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Letter to John Muir

To the Glory of Nature, John Muir, Eternity

by Rex Burress

from California Parks and Recreation Magazine, November, 1962

Introduction by Rex Burress, September, 2007

A little history connected to my "Letter to John Muir." I came west from Missouri in 1957 and took up residency in the Bay Area of California. I was selected for the Rotary Natural Science Center and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge in Oakland as, first, an animal keeper and migratory waterfowl manager in 1961, before becoming Refuge Naturalist, at a time when William Penn Mott, Jr. was Oakland Park Director. Mott had hired Naturalist Paul F. Covel as the first Municipal Naturalist in America in 1948.

I was inspired by the enthusiastic Covel, and since he was a follower of John Muir’s philosophy, I soon discovered Muir also, and proceeded to read the book, John of the Mountains, edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe that we had in the Bugs Cain library at the Center. Paul was so entranced with Muir that when he retired in 1975, he traveled to Dunbar, Scotland, just to see where Muir was born.

Then followed many books on Muir, including The Wilderness World of John Muir edited by Edwin Way Teale. And of course John’s own books beginning with My First Summer in the Sierra. I was inspired. Mott encouraged my writing and art work, often dropping a note of acknowledgment on some thing I had done. That culminated with me writing the "Letter to John Muir," and he found it and had it printed in the California Parks and Recreation Magazine, November, 1962. Of course, I visited all those Muir places: Muir Woods, Muir Beach, and Yosemite.

I was interested in environmental education and nature interpretation, took up art and writing as an aid to that effort, and especially noticed the desire of city people to find nature. We developed the theme, "Toward bringing nature and people together," at the Nature Center, sort of like Muir’s "I care to live only to entice others to look at nature’s loveliness with understanding," and thus evolved this letter.

Here is the letter I wrote:


November, 1962

By Rex Burress

I have just finished reading some of your writings as edited by Edwin Way Teale in the book, The Wilderness World of John Muir. This has been a most joyous experience to read of your adventures and nature observations. My appreciation of your thoughts is exceedingly great because I, too, am a student of nature. I feel especially interested in your life, not only as to the common bond of a love of nature, but I, like you, lived in the mid-west in my early years, and now live in your stomping grounds of later years- -central California. Indeed, you mention walking in Oakland and San Francisco- -in the very area that I now live and work! Our path lines have undoubtedly crossed many times.

Time has made many changes in this old world since your day. If you were in this big city area today and could hear the noisy chatter of activity and breathe the air of smog periods and see the mechanized rush all about, you would head for the hills even sooner than your city revolt in the year 1874.

Your writings speak of the unlivable corrupted conditions of the city. In your words, "If the death exhalations that brood the broad towns in which we so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague." And again, "Once I was let down into a deep well into which chokedamp had settled, and nearly loss my life. The deeper I was immersed in the invisible prison, the less capable I became of willing measures of escape from it. And in just this condition are those who toil or dawdle or dissipate in crowded towns, in the sinks of commerce pleasure."

Your theme of leaving the busy city for the tranquillity of the hills is a pleasant thought; but there are just too many people now-days to go and live in the mountains. Why, if everybody was suddenly to make his home in the open spaces and wilderness areas, the out-of-doors would lose all value as a retreat and be hopelessly cluttered with the debris of civilization. As it is, there are still some unspoiled areas which we can hold in fond memory and hope for in vacation dreams.

I am speaking as one of the city’s inhabitants. I am one of the "spiders" caught in the "web." I’m a struggling wage earner who is managing a small living for myself and my family. It is not easy to break away from this binding web of responsibilities; food for the family and the security of a home. The fact may be that it would seem unendurable for a person that has had a good taste of the sweet nectar of nature and the out-of-doors to remain in the shadow of the cold concrete-clad skyscrapers.

But it is not too bad, John. And one of the reasons that it is not completely distasteful is because there are those areas over the hill to which we can retreat. Thanks to the forethought of men like you, we have the promise of a place to recreate ourselves, such as in the wilderness tracts set aside for parks. There is still a goodly amount of unsettled space that we can visualize, and also urban parks and places to keep our minds fresh.

You wouldn’t believe the number of people that have congregated in this Bay Area. Stone and steel mountains are rising in thick clusters and they are not the work of glaciers- -they are man-made and made for man. It is perhaps the only way the increasing mass of mankind can exist. The life-blood of our society is dependence on one another. We exchange work for money and in turn exchange money for food which pays the grocer for his work. And so on to many extremes.

There are a good many people scattered among the population like us, who appreciate beauty and the story of nature. This is evident in the attendance frequenting parks and shows of art. "Birds of a feather are flocked together" in Audubon clubs, Sierra Clubs, hiking clubs, camera clubs, rod and gun clubs, and so on down the list. If dependence on one another is the life-blood of our human community, the bits of nature here and there is the life-line for the amateur naturalist.

It is good that the majority cling to the beautiful. A flower garden here; a seeded lawn there. A rose bud here; a bouquet there. A pruned shrub here; a spreading tree there. A bird house here; a bird bath there. Thus a line of nature runs through the city- -implanted and invited by those who cling to the desire of having lovely and beautiful things.

NATURE IS NOT LOST IN THE CITY’S MAZE. Each spot of plant growth supports its share of wildlife. Each tree supports a resting and nesting place for birds. Around each corner a bit of nature can be seen; enough to keep our minds tuned to the fact that nature exists and is waiting in full glory for us over the hill...waiting until a chance arrives when we can be off and free...headed for the high-lands or a park or a stream to renew our spirit with the primitive freshness of the out-of-doors. Until the chance to go arrives, this bit of city wildlife and man must live in harmony.

This would surprise you, but right here in the heart of Oakland by Lake Merritt, there is a bird refuge where wild ducks and geese will eat out of your hand!! Wild pintails and canvasbacks and bluebills and a host of other free flying birds that have swooped over the Sierras- -looking down on the most rugged of wilderness areas- -come to this refuge where they dwell with city and man in sweet accord. And this is a goal to strive for; the merger of man and nature. And it must be if we re to keep burning before us the hopeful light of scenes from the world of nature. There is no need to make our cities a tomb of machines, because man can merge with nature and make a place practical for wild things and beautiful for homes.

On some far day the stone cities may be constructed beneath the earth’s surface and the soil could regain that which it lost, but until then it is a matter for man to merge- -to share- -with green plants and living animals the land on which we live.

Thanks also to the splendid writings of men like you, we know how it was then in the out-of-doors. You have made us aware of how it was then and how it is now, and the importance of the value in keeping as much of nature alive as possible.

Yes, thank you, John Muir, for the things you stood for concerning your out-of-doors...our out-of-doors.

Sincerely yours,

Rex Burress, Animal Keeper, Oakland Park Department November, 1962.

Reprinted by permission of Rex Burress.

About the Author

Rex Burress was born in the No Creek country of northern Missouri. Eventually he found his way west to Oakland, California, where he worked at the Lake Merritt Waterfowl Refuge for over 30 years. He and his wife Jo now live on the Feather River, where he continues to explore nature, take photographs, and record his experiences and thoughts. You will find about 80 of his writings about birds and wildlife at Nature Vignettes: Local Bird Prose and Poetry, by the Mount Diablo Audubon Society.

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