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Posts Tagged ‘National Parks’

Smaller than Larger than Life

Visiting John Muir’s house is a bit of a shock to National Park travelers. Nearly every western park you visit has mention of John Muir: how he explored it, how he mapped it, how he lobbied for its entry into the National Park or Forest Service. Over and over again, you’ll see his weather-worn visage, like this:

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Clearly this was a larger-than-life figure, a man who walked the earth, one of the few who saw wonders and marvels in their natural state, long before the paved roads leading to well-marked vistas. He was clearly a man of the backwoods, in an era when that really meant something.

Then you go to his home in Martinez, California, and you see this.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Um, what?

Well, turns out that John Muir was (surprise surprise) a human being.

John Muir basically grew old. At 42, after some convincing by his friends, he found he could no longer tromp through the wilderness as he once had. John Muir, like most men, wanted a family. He married Louisa Strentzel, settled down, and fathered two daughters. John Muir then wanted to provide for that family. He proved to be a successful orchardist and businessman, apparently earning enough in five years to provide for his family for the rest of his lifetime (even in the 1880s, that was a remarkable feat). Finally, John Muir needed a place to write and to organize. From his headquarters, he lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service; organized the founding of the Sierra Club; fought the establishment of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; and published multiple magazine articles and books.

Far too often, folks look at historical figures as being larger than life: omnipotent and perfect individuals, single-minded, focused, driven to their one and only goal. But reality is actually quite different than all of that. John Muir put all his environmental travels on hold and became … a husband, a father, a farmer and businessman. And, apparently, a thumping good one. He lived in a very nice house, in fairly decent comfort, and enjoyed his life. He was not, as his grizzled visage would suggest, purely a “man of the woods”. He was a real human being, appropriate for his time.

Every great person in history, regardless of the pedestals we put them on, was really just a person.

John Muir and Cancel Culture

I recently read Nature Writings, a collection of John Muir’s essays. Muir waxes rhapsodic about everything, from the length of pine needles to the detritus comprising glacial moraines. This is a man who loved the natural world, spending significant amounts of time in the wild lands, sketching flowers and mountaintops and creek beds. His devotion became conservationist zealotry, and his efforts resulted in protecting thousands of square miles from scarring development.

And, apparently, he was also friends with some unsavory characters, including at least one avowed eugenicist. He also said some lousy things about native tribes, slaves, and freedmen. The organization he helped found, the Sierra Club, had a decidedly upper-class, whites-only mentality. The group has enough of a tarnished past, the current directors released a statement at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Conservative commentators across the country gleefully declared “John Muir is canceled!“, triumphant in the fact that the “the radical left” has as much ugliness in their past as they themselves do. Of course, this tarnishes yet another “noble tradition” of this country.

I’m not going to argue whether or not Muir was a solid racist. Frankly, I don’t think I’m qualified. I do think he disliked a lot of people, preferring to walk the woods and the mountains instead of towns and cities. Individuals such as Muir do that because they don’t like people in general. Still, the evidence against him is pretty strong, and the condemnation justified. None of that lessens his contributions to the country, to conservation, to the creation of the National Parks. It just means that he was a flawed man, that he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal as any paragon of virtue, and that his unsavory opinions should be discussed alongside the magnitude of his accomplishments. Those who carry on his work today should strive to do better. Much better.

Fortunately, things are changing. Today’s environmentalists acknowledge that minority populations are at greater risk from environmental catastrophe, and are trying to help. They are also acknowledging that minority populations care deeply about the environment, breaking a long-held stereotype. And as was shown with the XL Pipeline controversy of the past few years, it’s now commonly known that Native reservations have it pretty bad, with some companies taking advantage of extreme poverty to build toxic waste dumps as “job creators”. It’s a shame these groups weren’t brought into the environmental and conservation movements from the very beginning, perhaps it would have gone a long way towards not only inclusion, but also improved living conditions and better health outcomes for those populations. But at least there is movement in the right direction.

It turns out that John Muir was not just a human being, but a flawed human being. It’s up to us to be better human beings. The mistake is not trying to improve on what was done prior. We can be better people than Muir was, while still trying to uphold the better side of his ideals.

