John Muir:
Family and Friends Conference
John Muir: Family and Friends
was the fifth conference on John Muir sponsored by the University of the Pacific. It was held May 4-6, 2001, at the Feather River Inn in the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Lake Tahoe. The Conference was organized by: Bonnie Gisel, John Muir Center for Regional Studies, 3601 Pacific Ave., Stockton, CA 95211, (209) 946-2527,

2001 California History Institute John Muir: Family and Friends May 4-6, 2001


Note: Additional Abstracts will be added as delivered.

Session 1A: Muir As Storyteller


The Thousand Mile Walk, and Other Adventures with My Friends.

Theme and Premise

The theme of the presentation is the kinship Muir sensed with these he called his friends. The premise is that Muir is alive and well, and comes to chat. Thus I propose to create in the audience member's imagination a living Muir. He will then tell his story. I propose to use my skills as story-teller, actor, naturalist, and first-person living history interpreter, to provide this rather broad yet intimate view of John Muir and friends.


John's story will begin with how he managed to survive growing up, and the trek across the Great Southern Wilderness. He will share a few episodes from his adult life based in California. He will look at his relationship with friends, a selection of wild creatures and a few people. He will look at our sense of kinship with these his friends. He will bring to this conversation with us his historical perspective, not frozen at a single moment in time, but moving with us in our own context. He will share his recollections and interpretation of his experience, from his point of view, and may be able to relate it to our experiences now.


I will base this presentation largely on published works of Muir, with a smaller reliance on material in his unpublished (except in microfilm) journals and letters. Finally, I will draw on my own experience, insight, and imagination.


This presentation is not a scholarly analysis of some one else. It is rather, an intimate glimpse, a story teller, being as faithful as possible to the source, and letting the source speak for himself. It is my attempt to bring, in your imagination, John, telling his own story as he recalls it now, sharing it with a group that has come to hear him speak, as happened so many times during his adult life.


I grew up in the Sammamish river valley in the Cascade mountains. Lying under big red cedars at 6 years old and watching the slant-gold rays of the evening sun sliding down through the huge boughs gave me a sense of profound well-being that I can recall even now. Reading Muir in college I recognized the same gut-heart-soul response to the world that had been growing in me since childhood. My sense is that independent of whatever theological influences that shaped Muir's ideas, his philosophy, about the world, his experience of nature was at a more basic and profound level than ideas, mental perceptions and formulations. Muir's statements in letters to Jeanne Carr written during his first years in Yosemite reveal a being-body/mind/soul-spontaneously kindled by its contact with the world. Muir's recurring images of "baptism" and of nature "flowing into me" are not merely poetic metaphors. Rather, they describe Muir's experience of the world not as an objective reality outside himself, but rather as a transforming, awakening force, a confluence of powers, working a profound and continuous effect on the receptive being itself. In many instances Muir's language resembles descriptions used by Hindu and Buddhist mystics to describe their transformative visionary experiences. Muir's extraordinary imperviousness to cold, lack of food, and physical suffering on many occasions resembles the behavior of Himalayan yogis who claim to live by spiritual energy. Muir many times spoke of being sustained by beauty.

Session 1B: Muir's Wilderness Wanderings: Part I



Department of History California State University, Chico

Title: "John Muir and the Bidwells: Rambles and Botanizing in Northern California"

This paper/slide presentation (approx. 80 slides) will examine the long-term friendship between John Muir and the Bidwells, as well as the events of the summer of 1877. During that summer John Muir, Asa Gray Harvard's renowned botanist, and the Bidwells traveled together for several weeks exploring the mountains in northern California and looking for rare wildflowers.

My presentation is based on over forty years of personal correspondence between Muir and the Bidwells. Their 1877 expedition to Mt. Shasta was the beginning of a beautiful and enduring friendship. During this trip Muir and the Bidwells became wilderness compatriots and from this time onward they also became regular correspondents. In his letters to the Bidwells, Muir reveals much about himself, mulls over his impending marriage, worries about his health, and also displays a sharp wit as well. His correspondence with Annie Bidwell ranges in topics from Muir's poor horseback riding skills, glaciation in the Lassen Peak area, to evidence supporting the theory of biological evolution.

After their 'wild ramble' in the mountains, Muir stayed on in Chico with the Bidwells and was given a thorough tour of their working ranch/farm, called Rancho Chico. Muir and John Bidwell spent several days in the saddle exploring the vast holdings of Rancho Chico and by the time Muir returned to Martinez he was knowledgeable about the latest agricultural methods and techniques used on California's premier ranch.

