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Blowin' in the Wind: An American View

by Deborah Streeter

Blowin' in the Wind celebrates and critiques America; our culture, politics, people, history, religions and landscape. We also link to our friend Ed Kilgore's daily blog 
Political Animal, for an insider's look at our political process. Both of us try to keep it brave and free, like our nation, with some humor and progressive hope thrown in.



Two Yosemite Artists: Chiura Obata and Ansel Adams

My trip to Yosemite approaches, so I continue this series of columns on this iconic American national park and wilderness region and its place in our history and culture.

Today, a bit about two of the many artists who have been inspired by the place.

Basically, I just encourage you to go to Google images for both these guys and soak in their amazing images.

I’ve admired their work for years, and when I moved to the Monterey area I learned that they both had lived and done ocean photos and paintings at nearby Point Lobos.  But I never figured out until now that they were friends.   Here are some stories about them and Yosemite.

Ansel AdamsChiura ObataAlmost contemporaries, photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and woodblock/painter Chiura Obata (1885-1975) were born in different countries (US, Japan), and worked in different mediums.   But for both of them, their first trips to Yosemite changed their lives and art, and they went back many times into old age.

Chiura Obata was a promising young artist from Japan in 1903 when he landed in California on a planned world study trip; he never left.  His early prints of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake showed the unreported devastation in the Asian American neighborhoods.  By 1927 he was the first faculty member in Japanese painting in the UC Berkeley Art Department.  A faculty colleague invited him to spend the summer painting and fishing in Yosemite.  He was moved and inspired, and came home with over 100 works.

Half Dome, Yosemite, Ansel AdamsAnsel Adams grew up in San Francisco.  At age four he saw his house collapse in the SF earthquake and an aftershock broke his nose. A promising classical pianist and amateur photographer, he spent his college summers as caretaker at the Sierra Club headquarters in Yosemite Valley (1918-22) and hiked the high country.  Over the next 40 years he returned to Yosemite often, as his international stature grew.  Like John Muir, Adams felt the call of the wilderness when urban life and fame overwhelmed him.  Carrying his 40 pound camera on his back he hiked off trail, up cliffs, and to high mountain lakes, taking memorable photos of the Sierras.  Like Muir, he influenced a President Roosevelt, this time Franklin, to set aside wilderness, in this case, the roadless Kings Canyon..

Obata married a prominent Ikebana artist and the two of them founded the East-West Art Society to promote understanding and cooperation between American and Asian artists.  He continued to teach at Berkeley, saying “I always teach my students beauty.  No one should pass through four years of college without being given the knowledge of beauty and eyes with which to see it.”  The day after Pearl Harbor, shots were fired into the Obata’s studio and gallery on Telegraph Avenue.  He and his family were taken with 40,000 other Japanese Americans to internment camps in Utah.  Obata started an art school in the camps and taught hundreds of kids and adults.  Berkeley President Gordon Sproul saved and stored most of his art.  He returned to the faculty after the war.

Adams was too old to serve in WWII but volunteered to use his camera for the war effort.  The State Department ordered him to make inspiring pictures of nature scenes to improve troop morale.  He did the assignment, but then asked to take pictures of the Japanese interment camps.  He put together an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944 called “Born Free and Equal.”  Some called him a traitor.

El Capitan, Yosemite, Chiura ObataAdams and Obata crossed paths many times.  They first met in Yosemite in the late 20’s.  Together the two young men hiked and painted and took pictures.   Adams had just married Virginia Best, who had grown up in the valley with her artist father who painted Yosemite and ran a gallery there.  Adams encouraged his father in law to sell Obata’s work to Yosemite visitors, helping to spread Obata’s fame. 

Both Adams and Obata were good writers also.  So you should Google their texts as well as their images.  Like these words from Obata:

“When faced with such serene beauty,” he once said, “the soul and mind of man are lost, and the possibility of petty thought vanished…..Our mind must be as peaceful and tranquil as a calm, undisturbed lake. Let not a shadow be cast on it with the slightest thought of self-conceit or Egotism… Only thus can a genuine art, overflowing in deep praise and abiding inspiration, be produced….

