BLOG # 16, SERIES #3




APRIL 18, 2010



Sequoias—the largest living things on earth—ought to be on everyone’s bucket list: something to see before you die.  They are also among the oldest living things on earth (enduring over 3,000 years).  Take the General Sherman sequoia, for instance.  It is more than 270 feet tall, 102 feet in circumference, and is estimated to be 2,100 years old (it was already a century old when Christ was born in a manger), and it should still be growing a thousand years from now.  A thirteen-story building would not even reach as high as its lowest branches.  It has enough lumber in it right now (it increases its girth 50 cubic feet a year) to stretch one by twelve boards, end-to-end 119 miles!  Heighth-wise, like all sequoias, it would have reached its maximum at around eight-hundred years.

Because of the value of its lumber, in all likelihood the sequoias would long since have been all cut down were it not that they are so massive and so heavy that when they do fall, they splinter into sections, shaking the earth like an earthquake.  Even so, it is a miracle that the species survives at all.

When the Pilgrims came to America, fully half of it was forested.  Indeed it was so vast and so dense that as late as the early nineteenth century, it was the common belief that much of the continent would still be unexplored a thousand years from then.  But then came the Industrial Revolution and Manifest Destiny; together, there was cranked up a juggernaut of such destructive power that entire forests were mowed down like so many matchsticks.  The sequoias would have been among them had not California’s Senator John Conness introduced a bill in 1864 to save the species from extinction.  Amazingly, even in the midst of the bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War, during which over 600,000 men died, there were enough senators who cared about preservation to push aside war matters long enough to pass the bill. It was said then that “These trees were alive when David danced before the Ark” and “The Mariposa Big Tree Grove is really the wonder of the world.”  When America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, signed the bill on June 30, 1864, he had no way of knowing that he had just done something unprecedented in human history by setting aside in perpetuity sixty some square miles of wilderness land.  That moment represents the dividing line between destroying everything that blocks your way and the realization that preservation of beauty is essential for our well-being, both as a person and as a nation.

Galen Clark was chosen as the first guardian of these trees, ably supported by the U.S. Cavalry.  But from that day to this, fierce battles have continued to be fought by those seeking to preserve these sacred places and commercial interests determined to exploit them for personal gain.  It is being waged to this day: when “Drill Baby, Drill” is so infectious a siren call that those who counter with, “Wait, let’s first see what natural wonders might thereby be destroyed for all time,” are somehow viewed as little more than pesky obstructionists or ridiculed as “tree-huggers.”

Thus it was that the bill Lincoln signed was but the beginning of a ceaseless battle.  Enter John Muir, whose voice was so clear and his message so urgent, that he spawned a movement that continues to our time.  Duncan and Burns, in their monumental book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, tell the fascinating story of a nation-changing meeting that almost wasn’t.  In the spring of 1903, Muir was so deeply disheartened by the obstructionists who were determined to prevent the Federal Government from putting teeth behind its preservation legislation that he was just about to abandon his futile efforts and escape on a trip to Europe and Asia when suddenly something totally unexpected happened: the new president, Teddy Roosevelt wanted to come out to California and make a trip into the endangered Sierras with him.  Muir canceled his foreign trip in hopes that somehow, sitting around a campfire, he might be able to do his cause some good.  What follows is so significant in the history of our nation that I’ll let Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns tell the riveting story in their own words:

On May 15, they set off from the town of Raymond for the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in a caravan of wagons.  Muir was seated in the president’s coach—along with the governor of California, the secretary of the navy, the surgeon general, two college presidents, and Roosevelt’s personal secretary.  The other wagons carried more staff and dignitaries; a detachment of thirty African American troopers from the 9th Cavalry rode along as escorts.

It was hardly the trip he had been promised, but Muir tried his best to squeeze in words to the president and governor about the issue of making all of Yosemite a national park.  As they approached the grove of mighty sequoias, the president’s group paused, as all tourists did, for a photograph at the famous Wawona Tunnel Tree.  Later they posed for an official photograph lined up along the base of the Grizzly Giant, the oldest and most famous sequoia in Yosemite; estimated to be 2,700 years old.  It boasted a single branch that was six and a half feet in diameter.

Then the troops, the phalanx of reporters and photographers, and virtually all of the official party, headed back to the Wawona Hotel, where a series of receptions and a grand dinner were scheduled in the president’s honor that evening.  None of them knew that Roosevelt had no intention of attending.  Instead he remained behind with only Muir and a few park employees, who started preparing a camp at the base of one of the sequoias.  They built a fire and sat around it, eating a simple supper, talking as twilight enveloped them, getting to know one another in the glow of the blaze.