When it came time for Muir to return home to Martinez his mode of transportation was predictably unconventional. John Bidwell had a small boat built for Muir so that he could float home via the Sacramento River. Muir's unorthodox departure and his riverine adventures are recounted in minute detail to the Bidwells in a series of letters sent to them by Muir. Remarkably, contained within one of the letters is a self-portrait of Muir that he penciled during his river trip. This self-portrait, which up until now has seen by only a few people familiar with the Muir/Bidwell correspondence, will be part of my slide presentation.

Following Lunch 1:15: Hetch Hetchy Valley: Yosemite's Lost Twin


Title: Hetch Hetchy Valley: Yosemite's Lost Twin presented by Ron Good, Chair of the Board of Directors of RESTORE HETCH HETCHY, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

... an exploration of:

  • the natural history and human history of Hetch Hetchy Valley;
  • comparisons between Hetch Hetchy Valley and Yosemite Valley;
  • differing philosophies for the care and use of our public lands/National Parks, including those of Native Americans, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and Donald Hodel;
  • the national debate regarding San Francisco's proposal to build a dam in Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley for municipal water supply and electric power;
  • the effect of the loss of Hetch Hetchy Valley;
  • possibilities for restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Session 2A: Panel Presentation: John Muir: Domestic, Wild, and Pastoral


This panel explores Muir's relationship to both human and non-human communities of family and friends by examining his life and work from the perspectives of the domestic, the wild, and the pastoral. The panel organizer and chair is Michael P. Branch, editor of John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa, and the panel respondent is Michael P. Cohen, author of The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness and The History of the Sierra Club: 1892 to 1970.


"Domesticity, Tourism, and the National Parks in Muir's Late Writings"

In this paper, I argue that the development of Muir's conception of what a "park" should be, and his success at making that idea a reality, rested on the interaction of nineteenth-century notions of domesticity with twentieth-century notions of tourism. Many critics and biographers of Muir have observed a general shift in his priorities over time, away from an emphasis on the experience of the solitary observer in nature and toward a more lenient understanding of the experience of other humans in the world, both as residents of domestic space and tourists in the wilderness. This paper contributes to recent discussions of the domestic in Muir's writing by Michael Smith, Robert Dorman, and Steven Holmes in its argument that Muir's late writings about Yosemite were not an attempt to camouflage his true beliefs but were rather a reflection of the domesticating influence exerted by both his audience and his family. In particular, I argue that, following his marriage to Louie Strenzel in 1880 and during the years he spent with her and their daughters in Martinez, Muir gradually came to value the domestic--and its touristic counterpart--as an essential element in the preservation of nature through the national parks.


"Meeting Muir's Mountains"

"The most extravagant description I might give of this view to any one who has not seen similar landscapes with his own eyes would not so much as hint its grandeur and the spiritual glow that covered it" --John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (115)

John Muir, like many authors of American environmental literature, demonstrates a self-conscious awareness that his words fall short of the landscapes they are meant to describe. For Muir, the native flora and fauna, the geology, topography, weather and natural history of each particular landscape he writes about, become his characters and direct his studies. One of the best ways to understand Muir is to study his works in relation to the particular places they are written about. In his own work, Muir repeatedly calls for readers to come to Yosemite and "read its lessons" (259). Muir invites his readers to get to know his circle of non-human family and friends directly, noting, for example, that the Sierra Lily is "A lovely flower, worth going hungry and footsore endless miles to see" (103). As he looks forward to his first summer in the Sierra, he invites us in, and enthusiastically states, "Glorious days I'll have sketching, pressing plants, studying the wonderful topography and the wild animals, our happy fellow mortals and neighbors" (122). Muir invites us to make these fellow wild creatures our neighbors as well, and to learn from them directly by encouraging us to have our own experiences in the field. In this paper I will examine Muir's approach to his nonhuman neighbors by discussing how we, as teachers of Muir's work, can effectively incorporate experiential field studies into our curricula.

Note: Quotations in this abstract are from Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra (Houghton Mifflin ed.)