In the evening, it gets very cold; the coyotes howl in the distance, in the mid sky the moon is arcing, all the trees are standing here and there, and it is very quiet. You can learn from the teachings within this quietness. . . . Some people teach by speeches, some by talking, but I think it is important that you are taught by silence.

 . . . Immerse yourself in nature, listen to what nature tries to tell you in its quietness, so that you can learn and grow.”

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter



I began last week a series of columns about Yosemite National Park in anticipation of my trip there next month.  At the end of last week’s column about John Muir, Yosemite’s advocate and savior, I noted that he died 100 years ago this year, 1914.

Today we recall another important anniversary being celebrated this year in Yosemite and in 800 other wilderness area; The US Wilderness Protection Act, signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Here are some untrammeled ramblings about wilderness and staying out of traps.

John Muir wanted to take everyone camping in the wilderness.  His beloved Sierra Club was all about making more people aware of wild natural wonders, and improving their access to them. Only slowly did this gentleman’s club of western nature lovers realize that, while public awareness was good, too much access was becoming a problem.  Instead of just sponsoring hikes, they needed to sponsor legislation.  After their devastating failure to stop the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir near Yosemite, they began to lobby for protection of special landscapes, like the Grand Canyon, from development, recreation, drilling, and logging.

But it really fell to the next generation of American wilderness lovers to realize that federal legislation was needed that was comprehensive and stronger.  And in an ironic twist, these new leaders actually worked to reduce access to wilderness areas.   They were also less trusting of government laws and agencies than their mentors had been; these new activists noticed that these so-called land agencies had in a few decades become beholden to commercial interests; the Forest Service was ruled by lumber interests, and the Army Corps of Engineers was devoted to dams and locks and levees.

Howard ZahniserHoward Zahniser, president of the Wilderness Society, was one of this new generation of conservationists.   His particular skills met the needs of this new time; he was a good writer, he was persistent, and he was willing to work with others. From 1958 to 1964 he wrote 66 drafts of a Wilderness Act that would provide a federal wilderness policy and protection.  He got various competing environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Isaak Walton League, to work together for the first time, and he shepherded them through 16 congressional hearings.  Sadly, Zahniser  died months before Congress overwhelmingly passed the legislation. 

It was the first wilderness act of its kind in any nation and has served as a model for others.  Immediately 9 million wilderness acres that had previously been set apart piecemeal and with fragile protections that could be rescinded by a new administration, were placed under permanent, comprehensive conservation policy.  No development, no permanent human presence, no recreational vehicles, no forestry or mining.  In the past 50 years, the scope of those protected areas has grown to 109 million acres, more than half of it in Alaska.

Zahniser defined wilderness this way: “ A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Yosemite’s valley floor is not considered wilderness.  It’s developed, has permanent residents, and 4 million visitors a year.  But 95% of the whole park is managed as wilderness.  In those high remote Sierra landscapes is the only place in the whole US where one can draw a 150 mile line on a map and cross no roads.  That’s how developed our nation is.  That’s how precious is our wilderness.

Zahniser intentionally chose this old fashioned word, “untrammeled” to describe wilderness.  Many people thought he meant “untrampled,” that wilderness is where people do not tramp or tromp.  But actually the word means free, unfettered, literally, not in a trap.  A trammel, or tre-mail, in the Middle Ages, was three layers of chain mail (tre-mail) placed in a stream to catch fish, and by extension it meant a bridle to restrain a horse. 

Untrammeled land is not trapped or bridled, it is free.  From us.  We may visit, but must respect its freedom.  And we can’t stay, we have to leave.  The forces of nature can operate unrestrained and unaltered, free.

