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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.



I Have Been to the Mountaintop

I’m finally going to Yosemite next week!  In this last of five preparatory columns I try to recap some themes and tie together some wilderness heroes. Just as Muir, Zahniser, Adams, Obata and Snyder (whom I have written of in the past weeks) were inspired by the place, so was I this week by another mountaintop story about more brave wilderness artists.   See you in a few weeks when I return from the mountains….

Martin Luther KingJohn MuirWhat do Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Muir have in common? Would the 20th century African -American eastern urban civil rights leader/ Christian preacher have anything to say to 19th century Scottish-American western wilderness lover and son of a preacher (who preached hate and fear rather than liberation)?

Mountaintop experiences.

And Henry David Thoreau.

MLK famously had been to the mountaintop and seen his God.  Muir also experienced deeply spiritual transformation atop Sierra peaks: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Muir was also a disciple and imitator of Henry David Thoreau, the New England philosopher and nature lover, whose Journals he read and reread and annotated. 

King also drew inspiration from Thoreau, but of a slightly more political nature:

During my students days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience.  Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.  Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I became convinced that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.  The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement, whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters or a freedom ride into Mississippi.

How great that two of America’s best leaders (King and Muir) and two of our best ideas (wilderness preservation and civil rights) share a common heritage – Thoreau!

And how great that just this past month a dramatic act of civil disobedience, directly inspired by Thoreau, took place high (13,000 ft.) in the Sierras!   Indeed, Thoreau’s spirit and writings and name were the center of this radical lawless act.

(Actually there’s quite a bit of near-anarchy in the American environmental movement, from Earth First bombings to Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.)

This month’s radicals were science fiction writers, poets, and printmakers who are also all serious mountain climbers.  One of them, Kim Stanley Robinson, well known for his Mars trilogy, knows well the almost Martian desolate landscape of the John Muir Wilderness just south of Yosemite, and climbs it often.  Last winter on a snowshoeing trip he notice Mt. Emerson, above the Piute Valley, but wondered why no Mt. Thoreau?  Back in his library he researched any geographic tributes to the nature mystic of Concord and Walden Pond.  He discovered that nowhere in the whole nation does Thoreau’s name appear on a topographical map, except one little spring on the slopes of a mountain in Maine where Thoreau had had a profound experience.

So what was Robinson’s civil disobedience?  Government policy expressly forbids the assignment of human names to natural formations in wilderness areas.  It’s actually not all that bad policy, as we recall from my column on the Wilderness Act; “untrammeled” means untrammeled.  No tarting up wilderness with lots of names.  The Act’s landmark definition of wilderness insisted that people would visit but not remain there, not even their names.

But there’s been a tradition of “peak bagging,” informal naming of peaks, since the days of Muir.  So Robinson gathered like-minded artists, including Zen nature poet Gary Snyder (whose poem inspired by the Piute/Pate Valley we looked at last week) and proposed their radical act. 

Not exactly a sit-in and jail, like King, or tax resistance and jail, like Thoreau. 

New York Times, October 6, 2014. Th view from the summit of "Mount Thoreau" looking south toward the Palisades and the Northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park. Credit Christopher WoodcockBut a publicity climb to proclaim the as yet un-named peak, “Mount Thoreau.”  A NY Times correspondent went as far as the trailhead, as did the 84-year old Snyder.  Atop the peak they held a ceremony declaring the peak “Mount Thoreau.”  They read from his Journals and left a metal box with a register signed by the climbers, starting with Snyder, often called a 20th century Thoreau. 

Thoreau wrote in “Walking,” “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least – and commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

In the 1850’s he advocated a national park system, saying “Why should not we, who have renounced the king’s authority, have our national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be civilized off the face of the earth?”

Muir and Thoreau and even King found true freedom on mountaintops.  In the minds and hearts of many, if not on official maps, “Mount Thoreau” now symbolizes that freedom.

Copyright 2014 Deborah Streeter


Ten Thousand Years: Yosemite Poetry

I’m still anticipating my Yosemite trip in a couple weeks.  Today, a little about poet Gary Snyder, who worked on a Yosemite trail crew one summer as a young man, inspiring his first book of poems, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, 1959.  We’ll use a poem from that collection to think about the more remote parts of the park, its native people, and how the place inspires not just visual artists, like last week’s Ansel Adams and Chiura Obata, but writers as well.

Above Pate Valley

by Gary Synder

Gary SnyderWe finished clearing the last
Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side
Two thousand feet above the creek
Reached the pass, went on
Beyond the white pine groves,
Granite shoulders, to small
Green meadow watered by the snow,
Edged with Aspen-sun
Straight high and blazing
But the air was cool.
Ate a cold fried trout in the
Trembling shadows. I spied
A glitter, and found a flake
Black volcanic glass-obsidian-
By a flower. Hands and knees
Pushing the Bear grass, thousands
Of arrowhead leavings over a
Hundred yards. Not one good
head, just razor flakes
On a hill snowed all but summer,
A land of fat summer deer,
They came to camp. On their
Own trails. I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Of dynamite.
Ten thousands years.

They came to camp, he writes.  On their own trails.   (But he was there to blast trails in the trembling shadows of the granite shoulders.)

And to hunt with their arrowheads, in the one or two summer months that the high country of Yosemite is accessible, without snow.

The native folks, the Ahwahnechee, lived in the valley and climbed up to the fertile high meadows for ten thousand years, before white trappers and then soldiers and then tourists forced them out, often violently.

Gary SnyderGary Snyder is a beloved American poet, lifelong practitioner of Zen Buddhism and man of nature.  He bridged the worlds of academia (graduate work in anthropology and religion) and the outdoors (work as a young man as a fire watch in Northwest forests and one summer in the high country of Yosemite.)  He was a foundational Beat poet, hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and was the model for the lead character in Kerouac's Dharma Burns. He lived in Zen monasteries in Japan for decades, then taught English at UC Davis and lives simply in the Sierra foothills.  He studied Japanese brush drawing with Chiura Obata from last week’s columns. 

And like Obata, and Adams, and Muir and millions of other people, he was moved and challenged and changed by Yosemite.

Some think “Pate Valley” was meant to be called “Paiute Valley” but the white map makers got it wrong.  The Paiutes were the neighboring Indian tribe to the Ahwahnechee, who lived on the huge Western Basin now Utah and Colorado.  Some of the Ahwahnechee forced out of the valley joined the Paiutes to the east. One can still see Paiute pictographs in this high country.  There might have been more to see if this “Grand Canyon of the Tuolome River” hadn’t been flooded by the Hetch Hetchy Dam.

Yosemite is grand but also sad.  All the death and dislocation and damming.

Poetry can be a window into that grand sadness, that sad grandeur.

There’s lots of Gray Snyder poetry on line.  I recommend it.  Like this one.

How Poetry Comes to Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light.

Copyright © Deborah Streeter


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