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A Note on John Muir and the Appalachian Mountain Club

By Richard Fleck

Reprinted by permission of the author from Appalachia, New Series, Vol. L., No. 3, # 200, June 15, 1995

Three years before his death, on Saturday May 20, 1911, John Muir came to Boston to visit his friend Professor Charles Sargent of Brookline, to look over proofs of his forthcoming biography The Story of My Boyhood and Youth 1912, at Houghton Mifflin Company, and to dine as guest and honored member of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Before going to dinner, Muir was interviewed by a reporter from The Sunday Herald at the Hotel Bellevue. He was quoted in The Sunday Herald of May 21, 1911, regarding the need for a national forest reservation in the White Mountains of New Hampshire:

"New England has a birth-given right to this breathing spot, and all arguments to the contrary, from whatever source emanating, are put forward by thieves and robbers. The ingenious excuses that commercial interests plead for destroying God's handiwork are bewildering, but when you finally see through them you discover that they are all actuated by greed, and I imagine that those who would like to mutilate the White Mountains are no exception to the rule."

Muir, according to the reporter, had a good deal of wrath in his voice and jumped up from his leather chair with his fist clenched as though he would have liked to pick a fight with the clans of despoilers. He was again quoted as saying,

"You see, I've been wandering about the mountains and the forests and the streams all my life, and I know something about their beauties and something, too, about the irreparable loss they are bound to suffer if commercial enterprises have unrestricted control of them. And what is their loss is the loss of mankind generally, for you cannot measure in dollars and cents the worth to the world of a rarely designed bit of nature."
But if I get started, really started, on the subject of preserving the natural beauties of this country, I'll keep you here all evening and I'll miss my dinner at the Appalachian Club."

Before Muir left the Hotel Bellevue for the club, he focused once again on New Hampshire, saying,

"There isn't the slightest hope for preservation when greed makes an entrance into nature's garden spots. We've fought hard to save the Yosemite valley, the finest mountain park that God ever designed - and we've been all over the world except South America and we've succeeded. It's now the duty of New England to save the White Mountains. If you wait it's lost; if you don't fight it's lost."

Muir explained that our nation was far behind the conservation efforts of Australia, Russia, Germany, and other European countries who "take it for granted that the preservation of their marvels of nature is a necessity." He stated that "while it is true that our forests are worth millions, what of that? Destroy it for its lumber and you have wiped out of existence phenomena that exist nowhere else in this world."

The reporter explained in his column the next day that Muir had seized a piece of paper and a pencil and sketched roughly some of the astonishing aspects of Yosemite National Park. While Muir sketched, he discussed the marvels of Yosemite. He mentioned such things as stunted timberline pines, giant sequoias more than 3,000 years old, and the dangerous threat to Hetch Hetchy Valley of a proposed reservoir for the city of San Francisco. (There is now talk in the 1990's of dismantling the Hetch Hetchy dam and transferring its waters to the lower and much larger Don Pedro Reservoir.)

The famous conservationist's last bit of discussion before going to the Appalachian Mountain Club concerned his trip the following month (June, 1911) to the Amazon where he hoped to see the world's greatest rain forest, and where he then hoped to explore Paraguay and observe the monkey puzzle tree. The tree, he explained, "is a conifer with a blunt leaf and yields a big nut which the natives use in various forms of food." He intended to comb the slopes of the Andes to feast his eyes on two other members of the monkey puzzle tree family.

Unfortunately we do not have a public record of what John Muir said later that evening at dinner to the Appalachian Mountain Club, but we can readily surmise, thanks to the account of his visit to Boston in The Sunday Herald of May 21, 1911.

As he explained at Hotel Bellevue, "It would take twenty-nine books, and perhaps a greater number, to tell comprehensively my observations in all parts of the world, or one-tenth part of my experiences. I've been wandering about, you know, since I finished at the state university (Wisconsin). Instead of taking a vacation then I went into the woods and fields and tramped, and I've been tramping ever since."

Perhaps members of the club attending that dinner heard of Muir's impressions (never published but still in handwritten copy at the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific) of seeing, eight years earlier in 1903, a hazy Mount Fuji from Yokohama Bay, or of seeing blossoms in the temple gardens of Nanking, or of his first sight ever of Mount Everest from the foothills above Darjeeling.

Richard Fleck has contributed articles to Appalachia since 1961 and is the editor of John Muir's Mountaineering Essays (Peregrine Smith Books, 1984) and of Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction (Three Continents press, 1993).

Source: Appalachia, New Series, Vol. L., No. 3, # 200, June 15, 1995. Reprinted on the John Muir Exhibit by permission of the author.

Life and Contributions of John Muir

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