In March 1867, John Muir was working in a carriage factory when a freak accident sent a steel file flying into his right eye. His cornea was pierced; its vitreous humor literally dripped into his hands. Within hours, the damaged nerves had left him blind in both eyes. For weeks, Muir lay sightless in a darkened room. But by May his sight had returned. A skilled machinist and inventor, Muir was offered his old job back. He turned it down and, instead, he set off on a thousand-mile hike from Jefferson, Indiana to Cedar Keys, Florida. Muir's life and the history of American conservationism would be changed by his injury.
Born in Scotland, Muir immigrated with his parents to America when he was eleven. He spent the next decade in the "glorious Wisconsin wilderness."23 But he was something of a mechanical genius. Among his inventions was a bed attached to a clock that tilted at a pre-set time to wake him up in the morning. So talented was he that in 1860, he was encouraged to enroll at the University of Wisconsin after his inventions caught the eye of faculty attending the state fair.
He left school after two years, but found plenty of work as a mechanic and inventor. With new industries and technologies proliferating after the Civil War, it is easy to imagine Muir leading a Thomas Edison-type life – an innovative genius facilitating the expansion of America's technology-driven new industries. Instead, after his accident, he abandoned the workshop for the wilderness and became America's most influential conservationist. "God has nearly to kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons," he later observed.24
Muir rose to prominence at a time when Americans' ideas about their vast western domain were somewhat jumbled. They had long ago abandoned the Biblically based idea of the wilderness as a place of sin and declension; they no longer feared that the devil lived in the forest or that frontier life chipped away at man's moral and spiritual veneer. Instead, "the West," "the frontier," "nature" had come to represent a constellation of positive values. For George Washington, they offered the stage on which Americans would work out their grand political destiny. For Thomas Jefferson, they provided the space needed to build a nation of self-sufficient and, therefore, moral and reasonable, yeoman farmers. For the Transcendentalists of the 1840s, they offered a window into the soul––a site for retreat and exploration of the truths lying within nature and ourselves. For utilitarians, this vast natural expanse was a repository of the resources – gold, silver, timber, coal – needed to build a wealthy industrial nation.
At mid century, these ideas were able to exist side by side. Conservationists like Samuel Hammond could celebrate the restorative powers of nature while also applauding the march of progress. Vast unspoiled territories must be protected, but civilization and all its blessings – trains, towns, and telegraph poles – must not be impeded. But in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the easy co-existence of these ideas was tested. Increasingly, "preservationists'' questioned whether the West could serve two masters; they adopted a zero-sum approach to the wilderness and insisted that nature be protected even if "civilization" must suffer.
Several factors inspired preservationists to ratchet up their defense of America's western wilderness. Most prominent among these was the sense that it was rapidly disappearing. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, a University of Wisconsin historian, published an essay announcing the end of the frontier. Prompted by the 1890 census, which reported that for the first time "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line," Turner announced the end of an era – the completion of America's "colonization of the Great West."25
Turner's emphasis was on the political and social consequences of this development. Throughout America's history, Turner argued, the frontier had provided a critical source of political, social and cultural formation. Life on the frontier broke down the ethnic and national barriers separating the diverse populations moving west from the East Coast; it forged a "composite nationality for the American people."26 The frontier also encouraged economic independence from Europe; it forced Americans to turn inward; it encouraged eastern merchants to cultivate ties to the interior rather than to European markets. But most importantly, the frontier strengthened democracy. Life in the West bred self-sufficiency and individualism; it made people vigilant of their rights and resentful of all forms of control.
Turner's concerns about the future of the American experiment without the rejuvenating forces of the frontier were echoed by a diffused group of cultural and social observers with more particularized concerns. These worried about a workforce of young men laboring in factories and counting houses rather than pastures and fields, about a generation of children growing up amidst tenements and urban filth rather than trees and fresh air. For these observers, nature was the antidote to many of the ills plaguing American society, and the announcement of its rapid disappearance raised fears of social and moral decay.
These concerns inspired a series of responses. The Boy Scouts, formed in 1910, offered young boys a chance to cultivate the wilderness skills and experiences fast fading from their urban lives. Dozens of organizations, like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Boone and Crockett Club, were formed to combine outdoor excursions with political advocacy. In addition, a whole batch of novelists, like Jack London and Frank Norris, emerged to celebrate the more vital and authentic experiences of men confronting nature. Perhaps, the most pointed expression of these concerns was penned by Owen Wister. In 1902, he published The Virginian, a semi-autobiographical account of an easterner who travels west in order to recover his health and discovers a more hearty, hard-living, and fully healthy race of men.
In short, by the end of the nineteenth century, Americans were ready to embrace the message that nature needed aggressive preservation – but it took a specific political contest to turn this growing interest in conservation into a cultural and political movement.