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Family Time

I’m a solo traveler, especially on my national park trips. I’m a spectacular hermit; but also my friends and family have other hobbies and interests, and simply don’t share my enthusiasm for American history and the natural world. It’s OK, though. I find solitude enables greater opportunities for observation, reflection & understanding.

When I went to visit JFK’s birthplace, however, I switched things up, and made a conscious decision to share the experience. I took my mom.

It wasn’t just because I thought she’d enjoy the trip, it was also because I wanted to hear what it was like to live during the vaunted “Camelot” era. JFK was  the first  modern-day celebrity president, and I wanted to know what that was like. John and Jackie’s superiority in handling themselves on television changed everything about campaigning, getting elected, and serving in the highest office in the land. Suddenly, it became less about stump speeches, shaking hands, working the political machinery, and back-room deals. It became more about media savvy.

The tales of Camelot have entered into American legend. JFK’s photogenics destroyed Richard Nixon in the presidential debates. He then became the second youngest person to ever take office. Jacqueline Kennedy was charming and pleasant, with impeccable fashion sense. As a couple, the Kennedys were hip and new, and gave the promise of a bright future. 

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Funnily enough, my mom didn’t have too many stories about the Kennedy era. Neither her nor my father were political types, rarely turning on the news and never talking about it at the dinner table. The only thing she talked about was the shame of the assassination, and how it saddened the whole nation. She talked a lot about the funeral, and how Jackie held up with such grace through it all. 

Then she told me about how she met JFK. 

When she was in high school, she worked on the school paper. A young John Kennedy, then Congressman John Kennedy, was running for the Senate, and touring the state, trying to drum up votes. He came to Western Massachusetts, quite likely just once (the western part of the state rarely gets much attention from Boston). So the high school paper decided to go meet him for some photo ops. 

My mom went with three other girls from her class. The photographer asked the other three to step out of frame because, as my mother said, “they weren’t pretty enough”. [Note: her intonation suggested the photographer was a bit of a perv.] She then had her picture taken, which was published in the paper later that week.

Being a typical high school girl, she was unhappy with how her hair looked, so she never kept a clean copy of the photo. Fortunately, the local paper still had the photo in their archives, and she was able to get a decent copy. 

Mom and JFK

It’s been many years since we went to JFK’s boyhood home in Brookline. She enjoyed the trip, and had fun reminiscing. Today, she can’t get around quite like she used to, her days of travel are long over. She’s seen quite a bit in her years: the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, 9/11, a global pandemic, and now an insurrection. She’ll be 87 in a few weeks, still doesn’t like talking about politiecs and, woefully, is not happy with how her hair looks.

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Concepts of Time

When Lewis and Clark left St. Louis to explore the Great Frontier:

It’s only been 210 years since they set off. In the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty tiny. But look at everything that’s happened.

  • The country: Nearing 320 million
  • The population center is now actually west of Missouri, showing the great expansion of the country and the migration of her people.
  • New York City: 7 million
  • St. Louis: 300,000, and the city has existed so long it’s actually decaying (like all the other great industrial cities)
  • About three hours from Boston to New York if you’re a stodgy driver.
  • A couple more to fly to London
  • You can drive across the entire country in just a few days, or fly over it in about six hours or so.
  • But really, who cares? With Skype, you can talk to someone across country instantaneously. No reason to go anywhere.

It’s hard to fathom sometimes how quickly things have changed, and how much has happened in a measly 200 years.

Courtesy National Park Service

Courtesy National Park Service

Go to St. Louis. See the Gateway Arch. It’s way cool.

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Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Visionaries with Courage (Video)

Some Gateway Arch photos taken by the masses

Google map to the Gateway Arch

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A Monument to the Politically Crazy

Somewhere in Mentor, Ohio, sits the well-kept home of our 20th President, James A. Garfield. Few Americans know anything about James Garfield, or perhaps their only knowledge of this man is through the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song:

Mr. Garfield been shot down shot down shot down

Mr. Garfield been shot down low

President Garfield was assassinated by spurned office-seeker and political nutbag, Charles Guiteau, on July 2nd, 1881, a mere 160 days after his inauguration. As far as assassinated Presidents goes, Garfield is simply one of four, an afterthought on a list that also contains one great (Abraham Lincoln) and one beloved (John F. Kennedy).