Howard Zahniser (See Note*)Zahniser was roughly a contemporary with Adlai Stevenson, another liberal intellectual Midwest politician good with words.  As Zahniser has an air of tragedy because of his early death, Stevenson is something of a symbol of loss, of what might have been a very different 1950’s in the US, had he not lost presidential elections twice to the Republican General Eisenhower.

Stevenson also liked the world untrammeled.  He wrote; “The first principle of a free society is an untrammeled flow of words in an open forum.”

So here’s to wilderness, to the Wilderness Act, to Howard Zahniser and Adlai Stevenson, and to all things untrammeled; nature, free society, and even our spirits, occasionally untrammeled, when we set ourselves free from trap and bridle.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter


* "Howard Zahniser's son says of his father's custome made suit: Around the time the wilderness bill was introduced, my father found an older tailor, E. 'Sye' Silas, in Georgetown who made custom-made suits for about the same price as off-the-rack suits. My father convinced Mr. Silas to make him suits whose coats featured four supersized inside pockets. These became veritable fabric filing cabinets that usually held wilderness bill propaganda, Wilderness Society membership information and applications, a book by Thoreau, and another book by either Dante or Blake. Most conservationists and their organizations were poor then, so my father read these while riding trolley cars and buses, not taxi cabs, to appointments around the Nation's Capital. Some of his books still hold transit transfer coupon bookmarks." (See


John Muir, Tramp and Mountain Man

"The Camping Trip that Changed America."  That's the title of a kid's book about John Muir, who is called the Father of the National Park System in the US. 

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite ValleyDuring his 76 years (1838-1914) Muir probably camped outside on the ground more nights than he slept inside in a bed, but this particular campout is notable for who camped with Muir, in Yosemite Valley, for four nights in 1903.  The then President Theodore Roosevelt had to decide whether to sign a bill granting federal protection to Yosemite, so he wrote Muir asking to camp with him there.  Leaving behind his Secret Service entourage, the two men hiked and slept on pine boughs in the shadow of such icons as Half Dome and Yosemite Falls and El Capitan.  A plaque alongside the Merced River marks the spot; "Here John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt camped, 1903, and talked forest good."

"Father of Forest Good" could be another honorific for John Muir, as well as “Savior of Yosemite,” and “Founder of the Sierra Club.”  A pretty remarkable life and legacy for a man who said of himself in his 20's, as he set out with no plan but to "wander and botanize" from Wisconsin to Florida, a 1000 mile hike, "I am to become a tramp."

Next month I'm heading to Yosemite National Park for a week, so I've been reading up on the geology, biology, history of this iconic American landscape and how it has inspired so many authors and artists.  My next few columns will celebrate this special place in the American consciousness, and the continuing pressures and challenges it faces today.

This week, let’s consider that tramp hero John Muir, the Scottish-American conservation hero, hiker, advocate, writer, odd mountain man, who saved Yosemite from development and ruin at human hands.

Like many nineteenth century American heroes (he reminds me of his almost exact contemporary John Wesley Powell, another amateur wanderer and naturalist savior, in this case, of the Grand Canyon) Muir is a man of paradox. Consider these contradictions in his life:

  • John MuirBorn in Scotland, Muir came to the US as a boy with his strict Calvinist father.  He rejected his father’s stern God and rebelled against his prohibition of any reading or knowledge beyond the Bible.  But he remained a Scot in outlook, appearance (rough and bearded all his life), accent and even citizenship, nearly all his life.  He dodged the Civil War draft, with his mother's encouragement, hiding (and botanizing) in Canada for year; he said that, as a Scot, he had no stake in a war between Americans.  He only became a US citizen at age 65, when applying for a passport so he could travel around the world.