"Near and Far: Burroughs and Muir"

"Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean. A man is related to all nature. This perception of the worth of the vulgar is fruitful of discoveries." --Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar"

Recently the pages of the New York Review of Books contained a polemical review of Lawrence Buell's The Environmental Imagination by Leo Marx, author of the seminal study of American pastoralism, The Machine in the Garden. The two eminent literary scholars disagree about the fundamental orientation of environmental literature and ecocriticism: Marx asserts that nature writing and pastoral literature are separate and distinct types of work; Buell suggests that nature writing is a kind of pastoralism. The key to the debate is the relationship of human to non-human nature: is pastoralism necessarily anthropocentric, and is ecocentric writing, such as modern nature writing, therefore not pastoral? The purpose of this paper is to sketch out a map of American pastoralism at the end of the nineteenth century. My focus is the relationship between John Muir and John Burroughs, especially in their participation in the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899. By examining the texts of the two writers in Volume 1 of the 13-volume account of the Harriman Expedition by the Smithsonian Institution, I wish to argue that Muir participates in the broad version of American pastoralism that includes both anthropocentric and ecocentric orientations. My mapping is concerned with the concept of place in the works of Burroughs and Muir. For both writers, a place-based vision involves a dynamic set of relationships between retreat and engagement, nature and culture, the wild and the civilized, the far and the near. My paper will also set the Harriman essays in the context of each writer's work: for example, the revision of Burroughs's "Narrative" as "In Green Alaska" in the volume Far and Near (1904).


Michael Cohen will serve as respondent on the foregoing presentations.

Session 2B: Muir's Environmental Policy and Legacy



Evening Presentation


Pride, Prejudice and Patrimony: The Dispute Between George Wharton James and the Family and Friends of John Muir

This paper provides a case study of several fundamental problems inherent in celebrity status. Just days after John Muir died on Christmas eve, 1914, George Wharton James, a controversial Southern California preacher, lecturer, and author, announced his intent to publish a biography based on nearly 100 personal and intimate letters in his possession which Muir had written to Jeanne Carr, primarily during the naturalist's early years in Yosemite. Muir's heirs threatened to sue to prevent their publication by any unauthorized persons. To forstall James, they reluctantly agreed to publish a limited edition of his letters to Carr, derived from copies Muir had obtained from James and then had emended to eliminate content that he and his family and friends considered unsuitable for publication. This paper discusses the origins of the dispute and its aftermath, emphasizing the efforts to develop and enhance Muir's public image as writer and naturalist, and the attempts to protect his literary rights as well as his privacy. It is based largely on original, unpublished sources collected by the late Sherry Hanna, widow of Strentzel Hanna, Muir's eldest grandchild.

Session 3A: Muir and Friends: Part I



Session 3B: The Literary Muir




Session 4A: Muir and Friends: Part II


John Muir and the Bairns

This paper is a study of John Muir's relationships with children. Muir had a soft-heart for children and was known to share his appreciation of nature with children, give small gifts, tell stories, and lend a friendly ear to the children in his life. His letters indicate an on-going interest and concern for children throughout his lifetime. This paper will explore Muir's own upbringing which brought a sensitivity to the disenfranchised of the nineteenth century women, children, and animals. Excerpts from Muir's correspondence will provide examples illustrating Muir's relationships with children.


John Muir and John Swett

Session 4B: Teaching Muir and the Environment


John Muir Exhibit
John Muir Global Network

John Muir on the Internet:


Yosemite School Goes to Scotland - John Muir's birthplace

Following Lunch:



John Muir: His Long and Very Close Friendship with the Henry Fairfield Osborn Family at Castlerock

2:30 - 6:00: Field Trips







After Dinner Keynote Speaker:
John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa


"'The most fruitful year of my life': John Muir's Travels in South America and Africa"

My presentation will discuss the importance of Muir's late travel journals and letters. Overlooked and unpublished, Muir's late writings document the fulfillment of his lifelong dream to visit the tropical rainforests of the Amazon, the Araucaria forests of the Andes, and the baobab forests of central Africa. Muir made the 40,000-mile journey--which constituted what he later called "the most fruitful year of my life"--in 1911-12, alone, at age 73. In these remarkable journals and letters we see a man whose intrepid enthusiasm for the wilderness remains unabated, but whose love for his family has become the anchor of his old age. The materials I will discuss are particularly valuable for three reasons: they offer an unprecedented study of Muir's relationship to his family in his later years; they demonstrate clearly that Muir's environmental concerns were global; they complete the story, begun in Muir's early journals, of his ambition to visit the forests of South America and Africa. The materials I will discuss will be published in my edited book John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa, scheduled for release in late spring, 2001, by Island Press/Shearwater Books.

9:00 - 10:00 p.m.: "In His Own Words"

LEE STETSON portrays American's foremost naturalist and conservationist, John Muir. He heads Wild Productions which provides, educational living history stage performances. His most recent production is a two-person play based on Muir's historic encounter with President Theodore Roosevelt in the Yosemite wilderness.

Session 5A: Muir's Spirituality and the Divinity of Wilderness



Session 5B: Muir and Friends: Part III



Session 6A: Muir's Wilderness Wanderings: Part II



Session 6B: Muir's Wilderness Wanderings: Part III