John Muir, Save the redwoods (Review)

Giant Sequoia, Yosemite

Giant Sequoia, in the Sierras

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. And few destroyers of trees ever plant any; nor can planting avail much toward restoring our grand aboriginal giants. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the oldest of the Sequoias, trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra.

“A wind-storm in the forests” by American naturalist/environmentalist John Muir (1838-1914) was the first Library of America (LOA) story of the week that I ever reviewed here. I was consequently keen to read his short essay “Save the redwoods” when it popped up as an LOA story-of-the-week three weeks ago. It’s an interesting piece, partly because it was found amongst his papers, posthumously, so was not published during his lifetime.

As LOA’s notes say, Muir spent four decades writing articles for the national press which argued for the “protection of such natural wonders as the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and—above all—Yosemite.” Yosemite was a particular love of his. LOA tells how it was his and Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of The Century Magazine, alarm about the “substantial damage caused by lumbering, sheepherding, and tourism” there that eventually resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park.

It is this issue of lumbering that Muir takes up again in “Save the redwoods”. It was apparently written around 1900 when there were concerns that the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees or Giant Redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was at risk of being sold and cut down for timber because the owner, James Sperry who had protected them, was old and no longer able to maintain it. A lumberman, Job Whiteside, planned to buy it – but there was a public outcry. This is when Muir apparently wrote his piece, arguing that the various scattered groves of redwoods not included in Sequoia National Park should be protected..

In his piece Muir, as was his style, draws on religious imagery, analogy and personification, amongst other devices, to argue his case. He discusses the destruction of a couple of Big Trees in the grove back in the 1850s:

Forty-seven years ago one of these Calaveras King Sequoias was laboriously cut down, that the stump might be had for a dancing-floor. Another, one of the finest in the grove, more than three hundred feet high, was skinned alive to a height of one hundred and sixteen feet from the ground and the bark sent to London to show how fine and big that Calaveras tree was—as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness. This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, “Forgive them; they know not what they do.”

He then comments on the new plans to mill this grove, saying

No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food.

That’s an analogy to get our attention! He argues that if one of these

Sequoia kings [could] come to town in all its god-like majesty so as to be strikingly seen and allowed to plead its own cause, there would never again be any lack of defenders.

He describes the proliferation of sawmills and the ongoing destruction of these big trees, and sets this activity against Mr Sperry’s protection of the sequoias in his Calaveras Grove. Muir notes that when news starts to come through of this Grove being bonded to the lumberman, there is suddenly a “righteous and lively indignation on the part of Californians”. This, he says, seems strange given “the long period of deathlike apathy, in which they have witnessed the destruction of other groves unmoved”. However, he writes, public opinion had been rapidly changing in recent years and there had always been a special interest in the  “Calaveras giants [because] they were the first discovered and are best known”.  Moreover:

  • they have a worldwide reputation;
  • they are visited and admired by “travelers from every country”; and
  • the names of great men have long been associated with them (including Washington, Humboldt, Torrey and Gray, and Sir Joseph Hooker)

He argues that “these kings of the forest, the noblest of a noble race, rightly belong to the world” but, as they are in California, Californians “cannot escape responsibility as their guardians”. Then comes some patriotism and buttering up! He writes:

Fortunately the American people are equal to this trust, or any other that may arise, as soon as they see it and understand it.

It is here that we find the excerpt I opened my post with. It’s followed by his brief description of a bill being put before congress to protect the Calaveras Grove. He argues that not only will the bill protect this particular grove of trees but the resultant/concurrent “quickening interest in forest affairs in general” will result in improved chances for other groves and forests.

The piece feels a little rushed and unfinished, which is probably why he never submitted it for publication, but the work of Muir and others did eventually result in most of the west coast’s major sequoia and coastal redwood groves being “gathered under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service”. I saw many of these trees in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. They are unforgettable.

“Any fool”, Muir wrote, “can destroy trees”. Saving them is much harder. It takes passion, patience and persistence, something Muir exemplified in his life-time. Luckily, a long succession of environmentalists – around the world – continue this tree-saving work today.

John Muir
“Saving the redwoods”
First published (posthumously): In Sierra Club Bulletin, January 1920.
Available: Online at the Library of America

15 thoughts on “John Muir, Save the redwoods (Review)

  1. Have you heard of German-Australian artist Hans Heysen? He worked hard to save Australian gumtrees around Hahndorf, especially when electricity was being put in. My grandfather lived in Hahndorf at the time and he was known as quite a vocal defender.

    • Oh yes, Rowena, I do know Heysen’s painting, but I didn’t know the rest. Thanks. There are several artists – painters, photographers, alongside writers – aren’t there, who are passionate environmentalists.

  2. Pingback: John Muir-Save the Redwoods | beyondtheflow

    • True, Piningforthewest. In fact in my first post on him I described him as Scottish-American. Thanks for adding your info re Dunbar. If I ever go there, I know what I’ll be doing! Meanwhile though I’ll check out your link.

  3. My husband and I were just talking with our eight-year-old grandson last night about these trees. We were trying to describe the grandeur of them without Internet access.

    My, Muir’s prose is gorgeous and his illustrations are powerful.

  4. I recently read the new Annie Proulx novel “Barkskins”, a bit of a chore I must admit, but it basically traces the history of the deforestation of America (and Canada) from the 18th century to the present day, The story follows the history of two families through the years;. one who makes their fortune by destroying the forest, the other, half bred Indians, who are reduced to working for the former family as tree fellers. There’s a lot of tree felling in the novel which becomes wearing after 700 pages.

    • Ah, thanks for sharing this Anne. I’ve heard of this novel but haven’t read it. Sounds fascinating – and she’s a lovely writer – but 700 pages also sounds like a bit of an ask, particularly it it’s full of tree felling description.

  5. I am not offended at all and its clearly the case that John Muir is much more an American figure than a Scottish one (he certainly is not the household name that he is in the US) – literary nationalism is not for me!

  6. What a wonderful piece. I wonder if he were alive today whether or not he would be pleased. I mean sure most of the redwood groves were saved, but there are so many other trees and forests that have been demolished. It is easy to get support for protecting giant sequoias, if only that transferred to protecting oaks and pines and aspens too. I do like Muir’s writing style and one of these days I plan on reading some of his books.

    • Yes, that’s the issue, isn’t it, really, Stefanie, that some species have emotional appeal while others don’t BUT we need to retain diversity -the beautiful and magnificent and the plainer, more common OR even in some cases the downright nasty.

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