PEOPLE THAT BUILT OUR NATION – JOHN MUIR

Over the past few years I have written about people that have built our great nation.  Most were political or military leaders.  This is not the only breed of American that had an impact on the development of our country.  There are countless private Americans that continue to do their part to build our country in a quiet manner without fanfare and without seeking the spotlight.  Every once in a while someone will rise to the spotlight but without political agenda or seeking financial wealth and acting upon one’s volition to simply bring light to a subject that requires change.  One such person was a man named John Muir.

Muir was born in Scotland and as a child migrated to America with his parents in 1849.  He was brought up in a strict religious family and by 11 he was able to recite the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. At 22 he entered the University of Wisconsin, took many diverse courses, was still a freshman after two years and never graduated.  He did have a very diverse range of science courses and this would serve him in the future.

After he left the University of Wisconsin he traveled up to Canada and explored and collected botanical specimens.  With money running low he took a job at a Canadian saw mill. Later he returned to America and worked at a wagon wheel factory.  It was there that he had an accident, almost lost an eye and was confined in the dark for six weeks where he emerged with a new disposition and direction in life; one of those epiphanies in life that completely changes a person’s future.

In 1867 he went for a “walk” from Kentucky through Florida and lasted for a thousand miles.  His only requirement he would later state about the route was that it would be “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find”.  When he arrived in the Florida Keys he worked again in a saw mill until he hopped a boat to Cuba where he studied shells and the seashore environment.  Eventually he made his way to New York and then got passage to California.  At this point in life one would think that he was simply a drifter and in fact he was but with a purpose.  He studied the natural environment while he toured the country.

Muir worked for a short time as an officer in the Unites States Coast Survey.  The wild called him and he visited Yosemite where he later returned and built a cabin.  The corner of the cabin had a part of the river running through it so that he could hear the water at night.  He also invented a water mill to cut wood that had fallen in the river and could then be used for lumber.  After living for three years in Yosemite he was visited by a group from the American East.  Though not having completed college, he was so versed in nature that the group offered him a professorship to Harvard.  Muir could not leave the beauty of the Sierra’s and declined.

Muir loved geology and put a theory out that Yosemite was formed by a glacier.  This was in contrast to the belief that was originally thought to be the product of an earthquake.  His theory of this “amateur” proved to be correct.  His writings were so good that he was being printed in New York.  In addition to geology he also studied the plants of the west and visited the giant sequoias of the Pacific coast.  Later he visited Alaska and wondered at the natural beauty of the American territory that would someday become the 50th state.

By the 1890s Muir had become an activist for natural America.  His writings were being published in magazines around the country and was leading to legislation being passed to protect large tracts of Federal Land.  He encouraged a bill to make Yosemite a National Park and to be modeled after the first National Park, Yellowstone.

The unique thing about America is that we find a balance in diverse beliefs.  This is where John Muir and his naturalist beliefs are a part of our everyday life today.  His world has come face to face with modern manufacturing and economic expansion.  Because of what he has taught and the followers he has today, debate continues about ecology vs pollution and many compromises have taken place to insure that America continues to grow its’ industries but with a conscience for natural beauty.

In 1992 Muir co-founded an “alpine club” that two weeks later would be incorporated as the “Sierra Club”.  He remained president until his death 22 years later.

THE FOREST RANGER

Occasionally we run across someone that causes us to stand back and think how interesting that person’s life was.  The person is not well known but has definitely left his or her mark in life.  Several attributes of the individual are unquestionable loyalty to a mission, visionary and being his or her own person.  This person is found throughout our nation. They could be in the military, political service, a teacher or a volunteer in a soup line helping the needy.  Recently I ran across such an individual that lived a very interesting life and found his niche in life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  His occupation was United States Forest Ranger.

In 1891 Congress gave authority to the President to set aside forest land for preservation, protection of water sheds and future lumber needs.    The Secretary of the Interior was later given authority to “regulate occupancy and use within the reserves, develop mineral resources, provide for fire protection, and permit the sale of timber.”  The initial model to control and regulate these vast forest resources of the American West was fashioned from the Prussian land management practices.  (Now Germany).  But who was going to enforce the regulations.

The Department of the Interior began hiring and developing the Forest Ranger.  Many of the early staff came from the prestigious Ivy League schools and moved West to the rough and exciting lives that extended from the Rockies to the Pacific.  One early Ranger wrote of the duties of the Forest Ranger as, “The ranger in the district was often the only policeman, fish and game warden, coroner, disaster rescuer, and doctor. He settled disputes between cattle and sheepmen, organized and led fire fighting crews, built roads and trails, negotiated grazing and timber sales contracts, carried out reforestation and disease control projects, and ran surveys.” Injury and even death was the fate of more than one early ranger.