In 1864, the federal government deeded ten square miles to the state to California for a park in the Yosemite Valley. Typical of the philosophically-muddled approach to the wilderness during these years, the land was designated for "public use, resort, and recreation," and almost immediately it was filled with a hotel, restaurant, and other tourist-accommodating attractions. But by 1890, a team of preservationists led by John Muir had convinced Congress that a much larger piece of the Sierra wilderness needed to be protected. On 1 October 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed a bill creating a 1500 square mile park surrounding the Yosemite Valley.
Muir and his allies realized that preservation required an ongoing commitment, so in 1892 they founded the Sierra Club with Muir serving as president. Over the next decade, the Sierra Club successfully lobbied for new federally protected wilderness areas including Mt. Rainier National Park. But after the turn of the century, the club faced a challenge from the city of San Francisco, which was anxious to capture the water of the Tuolumne River by building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley on the western side of Yosemite. These efforts gained momentum after the 1906 earthquake and fire razed the city. In 1908, the Secretary of the Interior approved the city's application to build a dam, arguing that "domestic use is the highest use to which water and available storage basins . . . can be put."27
Muir and his allies were incensed by the reduction of the beautiful Sierra valley to a "storage basin"; their ensuing attempt to block the city's water project would span almost a decade. As the battle progressed, the two camps were driven further apart and deeper into hyperbole. The city's needs were reduced to a base quest for comfort. And since preservationists believed that alternatives, albeit more expensive ones, existed, they argued that ultimately it was all about money. "Is there nothing to be held sacred by this nation; is it to be dollars only; are we to be cramped in soul and mind by the lust after filthy lucre only?" The supporters of the Hetch Hetchy dam were equally drawn to exaggeration. They labeled their opponents "hoggish and mushy aesthetes," a group of "short-haired women and long-haired men."28
The preservationists lobbying Congress to block the dam worried little about these sorts of characterizations. Far more troubling were the divisions in their own ranks. A faction within the Sierra Club split from the parent organization to lobby on behalf of the dam. Perhaps more troubling, an ardent California conservationist, William Kent, joined the pro-Hetch Hetchy forces.
Kent was elected to Congress in 1910. There he lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service and the founding of a state park on Mt. Tamalpais. Three years earlier, moreover, Kent had purchased a few hundred redwood-filled acres in Marin County and donated them to the federal government as a monument to be named Muir Woods. His preservationist credentials were impeccable, but shortly after assuming congressional office he announced his support for the dam. His reasons were complex. For starters, his believed that conservationism must be balanced by an appreciation for the legitimate needs of communities. In addition, as a believer in the public ownership of utilities, he preferred a city-owned water supply to the alternative – the monopolization of the state's water and hydroelectric resources by PG&E. Muir's approach, he argued, was too narrow. He admired Muir deeply, but he felt he was "entirely without social sense. With him, it is me and God and the rock where God outs it, and that is the end of the story."29
The charge that Muir had lost touch with human needs was an effective accent in a campaign that argued that when push came to shove, aesthetic consideration must yield to "the urgent needs of great masses of human beings for the necessities of life." "We all love the sound of whispering winds amid the trees," noted Congressman Marcus Smith of Arizona, but "the wail of a hungry baby will make us forget it."30
In September 1913, the House voted to approve the Hetch Hetchy dam. The following December, the Senate also approved the bill. Woodrow Wilson signed the act on 19 December.
The defeat was a profound disappointment for Muir. But it was not his first. In 1871, he had been thrilled to receive word that one of his idols, Ralph Waldo Emerson, planned to visit Yosemite. Emerson's transcendentalist views on nature resonated with Muir's own – nature was a "window opening into heaven," Muir once wrote; the Sierras were the "wild glow of Heaven's love." Muir planned a month long trek through the wilderness with Emerson, but the 68-year old philosopher preferred to stay in a hotel. Perhaps worse, upon Emerson's return to New England, he urged Muir to join him there permanently; nature offered "a sublime mistress," Emerson reasoned, "but an intolerable wife."31
In other words, this was not the first time that Muir had discovered that his commitments to nature were deeper and more unqualified than those of most others. However, a longer view of the Hetch Hetchy battle should have consoled the great preservationist. During the debate over the dam, thousands of newspapers, civic organizations, and individuals rallied to prevent the "despoliation" of this beautiful valley. From among the muddled constellation of ideas about the wilderness, the importance of preservation had been elevated and embraced by thousands. Concrete evidence of this fact was secured just three years later when Congress passed legislation creating the National Park Service. The man whose career had been launched by a freak accident may have suffered another setback, but this setback, much like the first, served to "teach us lessons."