  • He could not accept a God whose plan put "man" at the controlling top of all creation .  Instead he rhapsodized and virtually worshipped the creative force of Nature itself and insisted that all of nature, animate but also rocks and glaciers had spirit, soul and equal value.  But at the same time he used deeply religious and deistic language in conversation and writing; Yosemite was a “temple” which “preached.  In this he was unlike all his fellow founders of the Sierra Club, who leaned more to the humanist and scientific world view.  Muir would have been a perfect "spiritual but not religious."  On his 1000-mile hike he carried three books, Milton, botanist Asa Grey, and the New Testament.

  • He said the mountains taught him more than any book and he is often described as "anti-book learning," but he was very well read, had an extensive library, and left behind fascinating volumes with his detailed annotations - Emerson, Thoreau, Ruskin, Agassiz, Lyell.

  • A loner and lover of solitude, he preferred to hike solo, no one to slow him down.  He was impatient with city life and even family life; he did not marry or have children until his 40s, but he took a solo trip to Alaska within months of his wedding.  Yet he also wrote in his mountaineering journals of his longing for companionship.  He befriended another Scot, painter William Keith and they hiked and painted for months in the backcountry.  He was thrilled when the aging and eminent transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed to meet with him in Yosemite.  (It was a less successful camping trip, however, than the one with Teddy Roosevelt.  Emerson's Boston Brahmin handlers would not let him sleep on the ground.  Muir begged him to stay; “Meet your fellow ministers, the granite.  You are a sequoia,” he told Emerson in praise.  Emerson was moved, but reluctantly rode away to the city.)

  • He probably inherited from his father a cynical view of human nature, but he grew only more depressed by how greedy and destructive people were of the wilderness. Yet he persisted in his later years in political advocacy and social organization, forming the Sierra Club, maintaining a voluminous correspondence with politicians and editors and business leaders, ever hopeful they would do the right thing.  He had many victories, but he was devastated late in life by his defeat in the battle to save the Hetch Hetchy valley and the betrayal by former allies, like Roosevelt.  He had hiked there many times, calling it even more beautiful than Yosemite.  It is now dammed and drowned, the water source for San Francisco.

  • John MuirHe was a keen observer of nature, a typical amateur naturalist, yet he was suspicious of the scientific method.  He publicly challenged the theories of the powerful Josiah Whitney, the state geologist (for whom California's highest peak is named), on how Yosemite was formed. Whitney insisted that it had been formed by one cataclysmic event.  But Muir, ever the observer, saw in the rock face evidence of the very slow action of glaciers.  After years of solitary hiking up the Tuolome River, Muir finally discovered a living, moving glacier to prove his point.  But this keep observer of nature dismissed much of science as being too slow and not based in personal experience.  He was suspicious of the new theory of evolution, especially its basis in randomness.  For him the force of Nature, practically synonymous with a Creature, had too much spirit and beauty to be the result of random struggles for survival.

These contradictions in character and belief only make Muir more interesting and more remarkable in all he accomplished.   He died a hundred years ago this year, 1914.  His legacy continues.  Thanks to Muir we haven't cut down every tree and dammed every river in California and our nation.  But he was right to rail against human greed and bemoan our disconnection with nature.  Much of our open space and wilderness has been preserved, but much lost.

Welcome to Yosemite month at the Back Road Café.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter


Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs: Path Clearing and Strips of Chaos

This week: the final segment in our August series on American architects and urban planners.   Careful readers will have noticed we’ve gone chronologically – Thomas Jefferson, Louis Sullivan, Julia Morgan – and regionally - from South to Midwest to West Coast. 

Today - New York City.   I thought that the story of American public architecture should include more than just some interesting individual buildings, so here’s a look at one example of changing ideas about urban planning. New York’s imperial urban developer Robert Moses built unopposed for decades, until 1960 when he met his first real challenge in the person of neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs.

Robert MosesRobert Moses saved New York City and almost destroyed it. 