Few remember James Garfield, but I think the story of Garfield is tremendously valid today, and should be read and understood by anyone and everyone with a political leaning, whether left or right, whether they follow Fox News or the Huffington Post or even the Onion. The story of President Garfield is the story of dangerous political extremism.

Assassination of President Grant (www.authentichistory.com)

Anatomy of an Assassin

If I was to ask a panel of experts or non-experts, “what makes a presidential assassin”, I’m sure the bulk of them would say, in language academic or mundane, “they’re crazy”. By and large, anyone who would assassinate POTUS would have to be crazy. When you think about it, there’s not really a lot of point to it: our system of government isn’t particularly susceptible to change or overthrow in that manner. Between our tripartite government, our well-defined system of presidential succession, our deeply entrenched two-party politics, and the ponderous inertia of a democracy, the assassination of our President won’t really make much of a difference, other than to put the nation in a state of mourning. It could even steel our resolve to “stay the course” more than simply waiting until the next election to instigate change.

So if there’s no value in assassinating the president, then why do it? Well, John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln in retaliation for the Confederate loss in the Civil War, and the abolishment of the institution of slavery. Leon Czolgosz, the man who shot William McKinley, was a turn-of-the-century anarchist inspired by a slew of assassinations in Europe. Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist sympathizer (or maybe a patsy for the mob, or for the FBI, or by grey aliens, or who-knows-what). Slavery. Anarchy. Communism. Heavy, deeply philosophical ideas. Crazy, but deep crazy.

Charlie Guiteau? Charlie Guiteau killed James Garfield because his particular wing of the GOP (the Stalwarts) lost to Garfield in the Republican convention of 1880.

Um, seriously? That’s shallow crazy right there.

Charlie Guiteau (wikipedia)

The Drudgery Grudgery of Politics

There is a long, complicated story surrounding the 1880 Republican Convention. To summarize, there were two favorites. The Stalwarts stood behind former President Ulysses S Grant, and the Half-Breeds stood behind Senator James Blaine of Maine. During the convention (a weird affair, like all other 18th century conventions), dark-horse  James Garfield — a compromise candidate offered when neither favorite carried a majority — surprisingly won the nomination. He would then go on to defeat Democrat William Hancock in the general election.

There’s a lot more to this, of course, but it would probably bore you to tears. Which is kinda the point: all these inner workings of the two-party system, all the legerdemain cast by the party machines, it’s all fairly petty stuff. It’s all about favoritism, and patronage, and civil service, and all this other nonsense. None of it is “deep”, none of it is particularly soul-renching. None of it is, even in a madman’s eyes, cause for assassination! Unless, of course, you’re a person with the shallowness of purpose as Charlie Guiteau.

Political shallowness is exactly the point, and hence the subtitle of this post, “A Monument to the Politically Crazy”. Garfield was killed for no reason other than some whackjob took offense over a political process. There was no other reason! Sure, Guiteau also felt slighted for not getting the patronage job he wanted, but he also knew killing the president would result in him being hanged! There was no purpose to it, whatsoever. Just the total waste of a life, and the lost potential of a President. I think Garfield was on his way to being a very good President when he was shot, but we’ll never know that now.

Soccer Riot or Election Day? (http://www.thetimes.co.uk)

Crazy: Then and Now

Charlie Guiteau was a political nut-job. He was so fixated on his own faction that he took it upon himself to murder a president. He wasn’t fixated on a cause, but on a team. How shallow is that? But let’s look at this madness: this is exactly the type of bent most politically-minded Americans have today! How many people only vote for their own political party? How much punditry on 24-hour cable news, talk radio, or the blogosphere is really “our team is great, the other team sucks”? Listen carefully to what goes on in today’s popular media outlets, you’ll see this to be true most of the time. We are all being trained to be Charlie Guiteaus: not concerned with the facts or philosophies of governance, but wholly concerned about our “team” beating the other “team”?

None of this is good, none of this is wise. We need to stop playing team politics, and start paying real attention to real issues and the real results of our decisions, before we all end up crazy like Charlie Guiteau.

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Links:

James A. Garfield National Historic Site

How Our Partisan Loyalties Are Driving Polarization

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield <– an excellent book and my key source for this post.

Google map

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