The Ranger that I ran across was born and raised on the Sweetwater Ranch near Bridgeport, California.  This is high in the Sierras on the eastern slopes north of Yosemite.  What a beautiful place to have been raised.  His grandparents also ran a stage coach station on the road from the mining ghost towns of Bodie and Aurora to Genoa and Virginia City.  As he and his brother got older, their mother and father felt that education was the single most important aspect for their children so they sold the ranch and moved to Reno so that they could be near the University of Nevada.

The future Ranger graduated in the early 1900s in Engineering and joined the U.S. Forest Service and returned to his roots near Bridgeport, California.  He followed the normal regime of work identified above with one additional activity, mapping.  He would load up his pack horse with food, camping gear and surveying instruments and climb on his other horse and disappear into the Sierras for a month or two at a time.  During the summer he would map the Eastern Sierras.  During the winter months when access to the area was impossible he would go to the Forest Service Office in Carson Valley and turn his field notes into Forest Service Maps.  The Sierras are full of high altitude Alpine Lakes.  Small, cold and beautifully clear lakes that are filled from melting snow in the spring.  Since the ranger was the first to map the area he also had naming rights so the lakes around the Bridgeport area were named for his wife, daughters and women from the Carson Valley area.  For decades the Forest Service Maps referred to the region as Henry’s Harem.  Political correctness crept into our society and the term Henry’s Harem has disappeared from the U.S. Forest Service maps.

He had a broad view of what the Forest Service could accomplish.  He built a small museum from artifacts he found in the mountains only to be told that this was not a mission for the forest service and he had to remove it.  Decades later the Forest Service does respect the past and artifacts are on display around the country.

While on his rounds deep in the Sierras he discovered petroglyphs carved by native Americans during a bygone and forgotten era.  He reached out to the University of Southern California and they sent an Archeological team to the area but could not identify the origin of the Indians that had carved on the rocks.  He also found and brought firearms, obsidian arrowheads and other artifacts from the mountains.  Many were left by settlers enroute to hopes of finding gold in the mountains of California.

He also embraced photography at the same time that Ansel Adams was photographing the Sierras.  He would take and then develop and then enlarge photos of the deep Sierras.

In addition to his love for the Sierras and the Forest Service, he had a family in Carson Valley in Nevada.  He hand built much of the house he raised his children in.  His two daughters married and had children of their own.  His son was a success in his own right and became Vice President of Engineering for the Sierra Pacific power company.

The ranger died in the early 50s.  His name was Henry Atcheson and he became one of the unknown and quiet individuals that helped to mold the country into being the greatest nation.

HIDDEN ADVANTAGES OF CAMPING

When growing up in rural North Louisiana it was normal to spend the nights under the stars.  This was a rite of passage for the young man as he becomes an adolescent.  Sleeping on the ground while stoking a fire and fighting mosquitos was part of the mystique that most in the city dwellers could not understand.  The excitement of not knowing what loomed beyond the shadows could be quit exhilarating and bordered on terrifying as an owl screeched in the dark.

Many of us were fortunate enough to have been part of the Boy Scout Troops in the area and the camping experience was refined to more than being an ordeal to being a true experience in nature.  Summer camping trips morphed to fall and winter camps and while our urban cousins experienced the outdoors from a television the youth of rural America created and lived the experience.

I was fortunate to have been a member of the Farmerville, Louisiana Boy Scout Troop .  I learned Morse code from the Bernice, Louisiana Scout Master while we were at Scout Camp at Camp KiRoLi in Monroe.  The local community supported the Boy Scouts and the camp was named for the organizations that built the camp; Kiwanis, Rotarian and Lion’s clubs.  This scout camp predated the current Camp T.L. James and is now a local park in West Monroe, Louisiana.  Life was good for a boy growing up in rural North Louisiana.

When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia the call for camping drew me into the deserts and coastal areas of the Eastern Province.  There was an exception to my earlier experience.  I did not venture into the desert alone but was accompanied by my wife in infant daughter.  This lasted for a year and then other activities entered our life and the tents found a permanent location on the shelves and attics.  With the exceptions of several very fun trips in America, camping faded from my vocabulary.

Finally, it has reared its’ head and Bonnie and I are rediscovering the therapeutic aspects of camping.  No more tents though.  We have compromised with a pop up camper and now with a travel trailer. There is now a larger camper on the horizon as we view a future that will include a large amount of time communing with nature.

We recently returned from a trip to Lake Ouachita in Arkansas as we continue to expand our camping experience.  Like we did in Arabia, we made some adjustment to the experience.  Our daughter, who as a toddler plodded through the sands of Arabia, was with us as were her two younger brothers.  The group expanded as we also had their children with us.  Our granddaughter, a clone of our daughter, blonde haired blue eyed and filled with excitement was with us.  The true excitement of being surrounded by nature was visible in these bright blue eyes.  It was at that time that the therapeutic aspects of camping no longer resided in my association with the great outdoors.  It now resided with sharing it with my children and especially my four grandchildren.  Each one was different in their own right but each one equally enjoyed the great outdoors.  This new journey in life is one that I am truly looking forward to as we explore the wonders of the outdoors together.