Year in Yosemite: Inspired Pilgrim
A couple of weeks ago, 25 students and almost as many parents went to see our Mariposa County Supervisor. He spoke for an hour and held his audience spellbound. There was no talk of politics but I'd be willing to bet he filled our students' young minds with thoughts of possibility and power, social responsibility, and civic action. That's because our local county supervisor is Lee Stetson. A trained actor, director and writer, Mr. Stetson treated us to what he’s best known for—his one-man show as John Muir.
Now I know it's just about impossible to live in Yosemite, or to love the national parks, or contemplate the wonder and healing power of nature without coming across the name John Muir. But, until I saw Mr. Stetson, I never thought about the fact that Muir had a lilting Scottish accent that must have gone a long way toward charming his audiences, be they presidents or townspeople. In Mr. Stetson's capable hands, Muir came across as passionate about life, endlessly curious, an enthusiastic talker, (Galen Clark's main complaint about him) and very clever. He could build a sawmill, fashion a cabin (complete with a stream running through it so he could fall asleep to its comforting sound), and concoct a bed that would pitch him onto the floor each morning.
The son of a serious and dictatorial man, Muir seems to have run in the opposite vein. Early on, he left behind his father's harsh religion and settled instead on nature as his religion and his calling. He was in awe of Emerson, obsessed with Thoreau and determined to model his life after theirs. Considered by many to be frighteningly naïve (especially about the possibilities of politics), he was either lucky enough or smart enough to align himself with powerful patrons. They gave him the important political introductions to pursue his great love—the establishment of the national parks and the preservation of wilderness. But even if he had not attracted these people into his life, Mr. Stetson's portrayal of Muir left one overriding impression. John Muir was a spirited doer; it was impossible to keep him down.
As a young man, he worked 12 hours a day at hard physical labor on his father's farm, then spent almost as long reading and working on his inventions. When an industrial accident caused him to lose his sight (He thought forever, but it turned out to be for a month.), he made up for lost time by walking 1,000 miles from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually heading West, he made California his own, most especially the Sierra Nevada.
When Mr. Muir died at the age of 76, he left behind a family, 12 major books, over 300 articles, his journals and The Sierra Club. Known by then as the "Father of the National Park System," he could claim a direct hand in the establishment of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Mount Rainier and Grand Canyon National Parks. More importantly, he had helped to establish the idea of wilderness preservation as an American ideal.
Some claim that the loss of Yosemite's other magnificent valley, Hetch Hetchy, (San Francisco flooded it to use as a reservoir for its water) caused Muir to die of a broken heart. I think not. This was the man who claimed that "The battle for conservation must go on endlessly. It is part of the universal warfare between right and wrong." Clearly seeing himself on the side of right, Muir understood that through his example and through his writings, he had established a lasting legacy that would help guide generations.
Muir's spirit reached out to Lee Stetson when he first made his way to Yosemite, over 30 years ago. Taking a job at the front desk of Curry Village, he used his time in Yosemite to research and write about Muir. When no one wanted to take on the part, he made it his own, bringing alive the character and stories of the great man. This summer, he’ll offer up his interpretation of John Muir two nights a week in Yosemite Valley. During the day, you can find Mr. Stetson at his desk in Mariposa County, working, as Muir did, for the people—both with the goal of enriching people's lives.
-- Jamie Simons/ images: top photo by Nancy Casolaro, middle photo by Jon Jay, and John Muir portrait is courtesy the National Park Service.