I watched a wonderful episode of American Masters on PBS called ‘John Muir in the New World’ on Wednesday night. Actually, I’ve watched several escapist things the last few days including another PBS special on British Explorer Col. Percy Fawcett called Searching for Z . Earlier, I had watched the Presidents series from American Experience including the one dedicated to US President Teddy Roosevelt. What brings my attention to these three men is that they all were committed to wilderness, exploration, and conservation. They were huge figures in their life times. They fought a series of battles to keep the world’s geological marvels and wilderness away from men that wanted to exploit them down to the last tree and rock. We are seriously short of fighters like this these days.
This all got me thinking about how my grandparents set off with my mother, her sister and her brother in Studebakers to explore the nation’s new National Park System in the mid twenties. My mother saw to it that my dad took my sister and me back to every place she’d seen as a kid and then some in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve seen nearly all of the National Parks now thanks to my mom and the family gypsy spirit. I also took my daughters right back there too. I was especially impressed by Dinosaur National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, and Mesa Verde as a kid. My oldest daughter got taken to a lot of them initially in baby backpacks. We’ve spent a lot of time in Rocky Mountain National Park too. Little Miss Doctor Daughter made her first trip to Washington DC at six months. Then later, when she was older, we walked the same paths that I had walked in the 1960s and 1970s out in Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. I seriously doubt the paths were there when my grandparents took my late mother, but I know she talked about dropping a hankie in the handkerchief pool and watching the mudpots. I loved the paint pots. Little Miss Doctor Daughter preferred morning glory pool and the Yellowstone Falls. We share a fascination with dinosaurs too.
The latest notch on my well worn National Park tourist belt is our Gulf Islands National Seashore along the Gulf Coast. I’ve seen them with and without the BP oil. One of the hardest hit areas is near Pass a Loutre, a 66,000 acre Wetlands and bird sanctuary in Plaquemines Parish. It’s a few hours drive from my home. There’s a bunch of National Refuges down here including Delta National Wildlife Refuge and Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Actually, the entire French Quarter is a National Park. I live in between it and the Chalmette Battlefield that was the site of the Battle of New Orleans. They are both about 1 mile on either side of me. Barataria is just to the south and is my favorite National Historical Park to hike these days. It’s where Jean LaFitte and his pirates hung out and has some of the best swamp habitat around. The swamp iris in bloom are a thing to behold. I always take my friends there who’ve never seen an alligator in the wild. Breton National Refuge is the second oldest National Refuge in the country. It was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.
If you watch the special on John Muir, you’ll see how Roosevelt and Muir were responsible for saving the Giant Redwoods of Sequoia National Park , El Capitan, and the wonders that are Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Valley. One of their great failures was the inability to stop Woodrow Wilson and Congress from blocking human hysteria and greed–left over from San Francisco’s great fire–from building a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley that was part of the National Park. That controversy led to the founding of the Sierra Club and a greater realization on the part of US citizens every where that there are things in this country left to us by nature, geology, history, or whatever you want to call it that are special beyond belief and should be beyond capitalization. My daughters are the third generation in my family to be completely awed by the power of the Great American landscape. I only wonder what will be left to their children and grandchildren.
I know this is a weird morning post for you to read and that you were expecting a lot of newsy links. Instead, I spent the evening scanning some postcards and photos that my grandmother and mother collected. That side of my family just kept traveling around the US back then and most of us still do the same today. I want to leave you with some links to think about, however before I leave you with some postcards from my late mother and her family.
Once upon a time, my wife and I ventured in our Western travels to see Monument Valley, that place made legendary by a gazillion John Ford/John Wayne westerns as “THE ARCHETYPAL WEST,” so much so that you couldn’t film a car commercial for many years, and in some cases to this very day, without putting Monument Valley in the background.
And there was a line of cars and Winnebagos (or whatever you call five tons of steel dragging another couple tons of car, motorcycles, mountain bikes, or whatever other trailer gear makes for an enjoyable “roughing it” in the West, complete with satellite dishes and a portable generator for the bug-zapper). It was late spring, and the crowds weren’t what they were going to be, once school let out and the station wagons were unleashed on an unsuspecting West filled with price-gouging gas stations. Gas was still at winter “local” levels.
The run into Monument Valley is famously desolate, and you can see the spires of rock towering in the distance down a straight-line road that’s a favorite of cameramen of all ages and persuasions.
And when you get there, there’s the obligatory gatehouse for collecting tolls, and if you read the signs, you’ll notice that it’s “Monument Valley Tribal Park” which oughtn’t surprise you, since you’ve been on the Navajo Reservation — a chunk of land that embraces an area as large as West Virginia, and completely swallows the Hopi Reservation within it — for many miles now.
The billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch no longer sit outside Washington’s political establishment, isolated by their uncompromising conservatism. Instead, they are now at the center of Republican power, a change most evident in the new makeup of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Wichita-based Koch Industries and its employees formed the largest single oil and gas donor to members of the panel, ahead of giants like Exxon Mobil, contributing $279,500 to 22 of the committee’s 31 Republicans, and $32,000 to five Democrats.
For the past fifty years, through its Matador Cattle Company subsidiary, Koch Industries has been quietly milking a New Deal program that allows ranchers to use federal land basically for free. Matador, one of the ten biggest domestic cattle ranching operations, has something in the neighborhood of 300,000 acres of grazing land for its cows—two-thirds of which belong to American taxpayers, who will never see a penny of profit.
Back before there was Al Gore, there was John Muir. Only, John Muir not only talked the talk, he climbed the mountains and studied the rocks. He also wrote all about it so that people cooped up in big cities could know the marvels of the wide-open west. He wanted them to feel inspired and to come experience the power and overwhelming forces of nature and wilderness for themselves. There were some bad guys back then, but think about this. Koch Industries has spent $55 million dollars trying to fight the science of climate change and seeking to undermine environmental laws. They are out to destroy our national treasures and our heritage that so many people have fought for over a century to protect. What would John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt say about Koch Industries?
And what a glorious trip it was for you girls, flying like birds from wilderness to wilderness, the wildest and brightest of America, tasting almost every science under the sun, with fine breezy exercise, scrambles over mossy logs and rocks in the spruce forests, walks on the crystal prairies of the glaciers, on the flowery boggy tundras, in the luxuriant wild gardens of Kodiak and the islands of Bering Sea, and plashing boat rides in the piping bracing winds, all the while your eyes filled with magnificent scenery—the Alexander Archipelago with its thousand forested islands and calm mirror waters, Glacier Bay, Fairweather Mountains, Yakutat and Enchantment Bays, the St. Elias Alps and glaciers and the glorious Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and the Aleutian Peninsula with its flowery, ley, smoky volcanoes, the blooming banks and bracs and mountains of Unalaska, and Bering Sea with its seals and Innuits, whales and whalers, etc., etc., etc.
It is not easy to stop writing under the exhilaration of such an excursion, so much pure wildness with so much fine company. It is a pity so rare a company should have to be broken, never to be assembled again. But many, no doubt, will meet again. On your side of the continent perhaps half the number may be got together. Already I have had two trips with Merriam to the Sierra Sequoias and Coast Redwoods, during which you may be sure the H.A.E. was enjoyed over again. A few days after I got home, Captain Doran paid me a visit, most of which was spent in a hearty review of the trip. And last week Gannett came up and spent a couple of days, during which we went over all our enjoyments, science and fun, mountain ranges, glaciers, etc., discussing everything from earth sculpture to Cassiope and rhododendron gardens—from Welsh rarebit and jam and cracker feasts to Nunatak. I hope to have visits from Professor Gilbert and poet Charlie ere long, and Earlybird Ritter, and possibly I may see a whole lot more in the East this coming winter or next. Anyhow, remember me to all the Harrimans and Averells and every one of the party you chance to meet, Just to think of them!! Ridgway with wonderful bird eyes, all the birds of America in them; Funny Fisher ever flashing out wit; Perpendicular E., erect and majestic as a Thlinket totem pole Old-sea-beach G., hunting upheavals, downheavals, sideheavals, and hanging valleys, the Artists reveling in color beauty like bees in flower-beds; Ama-a-merst tripping along shore like a sprightly sandpiper, pecking kelp-bearded boulders for a meal of fossil molluscs; Genius Kincaid among his beetles and butterflies and “red tailed bumble-bees that sting awful hard”; Innuit Dall smoking and musing, flowery Trelease and Coville; and Seaweed Saunders our grand big-game Doctor, and how many more! Blessed Brewer of a thousand speeches and stories and merry ha-has, and Genial John Burroughs, who growled at and scowled at good Bering Sea and me, but never at thee. I feel pretty sure that he is now all right at his beloved Slabsides and I have a good mind to tell his whole Bering story in his own sort of good-natured, gnarly, snarly, jungle, jangle rhyme.
There! But how unconscionably long the thing is! I must stop short. Remember your penitential promises. Kill as few of your fellow beings as possible and pursue some branch of natural history at least far enough to see Nature’s harmony.