“The night was clear,” Roosevelt wrote, and “in the darkening aisles of the great sequoia grove . . . the majestic trunks, beautiful in color and symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages.  Hermit thrushes sang beautifully in the evening.”  Roosevelt would later remark that “Muir cared little for birds or bird songs” —a failing the ornithologist-president found noteworthy.  Muir, in turn, could not help commenting on the President’s well-earned reputation for hunting.  “Mr. Roosevelt,” he asked, “when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?”

But it quickly became clear that under the darkening canopy of ancient trees, a deep friendship was being born.  “I had a perfectly glorious time,” Muir wrote his wife.

I never before had a more interesting, hearty, and manly companion.  I stuffed him pretty well regarding the timber thieves, the destructive work of the lumbermen, and other spoilers of the forest.

Long after sundown, with no tent and only a pile of army blankets for comfort and warmth, the two men finally went to sleep.  The next morning at 6:30 they saddled up for the long ride to Yosemite Valley, with the guide under strict orders from the president to avoid at all costs the Wawona Hotel and the delegation of officials he had jilted the night before.

In the high country near Glacier Point, with its spectacular panorama of the valley and its waterfalls arrayed at their feet, they stopped and once more made camp.  Then, their guide, Charlie Leidig, reported, they resumed their exchange of opinions and ideas.

Around the campfire Roosevelt and Muir talked far into the night regarding Muir’s glacial theory of the formation of Yosemite Valley.  They also talked a great deal about the protection of forests in general and Yosemite in particular. I heard them discussing the setting aside of other areas in the United States for park purposes.

“There was some difficulty in their campfire conversation,” Leidig added, “because both men wanted to do the talking.”

They awoke the next morning covered by a light snow that had fallen in the high country during the night.  Rather than feeling inconvenienced, Roosevelt couldn’t have been more thrilled., “We slept in a snowstorm last night!” he exclaimed to the crowds that [had] been patiently waiting for him on the valley floor.  “This has been the grandest day of my life.”

Hundreds of tourists had crowded into the valley’s hotels or established campsites in the meadows, all in hopes of seeing the president.  The board of commissioners in charge of the Yosemite Grant, already jealous of the way Muir had seemingly monopolized Roosevelt’s visit so far, planned to make up for lost time.  They had prepared a lavish banquet catered by a French chef borrowed from a swank San Francisco club, to be followed by $400 worth of fireworks, and then a grand illumination of Yosemite Falls by special calcium searchlights.  A comfortable bed with a cozy feather mattress was waiting in an artist’s studio that had been specially fitted out for the president’s private lodging.

Roosevelt would have none of it.  He paused long enough to shake some hands and talk for a few minutes with his disappointed hosts, and then mounted up and rode farther down the valley to camp one last night with Muir—this time in the meadows between Bridalveil Falls and the massive granite face of El Capitan.  Early the next morning, the wagon train of dignitaries, with its military escort, rushed the president back to the Raymond train station for the resumption of his cross-country tour, while Muir returned home to his writing.

“Camping with the President was a remarkable experience,” Muir told a friend.  “I fairly fell in love with him.”  Roosevelt, too, was changed by the experience.  “When he reached the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees [last] Friday evening the President was a tired, worried man,” the San Francisco Call reported.  “This evening he is bright, alert—the Roosevelt of old.”

And when the president spoke at the state capitol in Sacramento a day later, Roosevelt’s words sounded as if they could have come from the lips of John Muir.

Lying out at night under those Sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build, and I hope for the preservation of the groves of giant trees simply because it would be a shame to our civilization to let them disappear.


They are monuments in themselves. . . .  I want them preserved.


I am impressed by the immensely greater greatness that lies in the future, and I ask that your marvelous natural resources be handed on unimpaired to your posterity.


We are not building this country of ours for a day.  It is to last through the ages.

Within three years, the California legislature and United States Congress approved the transfer of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove back to the federal government.  Yosemite National Park now encompassed almost everything Muir had been fighting for.  “Sound the timbrel,” he wrote a friend, “and let every Yosemite tree and stream rejoice!”

I am now an experienced lobbyist; my political education is complete.  Have attended Legislature, made speeches, explained, exhorted, persuaded every mother’s son of the legislature, newspaper reporters, and everybody else who would listen to me.



And now that the fight is finished and my education as a politician and lobbyist is finished. I am almost finished myself.

(Duncan and Burns, 95-8).

We will continue the Sequoia story in next week’s blog (Wednesdays with Dr. Joe, April 25).


Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Kinopf, 2009).

Palmer, John J., Sequoia and Kings Canyon (Wickenburg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 2009).