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John Muir on California Agriculture

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1992)

Muir scholars may be unaware that Muir wrote extensively on California agriculture, but published less than he wrote. One important unpublished manuscript is a revealing document that should not be overlooked. Simply titled "California Agriculture," it can be found in the John Muir Papers (Microfilm reel 39 at frame 06679). Prepared in the late 1870s and later revised, it describes farm practices in California, with some remarks on agriculture in Utah and other parts of the Great Basin.

Muir recognized that the great agricultural potential of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys rested on two vital resources: soil and water. The rich alluvial soil of the Central Valley was deep, relatively flat, and easily accessible by water and land transport. Even more important was the water supplied by the Sierra Nevada. Muir was one of the first regional observers to recognize the hydrological relationship between mountain and valley. He predicted a bounteous future for California farmers, provided they "see to it that the forests on which the regular and manageable flow of the rivers depend are preserved". But he also recognized the need for large-scale irrigation projects, the kind later developed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the State of California. His essay encouraged the development of "storage reservoirs... at the foot of the [Sierra Nevada] Range," so that "all the bounty of the mountains [be] put to use." This was utilitarian conservation pure and simple, a decade before it was formalized into national policy by Gifford Pinchot and the Progressive Conservation Movement. While some of Muir's published works may have anticipated modern ecocentric thinking, this unpublished essay on California agriculture demonstrates that his nature writing also had a strong anthropocentric component.

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