An extremely shrewd and powerful man, Moses (1888-1981) wielded complete control over the city’s public works from the 1920’s to the 60’s.  Not only did he convince mayors and governors to give his agencies unlimited power to build bridges and highways, but he retained all the toll income from this massive system – 13 major bridges and hundreds of miles of freeways, that funneled commuters from Long Island and the outer boroughs into Manhattan.  He also oversaw the building of hundreds of parks and pools and playgrounds and was in charge of two NY World’s Fairs, in 1939 and 1964.  He was a master at getting federal dollars for the city and he oversaw the drastic Slum Clearance Committee, which began with Depression-era New Deal money and continued into the 50’s. He oversaw the construction of tens of thousands of new housing units, both middle class high rises and low income housing projects.

Destruction of San Juan NeighborhoodHe helped New York grow and grow up as the century advanced, especially post Depression and World War II, bringing to the city a great deal of people, money, power, jobs and a place on the national and world stage. But there was also a human cost to his power.  Through force of will and control of purse strings, Moses intimidated politicians and ignored the protests of residents whose neighborhoods he tore down for freeways, bridge on-ramps, stadiums, and redevelopment.  When Moses used eminent domain to flatten hundreds of buildings in the San Juan Hill neighborhood on the West Side, residents sued all the way to the Supreme Court but lost, Moses arguing successfully that federal housing redevelopment laws gave him to power to tear down neighborhoods.

The Lincoln Center That West Side neighborhood had been the ethnically diverse home to many artists, such as Thelonius Monk, and it’s where Leonard Bernstein set West Side Story.  Moses and John D. Rockefeller rebuilt the area, turning it into the remarkable multi-acre complex of theaters and concert halls and arts schools now known as Lincoln Center.  In a similar tale of displacement and redevelopment over on the East Side, Moses used his political clout to bring the United Nations complex to New York, when it was all must assured of settling in Philadelphia.

Moses finally met his match in the person of Jane Jacobs, a citizen activist who argued that neighborhoods and people were more valuable than big urban projects and the almighty automobile. Just as iconic a New Yorker as Moses, Jacobs wrote the very influential book, The Death and Life of American Cities in the early 60’s, introducing such now-accepted phrases and concepts as “social capital,” “mixed primary use,” and “eyes on the street.”  She argued that quirky neighborhoods are essential in a city, using the great phrase in my title, “strips of chaos.”  She said we should “respect – in the deepest sense – strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”

Washington Square ParkJacobs was a long time resident of one of New York’s more iconic strips of chaos, with weird wisdom of its own, Greenwich Village.  When Moses proposed, his last hurrah, a multilane freeway that would run right through historic Washington Square Park, Jacobs led an “eyes on the street” people’s campaign against New York’s most powerful builder.

Enlisting such allies as Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lewis Mumford, Jacobs got the support of the new leftist newspaper, The Village Voice, while the New York Times supported Moses and his plan. The tide of public opinion was turning against these monumental freeways through towns, and after a massive grassroots effort, the city rejected the project.  Jacobs and her supporters held a ribbon tying ceremony (as opposed to cutting) in Washington Square Park.  Moses tried three more time in the 60’s to revive the project, but Jacobs continued her successful opposition.

Moses’ legacy was further tarnished by the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Power Broker by Robert Caro, which revealed how Moses’ considerable success became megalomania in his later years.  Caro also alleged that it was racism that fueled Moses’ destruction of “slums” and led him to prefer freeways from the suburbs rather than public transportation.  Only in 1968 had a NY mayor, John Lindsey, stood up to Moses and stripped him of his control of all the toll income from his bridges and freeways, taking that money to expand the subway system. 

Jane JacobsCriticism of Moses has tempered a bit in recent years.  Frustrated by how hard it has been to get the World Trade Center rebuilt (now 13 years post destruction,) former governor Eliot Spitzer said of Moses in 2009 that if Caro’s book had been written today it might have been called, At Least He Got It Built.  

