraced his hillsides and installed systems to minimize water use.

His main experiments in sustainability include cultivation of Luther Burbank’s spineless cactus (a possible source of cattle fodder, he hoped); a pig house with eighteen triangular pig sties (the design was modeled after Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia); and a rotating treadmill to ensure that his bulls got adequate exercise.

Jack and Charmain London on the porch of the Winery house
The ranch is beautifully situated on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and among its wonders are this magnificent live oak.

Jack London’s Death

For many years, London had had health problems that began when he was sailing in the South Pacific. On November 22, 1916, London died of kidney failure. When riding around his property, he had always love a small pioneer graveyard where two children were buried. He was cremated and his ashes buried beneath a rock from the nearby Wolf House.

After Jack London died, his wife Charmian inherited the property. During that time she built a house on the land called the House of Happy Walls, which is a smaller version of the Wolf House. Charmian lived there until her death in 1955. Jack’s half-sister Eliza Shepard superintended Beauty Ranch until her own death in 1939; her grandson Milo Shepard later inherited the same role. Charmian, an accomplished author and public speaker, died in 1955. By 1959, the land and its structures were gifted to the state of California with the help of Eliza’s son Irving Shepard and his wife Mildred.

Charmain London’s Legacy

Many artifacts from his wife as a working writer are on display at the house Charmian built after his death. These include the sun room where he worked, the transcription room where his secretary and wife transcribed his handwritten texts, and the typewriter, camera, and early “Magic Slate” that he used to make notes during his time as a foreign correspondent.

Jack London's camera
London used this camera during his time in Japan.

Today, more than 800 acres of London’s Beauty Ranch have been preserved. Due to statewide budget problems, the site is now owned and managed by the nonprofit Valley of the Moon Natural History Association (VMNHA).