Great cities don’t just happen.  Hard decisions must be made and new paths cleared sometimes through old complex neighborhoods.  But thank God for folks like Jane Jacobs who promote the weird and chaotic.  Of such is true urban flavor and force.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter


“Women Who Build:” Julia Morgan

Julia MorganPart three in our month long series on four interesting American architects and their  public buildings, still in use today.  Today: Julia Morgan, a near contemporary of last week’s Louis Sullivan (fifteen years later, 1872-1957), but a very different kind of American; West Coast redwood Arts and Crafts style rather than Chicago steel frame skyscrapers.  But both worked amid the excitement of the early 20th century, and experimented with new building materials. 

Campanil at Mills CollegeWhen the Campanil that Julia Morgan designed for Mills College in Oakland, California in 1904 did not collapse in the massive 1906 earthquake, which flattened much of the area, the young architect became an overnight sensation.  Not only did she have a good eye for design, and the cache of being the first woman with a California license to practice architecture, but she really knew her reinforced concrete. 

Hearst Castle Only two years before she had been the first woman to graduate from the Ecole Beaux Art in Paris.  Now she was being hired to rebuild the badly damaged Fairmont Hotel atop San Francisco’s tony Nob Hill.   Morgan went on to build over 700 California homes, churches, women’s clubs, gyms, conference centers and the iconic Hearst Castle, all in earthquake country and all still standing.  And all still eliciting interest and admiration.  Just ask the over one million annual visitors to Hearst Castle, or conference attenders at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, also designed by Morgan. (Asilomar and Hearst Castle are both now California State Parks and are far and away the largest money makers of the 280 part system – thanks, Julia!)

Another “first” for Morgan was being the first woman engineering graduate from UC Berkeley in 1894.  The other women she met there, part of the first wave of feminism, became life long clients and supporters.  Through sorority contacts she became the architect for over 20 YMCA buildings in California, community centers and sometimes residences for the increasing numbers of single women moving to cities for employment.

Merrill Hall AsilomarLikewise she was hired by powerful civic women to design women’s city clubs.  Through these women she met Phoebe Apperson Hearst, wealthy widow of a California senator and strong supporter of women’s concerns, who hired her to build Asilomar as a seaside retreat for single working women.  Hearst was also the mother of William Randolph Hearst, newspaper tycoon who was the model for “Citizen Kane,” and builder of Hearst Castle, a 30 year project for Morgan.  Besides numerous other private homes, Morgan built well into her 80’s with many different women’s organizations and institutions, such as Mills College, jobs she acquired from her “old girls network.”

A nice tribute to Morgan came from Elsa Black in 1922.  President of the Woman’s Athletic Club of San Francisco, that Morgan designed, she said the building stood as a testament to the “courage, valor, determination, business ability, integrity, optimism…romance, and feminine foresight” of “women who build.”

Of our four August American architects, I have the most personal experience in Morgan’s buildings, as a tourist (Hearst Castle), play attender (St. John’s church, now a theater), swimmer (Berkeley City Club pool) and conference goer (Asilomar).

Morgan left behind her building plans, but not much writing about her work.  Unlike Louis Sullivan, whom we singled out last week for being an architect who also wrote poetry and coined the phrase “form follows function,” Morgan resisted talking about her buildings, saying simply, “My buildings speak for themselves.”  In that spirit, here are some Julia Morgan buildings.

Hearst Castle: Morgan worked closely with the changeable and eccentric William Randolph for decades on this fantastic monstrosity.

St. John's ChurchSt. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley: A nice example of Morgan’s Craftsman style use of native redwood.  It’s a low inviting church rather than a fortress-like stone statement of power.

Asilomar Conference Grounds: Phoebe Apperson Hearst paid for the YMCA to offer this seaside retreat for single working women.  Morgan used local redwood and granite to blend into the local setting. 

Berkeley Women's Club PoolBerkeley Women’s Club Pool.  The many women’s clubs and YMCAs Morgan built promoted physical activities for women, a controversial idea for Victorian style American culture.  At the Riverside YMCA she had to fight with the male funders to keep the pool, which they found “unseemly.”  This one in Berkeley is a great place to swim.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter